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Removing strong smells like sweat and mildew from clothes can involve pretreating them and using certain products.

When we wash our clothes and linens, we expect them to emerge from the dryer clean, fluffed, and fresh smelling. We don’t want to be sitting somewhere five hours later, sniffing our clean clothes and wondering, “Is that me?”

To get rid of funky smells that linger in our laundry — and to prevent any unhealthy side effects from contact with our skin — we need to understand where they’re coming from and what’s effective against them.

Here are some common laundry odors, along with some science-supported methods for eliminating them.

Armpit odors in your shirt may occur from anxiety or a workout — either way, the basic cause for that smell may be sweat. While sweat doesn’t smell on its own, the smell is an interaction between bacteria and secretions of your apocrine gland.

The kind of fabric you’re wearing may actually make matters smellier. In one study, researchers incubated both cotton and synthetic T-shirts after they’d been worn in an intense spinning session. They found lots more microbial growth (and lots more odor) in the synthetic tees.

First, unpack

Leaving clothes wadded in a gym bag or tightly-packed basket can allow bacteria to proliferate. Take them out, shake them out, and let the air get to them until you’re ready to wash.

Next, pretreat

If an ordinary wash just isn’t getting rid of the smell, presoak your clothing for a half hour in a 1:4 solution of vinegar and water.

Another effective natural method involves presoaking with a 1/2 cup of baking soda in a sink full of water.

You could also try one of several antibacterial sprays made especially for laundry. They claim to kill 99 percent of the odor-causing bacteria. (Shop for sprays now.)

Wash and dry as the label instructs.

Bromodosis — the medical name for foot odor — isn’t actually caused by sweaty feet. It’s caused by bacteria, often from the Brevibacterium family.

The odor is produced when bacteria break down sweat and dead skin cells on your feet. Smelly feet can also be caused by a fungal infection, so if you improve your foot hygiene and it doesn’t eliminate the smell, you may need to speak to your doctor about it.

There are two ways to eliminate foot odor:

Treat your feet

Practice good foot hygiene by:

  • washing and thoroughly drying your feet daily
  • wearing moisture-wicking socks (even in winter)
  • alternating your shoes so you don’t wear the same pair every day

Antifungal and antiperspirant sprays may help. There’s also some evidence that juniper essential oil may help control smelly feet. Buy juniper oil here.

Soak your socks

The second way to get rid of an unpleasant foot smell is to treat your laundry.

If foot odor still clings to your socks after they’ve been washed and dried, try soaking the offending socks in a vinegar bath:

  1. Use 2 cups of white vinegar per gallon of water and allow the socks to soak for 30 minutes.
  2. Rinse out the vinegar and wash as usual.

First things first: Guidelines recommend you protect your health by wearing gloves when cleaning up vomit or other bodily fluids.

Vomit is a protein stain. The first step to eliminating the odor is to scrape away any solids and dispose of them safely. Rinse the fabric in cold water to remove particles, then wash on a high temperature setting.

If the fabric care directions allow it, machine dry. If the odor persists, pretreat the smelly patches with a paste made of baking soda and water. Leave the paste on the fabric for 30 minutes before machine washing a second time.

According to surveys conducted by the Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, around 36 million Americans practice yoga, and roughly 70 percent of them are women. That’s a lot of yoga pants. And yoga pants are generally made of synthetic fabrics that hold onto bacteria and odor.

If you’ve noticed that the crotch of your workout pants is retaining odors even after you wash them, you’re not alone. Some people even call this “sports vagina.”

To dissipate the smell, don’t respond by dumping in more detergent. Too much detergent means residue, and residue means trapped odors. Instead, add 1/2 cup white vinegar to the rinse cycle or 1/2 cup of baking soda to the wash cycle.

You can also opt for one of the many sports detergents on the market. Check some out here.

If you’re one of the growing number of families using cloth diapers, you may notice a buildup of ammonia smell over time, even after diapers have been washed.

Doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital say that ammonia can cause a mild chemical burn, and they note that this reaction is more common when babies wear cloth diapers.

