Stale. Moldy. Damp. Stuffy. Are these words that come to mind when you pull should-be-fresh clothes out of the dryer? Or when you walk down to the basement? What you’re smelling is often described as a “musty” odor. While this is not exactly pleasant, it is important that humans can smell things that could alert us to potential danger. In fact, research has shown that “people who couldn’t smell at all were at least three times more likely to have experienced a hazardous event than people with intact olfactory capabilities.”
Though we have evolved a keen sense of smell, our olfactory experience of the air we breathe is varied. Some people can smell moldy or musty odors in dry places, while others cannot smell odors even in places that are clearly damp and moldy. And none of us can smell a truly hazardous air pollutant, carbon monoxide. We may smell odors that seem pleasing and natural, but in reality are not healthy. Thus, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that odor is not a reliable test for indoor air quality. If you can see or smell mold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that a health risk may be present. One thing is certain: dealing with musty smells in your home and on your clothes can be frustrating, especially when you work hard to keep things clean. And while that old house smell is certainly unpleasant, a musty smell can be a tell-tale sign that there’s mold or mildew lurking, so it’s not just a matter of unpleasantries.
The good news is that you can get rid of musty smells from your home, your clothes, and from your life. Let us take a look at how you can identify the source of a musty smell, what actions you can take to remove the smell, and, most importantly, how you can keep the musty smell from returning.
Why does my home smell musty?
Mold and mildew smell stale and pungent, similar to the smell of rotting wood. It’s most common smelled in either places where mold spores can colonize undisturbed like basements and closets, or in places where there is plenty of moisture like bathrooms.
If your home or clothing smells musty, chances are you have mold or mildew hiding out. While other things — like a lack of ventilation or high levels of humidity — can make a musty odor more noticeable, they typically are not the primary cause of the smell.
While the term “musty” often brings to mind an old library or your grandma’s attic, mold and mildew can grow practically anywhere—even your modern home or apartment. Essentially, all mold needs to grow is the presence of mold spores, a surface to grow on, warmth, darkness, oxygen, and moisture.
The last ingredient — moisture — is the biggest problem. When all of the other environmental elements combine with condensation, moisture from humidity, or leaking water, mold begins to grow. As mold forms, grows, and spreads, it emits gasses known as microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs). So that musty odor you are smelling is not “just” mold but is a result of the chemical compounds released at different stages of the mold’s growth.
While volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are categorized as man-made or industrial chemicals, MVOCs are naturally occurring. They have a very low odor threshold, which means you may smell them easily and, when you do, the odor is strong. There are hundreds of different MVOCs formed by mold and mildew and many of them may pose health risks. Though more research is needed, some common symptoms of exposure to microbial volatile organic compounds may include:
- Nasal irritation
Mildew vs Mold: identification and treatment
Mold and mildew — and the chemicals produced by them — are not great for your personal health or the indoor air quality in your home. Though often used interchangeably, the EPA describes that mold and mildew are not quite the same things.
What are mold and mildew?
In a nutshell, the term mildew describes certain types of mold or fungus, and generically refers to mold that grows flat and remains on a material’s surface. Mildew likes to grow where moisture levels are high, like shower walls and windowsills. Thankfully, mildew can be treated easily and does not usually require hiring a professional. There are several ways to clean and remove mildew (we will go into more detail below) but no matter which you choose, it is best to wear a face mask and keep the area you are cleaning well-ventilated.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), molds are fungi that are found indoors and outside. No one is sure how many species of mold exist, but estimates range from the tens of thousands to maybe three hundred thousand or more.
You can find mold in many different places throughout your home — from the tiles in your shower to the crawl space in your basement. The majority of mold favor dark, damp, and warm environments, and anywhere that possesses those characteristics should be at the top of your list when you begin to look for the source of the musty smell in your home.
How mold affects your health and the health of your home
When left untreated for long periods of time, mold can cause structural damage to your home and the contents of it. Though moldy environments do not always cause health symptoms, the CDC says that exposure to moldy environments may cause nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing and wheezing, or eye and skin irritation. Those with mold allergies may have more severe reactions, and the EPA reports that for people with asthma who are allergic to mold, it can cause asthma attacks.
How to remove a musty smell from your home
It is not always fun to read about how mold and mildew can be affecting your home and health, but it is essential information to have. Now that we have gone over the basics, it is time to take action so you can get that musty smell out of your home.
Find the source of the musty smell:
As we have seen, the most common reason for a musty smell in your home is the presence of mold or mildew. And because the microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs) emitted from mold and mildew have a low odor threshold, a musty smell does not necessarily mean that there is a lot of it. Before you try to cover up the odor, take some time to look around for patches of mildew or mold. Some places you may want to check for mold around your home include:
Your bathrooms — Moist and warm, bathrooms are like heaven to mold spores. You will want to check the most obvious places like the tiles in the shower but do not forget to check under the sink, around the toilet, and in the walls. Water leaks may not always be evident right away, but if you do a thorough inspection of your bathrooms, you should be able to tell if there is a moisture problem causing mold growth.
