How to remove stains and smells from towels

Follow these tips for keeping your towels fresh, clean and hygienic

Woman wearing towel around her head and enjoying a hot drink
(Image credit: Yan Krukov from Pexels)

If you've invested in some of the best bath towels, chances are you're going to want to keep them like-new for as long as possible, right? There’s a particular art to washing and drying towels, which we detail in our article on how to keep your towels soft and fluffy. Under normal circumstances, this should be all you need to maintain your towels’ cleanliness and hygiene.

But what if you get a serious stain on your towel, or there’s a lingering unpleasant smell that you can’t seem to shake? Gym towels, for instance, can very quickly start to smell a bit funky. Here, we’ll look at how to give your towels a proper deep clean, simply and efficiently.

How to remove bad smells from towels

Your towels smell bad, so you put them in the wash. They emerge from the machine smelling fresh: fantastic! But then when they dry out later, the bad smell returns. If this has happened to you, it’s probably a sign that your washing machine itself needs cleaning. This can happen even if you've invested in one of the best washing machines around.

It’s always best to check your manufacturer’s instructions for the best way to clean your particular machine. However, a good rule of thumb for a front-loading washing machine is to run a hot cycle with two cups of vinegar, and then another with half a cup of baking soda. (Never mix vinegar and baking soda in the same wash, though.)

Three rolled up towels

(Image credit: Photo by Dom J from Pexels)

If you’re still having problems with a lingering smell, then one thing worth trying is to sprinkle the towel itself with baking soda (on both sides), and leave it for several hours in a well-ventilated room. Then brush off the baking soda, and wash as normal. 

Another technique is to boil the juice of three lemons in water for around 20 minutes, then soak your towel in it for an hour before putting it in the washing machine.

Finally, be aware that one of the biggest causes of bad-smelling towels is mildew. So make sure you don’t let your towels linger in the washing machine, on the floor, or in the washing basket after washing them.

How to remove stains from towels

Blood stains on towel

(Image credit: Karolina Grabowska from Pexels)

If you have a stain on your towel, then it’s best to pre-treat it before putting it in the washing machine, just as you would with clothes. Here are some suggested techniques for specific stains.

Dirt or mud stains: Pour detergent or stain remover directly on the stain and then rub it with an old toothbrush or cloth. (If you have a mud stain, let the mud dry first before treating it.)

Makeup stains: These are best removed with the same makeup remover wipe you’d use on your face. Similarly, nail polish stains can be removed with the normal nail polish remover wipes you'd use on your nails.

Hair dye stains: Pour baby shampoo directly onto the stain and rub it with your fingers.

Blood stains: If the blood is fresh, soak the towel immediately in cold (never hot) water. If the stain is old, soak in salt water or an enzyme solution for 30 minutes before putting it in the washing machine.

Grease, oil and motor oil stains: Rub washing-up liquid into the stain and let it soak in overnight before rubbing to remove it with an old toothbrush or cloth. 

Food and drink stains: Rub the stain with washing-up liquid, then soak the area in warm vinegar for 30 minutes before putting into the washing machine.

How to keep your towels clean and fresh

Beyond the specific situations detailed above, follow these rules for keeping your towels clean in general. 

  • Wash your towels after two to three uses
  • Use half the recommended detergent for a normal washing machine load
  • Avoid laundry softener and instead use three tablespoons of distilled vinegar or half a cup of baking soda (but never both)
  • Wash and dry towels separately from other items
  • ... and don’t fill either your washing machine or dryer to the brim, either – give them space to breathe

For more advice, check out our 10 hacks to keep your towels soft and fluffy.

Tom May

Tom May is a freelance writer and author of the book, Great Ted Talks: Creativity. He has been editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. He has also worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella.