Why Do Clothes Smell If Not Dried Properly?

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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?

Washing machine

Photo Credit: Pixabay


The first guess would be bacteria. The malodor characteristic of sweat is not caused by sweat itself, but rather the bacteria on our skin. The bacteria 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.

So, one could argue that wet and damp clothes provide these bacteria with the perfect environment to live and breed in. The conditions accelerate their growth and therefore the intensity of the stench. However, this isn’t the case. Washing clothes by hand or in a washing machine effectively terminates all the bacteria. The conditions are perfect not for the growth of bacteria, but a form of fungus. The sour smell is caused by a fungus called mildew.

laughs microscopically

The musty smell is discharged from the fungus as it eats, grows and multiplies, releasing volatile organic compounds throughout the stages. Mildew colonizes many organic materials or plant fibers other than clothes, including leather and paper. However, it can only thrive when these materials are soaked in moisture. Other than moisture, they enjoy lower temperatures, which is why clothes washed in cold water tend to stink more.

How to get rid of the smell

One must ensure that clothes aren’t folded and stored in closets when they are even mildly damp. The low temperature inside enclosed closets will exacerbate the odor, which someone will quite easily smell when you will wear the clothes later.

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. It is also recommended to use conditioners to adorn the scent bestowed by laundry detergents.

Cloth washing in washine machine

Photo Credit: Public domain pictures / Wikimedia Commons

Let’s not forget that mildew grows in colder environments, so you should wash your clothes in warm water. Using heated water has two advantages: it kills both bacteria and certain species of fungi that may spawn on your clothes. However, while these are mere precautions, the best solution remains, of course, drying your clothes as soon as they’re done being washed.


  1. Wikipedia
  2. Elsevier.com
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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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