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Towel Bacteria Causes Musty Odor - Solutions

Dear Dr. Dave and Dr. Dee,

My new roommate hangs her wet washcloth and towel in the bathroom that we share, and they smell terrible. When she wasn't home, I sprayed her towels with Lysol disinfectant, but it didn't help. I hang my towel and washcloth in my own room on hooks behind the door. Her room has hooks behind the door, too. She is a really nice person and very sensitive, so I don't want to hurt her feelings, but, how can I politely tell her to hang towels in her room?


Towel troubles

Dear Towel troubles,

Towels that smell are an indication that they are full of bacteria and need to be washed. Towels need to dry out between use because damp towels are a breeding ground for bacteria.

When a person dries off with a smelly towel, then they transfer the towel bacteria onto their skin and will most likely have a odor left on them from the musty towel. You would be doing her a favor to point out that towels need to be washed often. One way is to tell her that you just read an interesting article about towels that you never knew before and simply share the information with her.

Lori Seto from Real Simple Magazine ( provides a summary of Steve Boorstein's steps for fresh smelling towels from his book, "The Clothing Doctor's 99 Secrets of Cleaning and Clothing Care." In brief below are the 5 steps.


1. WASH SELF THOUROUGHLY: Scrub diligently with soap in the shower or bath, especially sweat "hot spots," such as the feet, the underarms, and the groin. "Good hygiene in the shower is critical," says Boorstein. "Some people - including most kids - don't wash thoroughly when bathing. Any bacteria from sweat and body oils that isn't washed away gets transferred to your towel."

2. HANG UP TOWEL AFTER USE: Always hang up a towel after using it. A rack is ideal for airing out the maximum amount of surface area. Don't throw a damp towel - whether it has been used in the kitchen or the bathroom - on the floor or in a hamper to dry. The residual buildup of bacteria only worsens if a damp towel doesn’t dry completely between uses.

3. SANITARY WASHING MACHINE: Make sure your washing machine itself is sanitary. "People shed about 1 billion dead skin cells every day, much of which ends up in your clothes, towels, and washing machine," says Boorstein. "Before washing your towels, do your whites, if you use bleach. Or run an empty load with 1/4 cup bleach to disinfect the interior."


a. Wash no more than three bath towels at a time, use hot water on the longest setting and a regular detergent plus a booster.

b. Remove them from the warm environment of the washing machine quickly or bacteria will start breeding within one to two hours.

c. Dry towels completely before folding and putting away.

If a clean towel continues to have a smell, it means that bacteria are still in your machine or on your towel. Run the washing machine again with bleach, or wash the towel a second time to remove the stubborn bacteria.

5. WASH FREQUENTLY: Use a bath towel no more than three times between washings.


In addition to washcloths and bath towels, kitchen towels need special attention because they can contain E. coli and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus), a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics. Dr. Kelly Reynolds, associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson recommends cleaning up kitchen countertops with disposable wipes such as paper towels (Dr. Reynold's Blog, "Learn About Germs: Germs In The Home Environment," The University of Arizona, 2009).

Also, do not use the same dish towel for hands and drying dishes. Have two separate dishtowels in the kitchen, one for drying hands and one for drying dishes, and wash towels frequently.

For more information, go to

Boorstein, S., "The Clothing Doctor's 99 Secrets of Cleaning and Clothing Care," Fashion Media Group, LLC, 2006.