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Q. How do you remove the musty smell from towels that have been damp too long? Even after washing, the smell seems to return quickly.

A. Towels are one of the most important pieces of laundry to keep clean and dry. Damp towels are vulnerable to bacterial growth, which causes that “musty” or “sour” smell. (Gross but true: That unpleasant odor is the smell of bacteria breeding.)

According to Steve Boorstein, a coauthor of The Clothing Doctor’s 99 Secrets of Cleaning and Clothing Care ($5,, you can retard the growth of bacteria with a holistic approach to the problem. He recommends following these five steps to keep towels smelling fresh.

1. Scrub diligently with soap in the shower or bath, especially sweat “hot spots,” such as the feet, the underarms, and the groin. “Good hygiene in the shower is critical,” says Boorstein. “Some people―including most kids―don’t wash thoroughly when bathing. Any bacteria from sweat and body oils that isn’t washed away gets transferred to your towel.”

2. Always hang up a towel after using it. A rack is ideal for airing out the maximum amount of surface area. Don’t throw a damp towel―whether it has been used in the kitchen or the bathroom―on the floor or in a hamper to dry. The residual buildup of bacteria only worsens if a damp towel doesn’t dry completely between uses.

3. Make sure your washing machine itself is sanitary. “People shed about 1 billion dead skin cells every day, much of which ends up in your clothes, towels, and washing machine,” says Boorstein. “Before washing your towels, do your whites, if you use bleach. Or run an empty load with ¼ cup bleach to disinfect the interior.”

4. Perform some heavy-duty cleaning on your towels. Boorstein recommends washing small loads of no more than three towels in hot water on the longest setting. Use a regular detergent plus a booster (such as OxiClean’s Versatile Stain Remover; $10, Remove them from the warm environment of the washing machine quickly or bacteria will start breeding within one to two hours. And be sure to dry towels completely.

If a towel continues to have a smell, it means that bacteria are still in your machine or on your towel. Run the washing machine again with bleach, or wash the towel a second time to remove the stubborn bacteria.

5. Wash your towels frequently. Follow the steps above, says Boorstein, and use a bath towel no more than three times between washings.

—Lori Seto