How to remove fishy smell from clothes – 3 laundry tips from the experts

Clothes or bags smell fishy? This is why

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Is there any smell better than the scent of freshly washed and dried laundry? We certainly don’t think so. But what happens when our clothes start to smell fishy?

This pungent odors can be caused by a whole variety of things, from leaving your laundry in the washing machine for too long after the cycle ends, to the manufacturing and shipping practices involved before your clothes arrive at your door.

All we know is it is far from pleasant. So, we talked to laundry and fabric professionals to learn how to remove fishy smells from clothes quickly and efficiently.

How to remove fishy smell from clothes

The good news is, no matter the cause of the fishy smell on your clothes, it can usually be remedied by doing laundry. The secret is using the right products during the cycle, laundry experts share.

1. Soak in vinegar as a first line of defense

vinegar for cleaning

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Vinegar is one of the best household deodorizers we have at our disposal, so it only makes sense to use vinegar in laundry to neutralize fishy odors, begins Hyacinth Tucker, a.k.a the Laundry Lady, owner and CEO of Laundry Basket:

‘First, soak your clothes in a mix of one cup of white vinegar and a tablespoon of baking soda dissolved in warm water. Let them soak for at least 30 minutes. The vinegar gets rid of odors, and the baking soda lifts any residue causing the smell.’

2. Wash in an enzyme-detergent

Someone pouring liquid laundry detergent into a cap

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Unless you have very sensitive skin, washing clothes with an enzyme-based detergent is the next best way to break down the fishy smell on clothing, continues Rhonda Wilson, quality lead cleaner at FreshSpace Cleaning.

‘If clothes have a strong smell, I highly recommend washing them with Persil Laundry Detergent, available at Walmart – the one with advanced deep cleaning and odor elimination. It’s enzyme-based, so you can be sure it can break organic molecules responsible for bad smells.

‘If you want to go all out, you can pause the machine just before the final rinse and add half a cup of diluted white vinegar to the load,’ she adds. ‘Then let it finish the rinse and spin cycle like normal. An odor-eliminating product like OxiClean Odor Blasters Laundry Booster, also at Walmart, can also help.’

Be sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions for where to put laundry detergent before the cycle for the best results.

3. Freshen up with lemon juice and essential oils

Lemons used to make lemon juice

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If the fishy smell is largely washed out, you can bolster the fresh scent by adding lemon juice to laundry to make laundry smell better, adds Hyacinth Tucker, a.k.a the Laundry Lady:

‘For an extra boost to get rid of odors, add a quarter cup of lemon juice or a few drops of essential oil like lavender or tea tree to the wash. Lemon juice helps cut through bad smells, and essential oils leave a fresh scent. If you can, air-dry your clothes outside. Fresh air and sunlight naturally get rid of lingering odors and have a mild disinfecting effect.’

How to prevent fishy smells on clothes

Miele washing machine in a stylish farmhouse modern laundry room with sage green cabinets, a sink full of flowers, and a decorative vase

(Image credit: Miele)

One of the most important laundry and cleaning tips professionals repeat time and time again is that prevention is better than the cure. It is often easier, and always ends up quicker. To prevent fishy smells, we have to understand what causes them, however.

‘Direct contact with fish or seafood is an obvious reason – those oils and proteins stick around!’ begins Hyacinth Tucker, a.k.a the Laundry Lady. ‘However, leaving clothes damp for too long can cause bacteria and mildew to grow, which also leads to bad smells. Sometimes, it's just a matter of not using enough detergent or the right kind of detergent to break down organic stuff.’

Clothes hanging neatly on a clothing rail

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Whether your clothes smell fishy or not can also come down to the types of fabric you are dealing with, continues Rhonda Wilson, quality lead cleaner. Synthetic fibers such as polyester or nylon are far more likely to smell than natural materials, she explains. ‘Water can also be the culprit. If you're using well water with lots of minerals or sulfur to do your laundry, your clothes might end up with a stinky, rotten egg or fish smell. It's all because those sulfur compounds in the water can stick to the fabric,’ Rhonda adds.

The bottom line is to always wash your clothes according to the laundry symbols on the care label, always use enough of the right type of detergent on the right length and temperature cycle, and never leave your clothes in the machine beyond the end of the cycle.


How do you get fishy smell out of new clothes without washing them?

If you have ordered new clothes online and they have arrived smelling fishy, it certainly helps to wash them to remove any lingering manufacturing chemicals causing the smell. If you don't have the time or tools to wash them, however, you can also leave them hanging up in a well ventilated area to help the smell dissipate, spray them with a nice perfume or linen spray, or steam clean them to break down odor molecules.

How do I make my clothing smell good?

Besides washing and drying your clothing correctly, the best way to keep your clothes smelling good is to store it correctly in a closet or dresser that is not cramped (to prevent musty odors and dust). You can also spray your clothes with a linen spray for a lingering fresh scent that lasts throughout the day. Of course, it also helps to be clean and smell nice yourself. Washing regularly and applying nice scented body products and sprays will transfer the fresh scent to your clothes.

Preventing and removing fishy smell from clothes is relatively simple, but goes to show how important it is to get your laundry routine right. Never wash clothes without detergent, for example, and dry as soon as possible to keep your clothes smelling fresher for longer.

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.