To get rid of the ammonia buildup, some diaper companies and parent groups recommend that you strip the diapers. Stripping just means you’re removing any residue that could trap odors or reduce the diaper’s absorbency.

To strip diapers:

  1. Place them in your washing machine and add half a packet of RLR laundry additive to the cycle. It’s not necessary to add detergent, since your goal here is to cut through any soapy residue.
  2. Rinse repeatedly until there is no “sudsing.” You want to be sure all traces of the additive are gone.
  3. It’s also okay to use the bathtub for this process.

Shop for RLR Laundry Treatment.

What is rlr laundry treatment?

RLR Laundry Treatment is a must if you use cloth diapers and wash them at home. This laundry additive contains washing soda and other ingredients that help remove minerals and other compounds that may build up in your laundry over time. RLR Laundry Treatment helps your laundry soap work better.

Mildew is a fungus that thrives in warm, damp environments, so your washer is an ideal incubator. And it’s not something to ignore.

While not everyone is sensitive to mildew in clothing or in the washer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says people with asthma, respiratory illnesses, or immune disorders, as well as very young or elderly people, could experience symptoms like wheezing, coughing, or itchy eyes.

If you leave clothes too long in the washer, mildew can grow. To get rid of mildew on your clothing and its characteristically sour smell, wash the affected fabrics with 1 cup of either white vinegar or baking soda and add an extra rinse cycle.

You may find that line-drying the clothes outdoors helps eliminate the odor as well.

One additional note: If you have an HE machine, you may be encouraging mold growth in your machine by using too much detergent. Excess suds won’t evaporate quickly, and the extra moisture could be the source of the spore growth.

Perfumes that linger in clothing fibers have been linked to all sorts of adverse and even dangerous health effects, including:

If you’re experiencing any of these, you may actually be washing the scent into your clothes. Laundry detergents are among the most fragranced products on the market. The waxy coating on some dryer sheets can make the fragrance cling even longer.

To eliminate fragrances left over from your detergent, consignment shop purchases, or Great Aunt Agnes’s over-zealous hug, wash your clothing and linens with a scent-free detergent, plus RLR Laundry Treatment or washing soda. Then line dry them thoroughly.

Tip: Baking soda and washing soda are not exactly the same. You can buy washing soda, or you can make your own.

  1. Spread a 1/2-inch layer of baking soda over the bottom of a baking pan.
  2. Bake it in a 400-degree oven for about an hour, until the baking soda looks more like crystals or grains.

If you slosh a little bit of gasoline on your clothes while you’re filling your tank, it’s important to take extra precautions when you wash them. (If your clothes are for some reason drenched in gasoline, it’s probably best to throw them out.)

The gasoline smell isn’t just unpleasant — it can cause a fire or an explosion in your washer or dryer.

To eliminate both the smell and the extra hazard, let the clothes air dry for 24 hours in a well-ventilated space (preferably outdoors).

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that you spot clean the gas-splashed areas of your clothing and then air dry them completely. Once the gasoline residue has been removed in this way, the National Fire Protection Association says it’s okay to wash and dry them as usual.

If you have a front-loading washer, you’re no stranger to sour smells coming from the mold growth in the rubber ring around the door.

When you do your spring cleaning, spray the rubber gasket with vinegar and wipe it clean. Then run the machine on its hottest setting with two cups of vinegar. When that cycle is complete, add a cup of baking soda to your machine and run it again.

If you own a top load washing machine, use 4 cups of vinegar in the cycle and pause it midway to allow it to soak for an hour before completing the cycle.

There are also cleaning products made specifically for washing machines. Buy them here.

Eliminating persistent smells from your laundry isn’t just about aesthetics: It can prevent skin and respiratory problems from arising for you and your household.

Many odors can be removed using vinegar or baking soda as part of your wash cycle, and if those don’t work, commercial sanitizers and sports detergents target odor-causing bacteria, too.

Air drying outside is also a great option for freshening fabrics. Whatever method you use, be sure to check the fabric care labels on your clothing to protect the fibers.