How to Clean Towels — Remove Mildew Smell and Bacteria

how to remove mildew and bacteria from towels

We’ve all been there — you go to use a fresh towel, and it smells musty even though it was freshly washed. It can be frustrating to expect a fresh, clean, fluffy towel after a good shower and get smelly one.

The reason towels get that musty smell is because there is mildew growing on them. Mildew and other bacteria grow rapidly on soft, moist surfaces, so towels are an ideal breeding ground for them. Luckily there is a very easy fix to this problem. 

However, before you can solve the problem, you need to understand why it is happening and how you can prevent it from recurring.

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How Do Towels Get Mildew and Bacteria? 

Bacteria get a bad reputation, but there are many that are actually good for us — such as bacteria found in yogurt, for example. However, bad bacteria should be dealt with straight away. Mildew is what happens when bad bacteria evolve, but it’s very easy to get rid of. 

how do towels get mildew and bacteria

Keeping towels away from dark, moist spaces can save them from mildew, and ensuring they are completely dry before storing can help keep them from smelly musty. Mildew is a mostly harmless annoyance that settles on surfaces that are damp or wet and without ventilation. But a good wash or wipe with disinfectant will kill it all.

Multiple washes can leave traces of detergent or fabric softener on your towels, which can attract mildew and bacteria. Knowing how to clean towels to remove mildew and bacteria is important to ensure your towels are able to do their job properly. Plus, regular thorough cleaning of towels will help prevent them from attracting any other unsavory things as well.

Thorough washes that aim to clean all the buildup from your towels can leave your towels looking and feeling like new. Once you know how to clean towels, you also know how to keep them clean going forward.

It may feel like throwing your towels away and buying brand new ones would be easier, but cleaning mildew and bacteria out of your towels the right way is actually very simple. The process requires very few items, and you probably have all of them right in your pantry or fridge!

The powerhouse combination of vinegar and baking soda are the main ingredients needed to reclaim your towels, but you may be able to thoroughly wash the musty smell from your towels using your regular detergent. 

How to Remove Mildew Smell and Bacteria From Towels

The thickness of towels makes them ideal for moisture to collect, which is great since they exist to absorb excess water. However, too much moisture can be a deterrent.

That’s why it’s incredibly important that you allow your towels to dry completely after being used or after being washed. Removing your laundry from the washer right after it’s done is the easiest way to prevent this, but sometimes life gets away from us, and a freshly washed load gets left in longer than it should. 

However, if you know how to clean towels properly, you can live a life free of musty, smelly towels. There are several ways to give your towels a proper washing, and you can even target the potential source of the problem: your washing machine and dryer.

Here are a few things you can do to get your towels looking like new again. 

how to remove mildew and bacteria1. Double Detergent Deep Clean

Depending on how much mildew and bacteria are present on your towels, two simple towel-only loads with your regular detergent may be the solution to your problem. All you have to do is run two cycles one after the other using a moderate amount of detergent.

However, just remember to not add any fabric softener as that can leave residue and buildup on your towels, which will only encourage more bacteria to grow. Thanks to their absorbancy, towels can be left with coats of fabric softener that the washing machine is unable to rinse off completely. That layer of fabric softener not only keeps the towels from being properly washed, but it also keeps them from becoming completely dry, which then allows bacteria to multiply.

It’s also crucial that you don’t use too much detergent when washing your towels. Because of the absorbency of towels, your washing machine may not be able to wash away all of the detergent, which will then build up and keep your towels from being as absorbent as they should be. Detergents are designed to use a small amount, so use only the amount that is recommended on the bottle.

2. Vinegar Deep Clean

Household white vinegar is a lifesaver in many ways, and ensuring your towels come out fresh and free of mildew is one of its perks.

White vinegar helps your washing machine get those stubborn layers of fabric softener and detergent off your towels, and the acidity of vinegar kills the bad bacteria before it can grow any more. To remove bacteria from towels using vinegar, start by putting in a load of three to four towels in your washer along with a cup of vinegar, and run the washing machine on the hottest setting possible.

After you’ve washed the load with vinegar, wash it again on a normal cycle with a moderate amount of detergent. Then, immediately move the washed towels to the dryer and dry them on the hottest cycle and make sure they are totally dry before removing.

Remember not to leave the towels in the washing machine after the wash is done — otherwise, all your hard work will be for nothing since damp towels will begin to grow bacteria quickly.

3. Baking Soda and Vinegar Deep Clean

While vinegar on its own is a miracle worker, it becomes a superstar when coupled with baking soda.

To perform this deep clean, you’ll need to run two towel-only loads. But, in this method, you load the towels with a quarter cup of baking soda first. Then run the washing machine on the hottest cycle possible. Heat is known to kill bad bacteria, so the hot-water wash with the baking soda is sort of like a deep clean on its own.

