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How To Take Bad Smells Out Of Clothes Without Washing Them

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Wondering how to take bad smells out of clothes without washing them? Try our five top tips to help remove bad odours and save energy and money.

Repeated laundering has a drastic impact on the lifespan of our clothes. All that hot water, heat and agitation can damage, shrink and fade our favourite fibres and fast. This means we end up buying new clothes more frequently, which is bad news for our bank balances and the environment.

All that laundry is also bad news environmentally. The majority of carbon emissions from our clothing are made at home – not from the manufacturing stage. Instead, these hefty emissions come from washing and drying our clothes. In fact, it has been estimated that laundry accounts for around 120 million tons of CO2 emissions each year.

Washing our clothes less certainly makes sense – both from a money-saving and environmental perspective.

But who wants to stink?

Don’t worry – whether you want to extend the time in between laundry loads or just get a bad or musty smell out of an item in a hurry, there are heaps of effective ways to get those lingering smells out. All without putting your clothes in the washing machine.

How To Take Bad Smells Out Of Clothes Without Washing Them

Green clothes hanging on a rail with a blue text box that reads how to take bad smells out of clothes without washing them.

Here are my five favourite fixes for banishing bad odours from clothing without having to use your washing machine:

I like to think of these quick fixes as having a similar role to that of dry shampoo. While they won’t take the place of washing your clothes, they will buy you extra time between laundry loads or temporarily sort you out when you are in a laundry-based pickle that needs fixing fast.

1. Hang Clothes Up To Air

✅ Best for removing general faint bad smells

For clothes that have a faint bad smell, then the easiest and least resource-intensive way to tackle them is to hang your clothes up to air.

Simply hanging your clothes on a hook in your bedroom overnight can be enough to remove any faint odours on clothes you’ve worn that day.

Don’t hang your clothes in the wardrobe though – you need a good flow of air all around the garment for it to be able to air out properly. Give it at least a day – some clothes may need a few days to fully air out.

If you feel that the item needs a bit more than hanging up in your bedroom, then the very best way to remove odours is by airing them outdoors for a few hours. There’s nothing like some sunlight and a breeze to get bad smells out.

Just make sure that you turn dark-coloured clothes inside out when doing so, to help avoid any sun damage.

If it’s raining outside, or you don’t have any outdoor space, the next best thing is to place your item of clothing on a hanger and hang it from your curtain rail. Your window should be open to allow a gentle breeze to flow.

Alternatively, try hanging your clothes up in your bathroom whilst you take a shower. The steam can help shift any faint smells, whilst also helping to remove any creases or wrinkles.

2. Spray With Vodka To Remove Bad Smells From Clothes

✅ Best for removing strong localised bad smells

For stronger or more persistent bad smells, then you need something stronger than air. In this case, that something stronger is vodka.

I know a stiff drink may be preferable if your favourite item of clothing has taken on a bad smell that seemingly won’t come out. But the vodka isn’t for you – it’s for your clothing!

I know it sounds wild, but spraying clothes that have a bad smell with vodka can help remove the stink without resorting to washing. I’ve been using this method for years, and I can tell you that vodka works amazingly well at shifting bad smells from most items of clothing.

The idea behind using vodka is that the high alcohol content temporarily kills the odour-causing bacteria responsible for causing those bad smells.

Don’t worry about smelling like a pub. Vodka dries odourless, taking with it the stink.

To use, simply decant some undiluted vodka into a spray bottle. Turn your garment inside out and test the spray in a hidden spot to make sure the vodka doesn’t damage the fibres. Once you are satisfied that it won’t cause any damage, give your item a good mist.

I find that vodka works best for smells concentrated in particular areas. If, for example, the underarms of your top smell bad, turn your top inside out and concentrate the spray in the underarm area. Then leave the item to dry – preferably by a window or outside.

