How to make towels smell fresh – 6 expert tips to banish odors

These tricks for freshening up towels banish odors to ensure lasting freshness

How to make towels smell fresh
(Image credit: Future)

When you are faced with a musty smell in your bathroom, it is more than likely your towels causing the problem – even if you have just washed them. 

Although it may not seem like there is much to washing towels, there are several common laundry and drying mistakes we may be making that are preventing our towels from smelling fresh.

The good news is that they are all easily fixable to help save your best bath towels – here is how the experts ensure perfect results every time.

How to make towels smell fresh

Making your towels smell fresh takes more than just washing them well – it is all about how you store them and how you dry them, too. Better yet, many of these tips will also make your towels soft again too, making it a win-win.

1. Use the right amount of detergent

laundry room with wooden drying rack and shirt

(Image credit: Future PLC)

It is no secret by now that cutting down on laundry detergent can save your clothes – and the same goes for towels. More detergent may seem like the answer to musty smells, but in reality, it traps odors in and even makes your fibers feel crunchy, says Matt Connelly, CEO and laundry expert at Ihateironing.

‘Equally as bad is using fabric softener,’ Matt adds. ‘Many people might decide to add highly fragranced fabric softener and scent beads to towel washes in hopes of adding a fresh smell, but I advise against it altogether as it can affect absorption and also give them a rough texture.’

Sammy Wang, Downy senior scientist adds that sometimes, regular detergent may not be enough:

'Sometimes detergent alone isn’t enough, especially on towels that can trap residues and buildup that can lead to odor. We recommend adding Downy Rinse & Refresh to your towel-washing routine. It’s a deep-cleansing fabric rinse that helps rinse away stubborn odor trapped within fabric fibers.

'It’s safe on all fabrics and leaves towels softer and brighter than detergent alone. That’s because it breaks down the hard water buildup and other residues that can cause towels to be stiff and dull.'

Downy Rinse & Refresh Cool Cotton | $6.99 at Target

Downy Rinse & Refresh Cool Cotton | $6.99 at Target
Downy Rinse & Refresh is a breakthrough laundry odor remover that helps rinse away the smelly residue trapped within fabric fibers.

2. Dry towels correctly to prevent mildew

White bath towels hanging from a heater above a bath

(Image credit: Fanny Rådvik / Cathy Nordstrom)

Even the best clothes dryers can’t make up for using the wrong setting, or line drying towels incorrectly, warns Sammy Wang, Downy senior scientist. 

'If you leave your towels in the washer or sitting around damp, it can lead to more odors forming,' they explain. 

'Remove your towels from the washing machine, then place the towels in your dryer with a dryer sheet like Bounce, available at Target, to provide freshness and static control. This is especially important in the colder months as the dry air can cause more static to build up. 

'Alternatively, you can hang dry them, but always make sure towels dry completely before storing.'

3. Don’t leave damp towels crumpled up

Neutral bathroom with green towels on ladder

(Image credit: Christy)

When it comes to bathroom storage, towel hooks or rails are a must to ensure your used towels can dry efficiently, preventing musty odors from setting in between uses.

‘Towels left wet for too long can be susceptible to bacterial growth. I know it sounds counter-intuitive (aren’t towels supposed to be wet?) but ensuring they dry properly is key,’ says Tanu Grewal, chief cleaning officer at Cloralen. ‘Always hang up a damp towel after using it – if it’s left crumpled on the floor or in a hamper, it may not fully dry, causing a breeding ground for bacteria that can cause “musty” or “sour” smell.

‘Opening the bathroom door after showering can also help to ensure towels aren’t left in a wet, steamy environment.’

4. Keep towels in ventilated storage

Organizing a linen closet

(Image credit: Future)

It is not just how you store them while using them that counts, as Aaron Christensen, resident cleaning expert and VP of growth at Homeaglow adds. Your unused towels need to be kept in a well-ventilated spot to prevent smells from accumulating before you have a chance to use them:

‘After folding your towels, try to store them in a way that they can still breathe. If you ram a lot of towels into a small space, air won't be able to circulate and any moisture won't be able to escape, so it's important to pay attention to how you organize a linen closet.

‘It's also really important to ensure that your linen closet isn't trapping moisture,’ he continues. ‘If you suspect your linen closet is damp, crack the door to ensure that air can circulate. Also consider using a disposable closet dehumidifier like those made by Arm and Hammer, available at Walmart, or running a powered dehumidifier near your linen closet.’ 

5. Wash towels in hot water with vinegar

Miele washing machine in a chic farmhouse style laundry room with striped wallpaper and flowers in the sink

(Image credit: Miele)

Cleaning with vinegar is a go-to for removing bad odors, and it is simple to wash towels with vinegar to make towels smell fresh.

Besides using a hot water cycle and ensuring you haven’t overloaded your machine, adding one cup of vinegar and half a cup of baking soda can shift any lingering smells, says Rick Rome, CEO and founder of WashClub.

Just be sure to check where to put vinegar in your washing machine for the best effect.

A headshot of WashClub CEO Rick Rome
Rick Rome

Rick Rome is a former Morgan Stanley trader who launched WashClub, a wash & fold and delivery dry cleaner in Manhattan. Wash Club provides eco-friendly washing, folding, dry cleaning, and commercial laundry services to New York City, diligently serving the residents and businesses of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

6. Follow the rule of three

A large wicker laundry basket with a removeable lid in the doorway of a country bathroom

(Image credit: Anbôise)

It may sound silly, but a big secret to making towels smell fresh is knowing how to use towels correctly. Of course, we don't mean how to dry your hands and face by this, but how often you use them before changing them out.

‘When it comes to washing your towels, I like to recommend the “Rule of three”,’ says Tanu Grewal, chief cleaning officer. ‘While it can be tempting to use that towel over and over again, three uses should be the maximum before you throw your towels in the wash.’


Why do my towels smell even after washing them?

If a towel continues to smell after washing and drying them it can be for a few reasons. Firstly, it may be that your washing machine is dirty and harboring mildew of bacteria. Cleaning your washing machine can help to fix this. 

It may also be because you have overloaded your machine or not used the right amount of detergent. Alternatively, you may not have dried the towels correctly. This could be the case if you didn't run the right dryer setting, or air dried your towels in a moist environment.

Does baking soda clean towels?

If you have musty-smelling towels, baking soda, and white vinegar can be used to deodorize them. To do this, add your towels to your washing machine along with a cup of baking soda and launder as normal, adding vinegar to your detergent draw in place of detergent if you want some added cleaning and deodorizing power. Afterward, allow the towels to dry fully, either in a tumble dryer or a well-heated and ventilated room to maintain their freshness.  

A great tip for keeping your towels smelling fresh is to follow the seven essential rules for buying towels in the first place to ensure you are buying quality materials and not overstocking towels for your home – making them easier to store correctly. Doing this, along with doing laundry well will ensure freshness that lasts a lifetime.  

Chiana Dickson
Content Editor

Chiana has been at Homes & Gardens for two years, having started her journey in interior journalism as part of the graduate program. She spends most of her time producing content for the Solved section of the website, helping readers get the most out of their homes through clever decluttering, cleaning, and tidying tips – many of which she tests and reviews herself in her home in Lancaster to ensure they will consistently deliver for her readers and dabbles in the latest design trends. She also has a first-class degree in Literature from Lancaster University.