Why Do My Dish Towels Smell?

Have you ever pulled a dish towel out of the drawer or off the hook, only to be hit with an unpleasant musty odor? You probably wondered, why do my dish towels smell bad?

Why Do My Dish Towels Smell

This sour smell coming from your kitchen linens is more than just unpleasant – it can indicate bacterial growth that could spread onto your dishes, countertops, and hands.

The good news is that with some simple adjustments to how you care for, handle, and store your dish towels, you can stop them from smelling and create a fresher, cleaner kitchen environment.

What Causes Dish Towels to Smell?

There are a few key culprits behind that funky odor emanating from your dish towels:

  • Bacteria – Bacteria feed on food particles, grease, and moisture left on dish towels after use. As they digest these materials, they multiply rapidly and produce foul-smelling byproducts.
  • Moisture – Damp towels make an ideal breeding ground for odor-causing bacteria. If towels don’t fully dry out between uses, bacterial growth escalates.
  • Heat – Warm, humid environments facilitate rapid bacteria propagation. Storing wet towels in hot kitchens accelerates odor issues.
  • Fabric softeners – While making towels feel fluffy and fresh, fabric softeners can leave residue that traps moisture and odors over time.

Once your towels start to sour, they become more than just a smell nuisance. They can also spread illness-causing germs around your kitchen via cross-contamination.

Key Takeaway: Bacteria, moisture, heat, and fabric softeners are main causes of smelly dish towels. Sour odors indicate bacterial growth that can transfer to hands, dishes, and counters.

How to Keep Dish Towels Smelling Fresh

Luckily, with some easy preventative measures, you can stop your dish towels from smelling bad in the first place. Follow these tips:

Choose the Right Fabrics

Looped terry cloth or textured huck towels absorb better and dry faster than plush, smooth fabrics. Stick to thin, lightweight towels whenever possible.

Rinse After Each Use

Rinse towels thoroughly under hot, soapy water after every use. This flushes away food particles and grease that bacteria feed on. Wring out all excess moisture so they dry fast.

Allow Proper Air Circulation

After rinsing, drape towels over cabinet handles/faucets or hang on racks. Don’t leave in sink or bunched up. Exposure to air inhibits bacterial growth and odors.

Avoid Using Fabric Softeners

Skip the fabric softener, as residues trap moisture and smells over time. For softness, add 1/4 cup baking soda or white vinegar to rinse cycle.

Wash Regularly in Hot Water

Launder kitchen towels every 2-3 days on hot “sanitize” cycle. Wash with detergent and oxygen bleach. Avoid leaving wet towels in machines.

Dry Thoroughly

Tumble dry dish towels on high heat or hang in direct sunlight. The UV light and heat further sanitize them.

Replace Old Towels

Retire overly frayed, worn out towels. Their deeper crevices cling to more bacteria-feeding particles. Swap kitchen towels out seasonally.

By following those best practices, you’ll curtail bacterial growth substantially. But what if your towels already have that dreaded stench?

Key Takeaway: Rinsing, air drying, skipping fabric softener, hot washing, UV light drying, and rotating towels help prevent musty smells.

How to Remove Smells from Dish Towels

If your dish towels already smell unpleasant, don’t worry. You can rehabilitate them and eliminate sour odors with some simple cleaning methods.


Boil funky smelling towels for 10-15 minutes in water mixed with either:

  • 1 cup vinegar
  • 1⁄2 cup baking soda
  • 5 drops citrus essential oil

After boiling, dry towels in sunlight. The heat kills bacteria and vinegar/baking soda deodorizes.


Prior to washing, soak stinky towels for 30 minutes in:

  • Tub filled with hot water + oxygen bleach
  • Bucket with cold water + laundry detergent + lemon juice

Then launder as usual with detergent in hot water and dry.


To sanitize laundry loads containing sour towels, wash on hot setting with:

  • 1⁄2 cup Borax substitute
  • 1⁄2 cup hydrogen peroxide
  • Add white vinegar or lemon juice instead of fabric softener in rinse cycle

As a last resort for eliminating stubborn lingering odors, wash towels in chlorine bleach.

Being diligent about these towel cleaning methods, along with the preventative steps outlined earlier, means you’ll have fresh-smelling linens every time.

Key Takeaway: Boiling, soaking, and washing with deodorizing agents all help strip away dish towel smells before they take over your kitchen.


Why do my new dish towels smell bad quickly?

Even brand new towels that smell unpleasant fast likely have lingering odors from dyeing or improper drying at factories. Give them an initial deep clean via boiling, hydrogen peroxide soak, or hot machine wash before first use.

How often should you replace dish towels?

Plan to swap out all regularly used kitchen linens every 3-6 months. Worn, frayed towels with deeper crevices cling to more residue and smell faster despite cleaning attempts.

Can you put smelly dish towels in the dishwasher?

Yes! Run them through empty dishwasher cycles on the hottest setting. The intense heat, harsh detergents, and forceful spray help eliminate odors and bacteria. (Wash anything else needing disinfection this way too!)

Why do my towels get a mildew smell in the laundry?

Leaving laundered towels sitting wet in machines breeds mildew, which produces a musty, unpleasant smell. Always promptly remove clean towels from washers and dryers to prevent this.

What’s the best way to dry dish towels?

The combination of sunshine’s UV rays and heat from tumble drying seems most effective at killing lingering bacteria that cause smells. Hang dried towels in sunlight first if possible, then give them a short machine dry.


Following the cleaning and handling best practices outlined above will help prevent unpleasant odors from taking over your kitchen.

With some diligent towel maintenance habits, you can say goodbye to worrying about what that sour smell clinging to the towels is!

Emma Kellam
Emma Kellam

I'm Emma, and I run Towels Edition, a website for fellow home goods enthusiasts who, like me, are passionate about textiles. After working in high-end retail, I was amazed by how little most people (myself included!) know about all the towel options out there.

I research and write all the content myself. Whether it's specialized towels like bar mops, Turkish cotton production methods, or comparing hair towel absorbency, I cover it. My goal is to share my knowledge and enthusiasm to help others.

Running Towels Edition allows me to constantly expand my own expertise too. I love learning about innovations in bamboo fabric or ideal bath towels. It's so rewarding to receive emails thanking me for recommendations that improved my readers' routines.

I want Towels Edition to be the ultimate online towel resource, making this overlooked necessity far more fascinating. My aim is to open people's eyes to how specialty towels can thoroughly enhance hygiene, cleaning, recreation and self-care.