Why Do Clothes Smell If Not Dried Properly?

The thick, sour smell exuding from wet clothes is definitely a pet peeve for many people, but have you ever wondered why clothes just purged of dirt and perfumed by detergents should stink? Isn’t that counter-intuitive? Let’s find out the reasons one by one.

Reasons why the clothes smell


According to Mary Johnson, principal scientist at Procter & Gamble, over two-thirds of the laundry dirt is because of the secretion from the outer body. It is in the form of sweat and sebum. Sebum is the oily waxy substance you feel on your skin. It is secreted naturally. It acts as a waterproofing shield—preventing leakage of water from the body. But it is also a culprit for stinky clothes that aren’t washed or dried properly.

If not removed during the wash, they snug inside the fiber of the cloth. Also, sebum by nature is very sticky and attracts other odor-causing dirt elements that accentuate the stench.

Washing Machine

This seems to be a paradox, but the yeah washing machines are also one of the chief suspects of malodor! The dark and damp interior of washing machines makes it a breeding ground for mildew and other odor-causing bacteria. They end up clinging into the fabric. And with higher levels of sebum, this migration of mildew and bacteria to clothes become even faster.

Washing machine

(Photo Credit : Pixabay)

Mildew and bacteria from the species of Corynebacterium and Staphylococcus react with sweat, skin cells and various gland secretions to produce volatile organic compounds. It is these compounds that produce the nauseating odor. The compounds cling to our clothes and make them stink. Usually, this problem occurs whenever there is a build-up of dust, dirt, detergent remnants, limescale, etc inside the machine.

Cloth washing in washine machine

(Photo Credit : publicdomainpictures / Wikimedia Commons)

So, it’s very important to maintain high levels of hygiene while using the washing machine such as regularly wiping the door clean and cleaning detergent drawer time to time. Also, do regular maintenance and interior cleaning of the washing machine


Washing laundry at higher temperatures melts sebum and kills most of the odor-causing bacteria. But unfortunately, most of the clothes we wear today are made of artificial or synthetic fibers which are not designed to withstand higher wash temperature. They require cold wash for removal of stains. And thus, sebum and mildew survive because we generally use cold water for washing. So, the way out is to use clothes made of natural fibers like pure cotton so that they can be washed even at a higher temperature and do not exude malodor after the wash.


Detergent is also to be blamed for the pungent smell coming out of damp or not-so-well dried clothes. Actually, the problem is that the majority of our laundry today is made of synthetic or blended fabric. But detergent was and even vastly today is designed for natural fabric. With the main focus of detergent being stain removal than odor removal. Because it was tacitly assumed, the higher water temperature would take care of it. But then higher wash temperature is detrimental to the fabric which is mostly made of artificial or synthetic fiber! So, it’s a catch-22 situation!

Besides the nature of detergent, the quantity of detergent used can also impact malodor quantity. Generally, many of us feel that a higher quantity of chemical detergent would knock off the bacteria and other such microbes causing bad odor. But in reality, that’s counterproductive. In fact, if you have notice detergent seldom market themselves as antibacterial.

Overloading laundry with detergent causes building up of suds which then hangs on to the laundry. Instead of lifting away the bacteria, they simply trap them into the fabric. And if these bacteria get damp and favorable conditions, they multiply and later become the source of the pungent odor.

Also, according to Johnson, principal scientist at P&G, many of the detergents do not do any better than water, talking from the standpoint of removing malodourous particles. In fact, those claiming to come with perfume-like effect on laundry simply mask bad odor. Till the time this ‘perfume’ works, you might not sniff the bad odor but as perfume begins to fade out malodor become noticeable again.

Leaving the damp clothes for too long

Finally, the answer to damp clothes smelling bad is in the question itself. It’s because they are “damp”!

Many of the fibers used in the textile industry virtually serve as food for microorganisms. It might sound little exaggerating but what you are wearing could be similar to a ripe field to the molds. The reason they are generally not able to wreak havoc is because there is constant physical agitation on the fabric during the wash. But if you leave laundry in the damp environment of washing machine unchecked for too long it serves as a breeding ground for these microbes to survive and reproduce. And as we said earlier, they later reach with bodily secretions like sweat to generate volatile organic compounds—a major generator of the nauseating odor.

5 Tips to get rid of the foul smell coming from the clothes

Now that you are aware of the source of malodor coming out of clothes let’s look at some of the best practices you can follow to get rid of foul smell or to keep it to a bare minimum:

  1. Read wash instruction: First and foremost, you should check wash instructions given on the label of the cloth. Similarly, you should acquaint yourself with the washing instructions given in washing machine manual and even the one printed on the detergent.
  2. Segregate your laundry: You must segregate the laundry based on the type of fabric. Those made with purely natural fibres or with a tough composition like jeans and jackets can be washed with warm water. Whereas those made of synthetic fibres should cold washed. Also, it’s advisable to keep bright color laundry wash in one cycle while the darker ones in the other.
  3. Turn clothes item inside out: It is also advisable to turn your clothes inside out before washing. This provides two benefits. First, it will protect the outer surface to some extent. Second, it will allow detergent to tackle soils in the fabric head-on.
  4. Let the clothes dry fully before putting back to the closet: One must ensure that clothes aren’t folded and stored in closets when they are even mildly damp. The low temperature inside the enclosed closets will exacerbate the odor, which someone will quite easily smell when you will wear the clothes later.
  5. Add vinegar: To deter the onset of mildew and its characteristic smell, it is recommended to add vinegar to the mix, as it is an effective disinfectant.


  1. Elsevier
  3. Marketwatch


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About the Author:

Akash Peshin is an Electronic Engineer from the University of Mumbai, India and a science writer at ScienceABC. Enamored with science ever since discovering a picture book about Saturn at the age of 7, he believes that what fundamentally fuels this passion is his curiosity and appetite for wonder.

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