After the baking soda wash, run the washing machine again  using the hottest cycle, of course  along with a full cup of white vinegar. Once they are done in the washer, move the towels right away to the dryer and make sure they get completely dried before putting them away.

This method is perfect for ensuring you remove bacteria from your towels because the type of acid in the vinegar will break down any mineral deposits that may be lingering on your towels. It will also break down any grime, which will then be washed away by your machine. Baking soda is known for neutralizing odors thanks to the fact that baking soda is an alkaline substance. It absorbs foul smells and breaks down and dissolves dirt and grease, which is why it’s such a favorite to keep bad odors out of your fridge.

4. Washer and Dryer Deep Clean

If you’ve tried the detergent, vinegar and baking soda and still find your towels smell musty, then your washer and/or dryer may be the problem. Giving your washing machine and dryer a deep clean will kill any lingering bacteria in there, which inevitably will prevent it from transferring onto your clean laundry.

To give your washer a deep clean, simply run it empty on the longest cycle with two cups of white vinegar or half a cup of bleach. At the end of the cycle, rub it down with a clean rag soaked in vinegar and water.

Deep clean your dryer by wiping down the inside with a clean cloth soaked in vinegar and water. You should also clean out and wash the lint trap, but make sure it is completely dry before reinserting it.

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How to Prevent Towels From Getting Mildew

Knowing how to clean towels to remove bacteria and mildew is great, but prevention is always better. Plus, preventing mildew is much easier than getting rid of it!

The bottom line to preventing mildew and bacteria from growing on your towels is to ensure towels dry completely. Removing the possibility of moisture will remove the opportunity for bacteria to breed.

After Use

You should always hang up towels after using them to dry off after a shower or bath. When you hang them after a shower, make sure there are no folds in the towels so that they dry completely. A drying rack is great for spreading out wet towels and encouraging them to dry completely and quickly.

Also make sure there is adequate ventilation, especially if you hang your towel to dry in your bathroom after taking a shower. Ensure the exhaust fan is on during and after your shower to get rid of the excess humidity.

Bath towels should be washed at least after every few uses to kill any growing bacteria. Unsurprisingly, towels will get dirtier and more unsanitary the longer you wait to wash them, and all that dirt and bacteria will keep transferring on to your body.

Before Washing

Give your washing machine and dryer a deep clean with vinegar regularly. This will ensure your machines are sanitary and aren’t spreading bacteria or mildew to your clothes and towels with every wash. There’s no avoiding water when it comes to washing machines, but you can help reduce the moisture between washes and, thus, reduce the opportunities for bacteria to grow.


And remember, your towels should be washed in a load of their own, without any other clothes. You don’t want any of the potential bacteria from the towels to transfer onto your other clothes, so it’s best to give towels a load of their very own and to wash them in warm or hot water. It’s also best to limit the loads to three or four large bath towels since they will absorb more water and will take longer to dry.

If you’re a fan of fabric softener, a good alternative is white vinegar. Fabric softener can leave a slight residue on your towels, which will only build up the more often you wash your towels with it. Vinegar does everything a fabric softener does while also killing bacteria and preventing your clothes from getting staticky.

After Washing

Once again, make sure your towels are absolutely dry before you fold them up and store them away for later use. You may think that a tiny bit of dampness is harmless, but even the slightest bit of moisture will encourage bacterial growth and can lead to mildew and an offensive odor.

Dry towels on the highest heat, and if they’re still not totally dry, hang them out in direct sunlight until every drop of moisture is gone.

Folds in dampness creates the perfect environment for fungal and bacterial growth since folds are moist and dark. This is why you should also ensure the towel you use to dry off after a shower is hung up without any folds and in a well-ventilated area.

High-Quality Towels From Towel Super Center

As the leading wholesale online towel supplier, Tower Super Center is the go-to place for all your towel needs. Whether you’re looking for towels to furnish your hotel, yoga or sports towels for your gym or hand towels and washcloths for your barbershop or car detailing business, Tower Super Center has you covered.

Our heavy-duty commercial towels are durable, so they can satisfy the needs of your business for years to come. The quality of household towels can deteriorate with multiple washes, making the towels less absorbent, but our towels are targeted toward businesses, so they will stay soft, absorbent and fluffy no matter how often they are washed.

Our terrycloth towels, which are made from 100% cotton, are available in a variety of sizes and colors, making them ideal for any business, from spas and fitness centers to hotels, restaurants and more. We understand that towels are necessary for many businesses and are used often and in bulk. That’s why we offer wholesale supplies — so you can save money and still get the high-quality towels you need.

Browse our online catalog now and start equipping your business with the best towels from Towel Super Center.

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