If it needs a scent boost, you can add a couple of drops of your favourite essential oil to the vodka. Do spray in an inconspicuous area first to ensure the oils won’t cause any damage to your fabric.

3. Spray With Witch Hazel

✅ Best for removing localised bad smells on a budget

If the idea of vodka isn’t so appealing, then you can get similar results removing bad smells from clothes using witch hazel. Again, it’s the alcohol content of witch hazel that banishes the bad odour-causing bacteria.

In my opinion, vodka is superior at removing bad smells as it has a much higher alcohol content. However, witch hazel is much cheaper than vodka. This makes it a good option if you are on a tight budget and have no vodka in the house.

Similar to the vodka method, add a little witch hazel to a spray bottle. Turn your garment inside out, and test a little on an inconspicuous spot to make sure it doesn’t damage your fabric. Once you’re happy, give your clothing a good mist – focusing on any particularly stinky spots – before leaving it to dry.

If you want an added scent boost, then again, feel free to add a few drops of essential oil to the witch hazel. Again, test this on a small spot inside of your garment first before applying the solution more liberally.

4. Pop Your Clothes In The Freezer To Remove Bad Smells

✅ Best for removing general bad smells, such as cooking smells

Another option to remove bad smells from clothes without washing them is to pop them in the freezer.

I know, I know. First I suggested vodka and now I’m suggesting freezing your favourite clothes. But trust me on this! Freezing your clothes does remove bad or musty odours, as the freezing process kills the bacteria responsible for causing the stench.

Whilst it’s not such a quick fix as spritzing some vodka or hanging your clothes on your washing line on a blustery day, the freezer is surprisingly effective.

Simply pop your item of dry clothing in a bag (to avoid your clothing taking on the smell of frozen peas) and pop it in the freezer overnight. That’s all you need to do.

The next day allow your clothes to warm up for a few minutes before getting dressed. Your clothes won’t be stiff – as you put them in the freezer when they are dry – but they will be a little chilly. Letting them warm up means you won’t get frostbite!

See my full guide to freezing clothes for all the details.

5. Steam Your Clothing

person using a handheld clothes and garment steamer

✅ Best for removing general strong bad smells in a flash

Finally, looking for a ready-to-wear solution? A handheld garment steamer is a speedy yet effective way to make your clothes smell fresh. And for bonus points, it removes creases and wrinkles at the same time. This leaves you looking and smelling presentable in mere minutes.

This method works because the high heat from the steam kills those pesky odour-causing bacteria. However, for particularly musty clothes, you could try adding scented steamer water. This steamer water from Clothes Doctor, for example, is scented with blue lily and bergamot, imparting your clothes with a lovely natural fragrance.

Just make sure you follow the laundry care label first, to make sure your garment is suitable for steaming.

Have None Of These Options Worked?

If you have a really stubborn stink on your hands, then you might find that none of these options works. In this case your only other option is to wash your clothes. Sometimes there’s nothing else for it.

For laundering clothes, I have found that Dr Bronner’s liquid castile soap is hands down the best way to get all types of bad smells. From BO and cigarette smoke to the musty smell vintage clothing sometimes has – Dr Bronner’s seems to get out all kinds of stinks from all types of clothing. Even smells that other methods haven’t been able to touch.

Before running a full load of laundry, I use around 50 to 100 ml of liquid castile soap in place of standard laundry detergent. Then I add a few tablespoons of white vinegar to the fabric conditioner drawer, before running a standard wash. Once the wash cycle is finished I dry my clothing as usual.

This will banish bad smells in the blink of a spin cycle!

Another other tips to get rid of bad smells? I’m all ears!

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2 Comments

  1. Would rubbing alcohol work better than vodka and witch hazel since it has more alcohol in it? Or could it damage clothes?

    1. Hi Sue, personally I think vodka is the most effective method. From what I understand, rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) has a different chemical makeup and doesn’t trap the odorous molecules in the same way as the alcohol (ethanol) in vodka.