The kitchen — There are a lot of places in the kitchen for mold to hide out, so you will want to check thoroughly. Look inside of, underneath, and around your refrigerator, underneath your sink, and inside your microwave and stove. Oh, and do not forget to check your trash can — that is another dark place mold cannot resist.
In the bedrooms — True, your bedroom may not seem like a great place for mold to grow but it’s very possible. To keep your room smelling fresh, you will want to check for mold on your mattress, your bedroom windows and windowsills, and in any potted plants you have.
Your living room — Between your windows, your furniture, and your fireplace (if you have one), the living room is a pretty cozy place for your family and mold to hang out.
The attic, basement, and garage — Because you probably do not spend a ton of time in these rooms of your home, they are likely dark, warm, and damp. In other words, hello mold! You will need to look in quite a few spots in these rooms:
- In your insulation
- Around the water heater and furnace
- Near any vents coming off the laundry room, kitchen, or bathroom
- Around windows where condensation could gather
- Behind or under any storage areas that do not get a lot of traffic
- Other places you should check for mildew, mold, or moisture are in your air conditioning and heating ducts, inside and around your washer and dryer, and in the walls and ceiling around your home.
Fix any water leaks or moisture problems.
You can do all the cleaning you want, but if you do not take measures to fix any water leaks or other moisture problems, you will find yourself right back at square one. The CDC confirms this, saying, “Mold will grow in places with a lot of moisture, such as around leaks in roofs, windows, or pipes, or where there has been flooding.” Once you have identified the source of the musty smell in your home, decide whether it requires maintenance that you can do yourself or if it makes more sense to hire a contractor to do the work for you. If you are renting, keep in mind that most leases require your landlord to pay for the repairs.
Clean the moldy or mildewy area thoroughly
If you did find places with mold or mildew, you would need to do a deep clean of the area (in addition to identifying what caused the growth and fixing that). Here are some tips for treating mold and mildew.
To clean mildew…
Though you can use bleach to kill and remove mildew, that level of cleaner is not usually necessary. If you do choose to use bleach, make sure you have adequate ventilation to the outside and wear protective equipment like rubber gloves and a face mask.
For a more natural (yet still highly effective) mildew treatment, you can:
- Fill a spray bottle with distilled white vinegar
- Let sit for several hours
- Soak an abrasive sponge in hot water and dip it into baking soda
- Scrub the mildew off of the surface
You will still probably want to turn on a fan and open a window, just to be safe.
To clean mold…
Mold clean up can be more intensive than treating mildew but that largely depends on how much mold there is, the type of mold, and how big of space the mold is covering. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends hiring a mold cleanup specialist if:
- The moldy area is more than 10 square feet
- If your HVAC system has mold in it
- If the mold growth is on the walls, floors, or ceiling
- If you have health issues that could be aggravated by more exposure to mold
In most other cases, you should be able to clean the mold up yourself. When cleaning mold, it is essential that the space you are in is well-ventilated and that you wear a respirator or face mask and cover your arms, legs, and hands to avoid exposure to mold spores that get stirred up from cleaning. The CDC recommends following these guidelines for cleaning up mold on your own:
- Wear personal protective equipment
- Toss out anything that cannot be cleaned within 48 hours
- Use proper ventilation
- Use fans and dehumidifiers to remove moisture
- Do not mix cleaning products (when mixed, some cleaning products can create toxic vapors)
- Scrub all surfaces that have mold
- Fix the leak or moisture problem and clean up the mold before you paint or caulk
- Dry everything as quickly as possible
To clean small areas of mold, you may be able to use the same process as you would clean up mildew. For larger areas, the CDC advises that you use a “solution of no more than 1 cup of household laundry bleach per 1 gallon of water.”
If the job feels too much, you may want to call a mold specialist.
Get the fresh air flowing
Now that you have gotten rid of the mold or mildew and have made all necessary repairs, you need to ventilate your home as much as possible. You can do this by opening windows, turning on fans, or both. The more you can get the air moving in your home, the better. Ventilation will help remove the musty smell from your house and make your home less attractive to mold and mildew.
Use an odor absorber
To get the last of the musty smell out of your house, use a natural odor absorber like activated charcoal or baking soda. These products will absorb the smell, so you’ll want to throw them away and replace them every two weeks or so.
If you follow all of these steps, your house will no longer smell like an old library or your grandma’s attic (whew!). All that’s left to do after this is keep mold and mildew at bay, so your house stays fresh and your family stays healthy.
How to get rid of a musty smell in clothes
Now that you have removed the musty smell from your home, it is time to tackle your clothes (and any other fabrics, for that matter). No one wants to walk around with a moldy, stale smell clinging to them. Thankfully, you can remove mildew smells from clothes with a pretty straightforward process.
1. Inspect your washing machine
First things first, check that your washing machine does not have any mold or mildew growing inside it. This can happen, especially when you use a front-load washer. Even if you do not see any visible signs of mold or mildew, you can be proactive and clean your washer with a mix of white vinegar and baking soda. Once that’s done, wipe down all the inner surfaces of your washer with a towel and let it sit open so it can air out.
Even if there is no mold or mildew growing in your washer, letting your clothes sit could be a problem on its own. The City of Milwaukee shares that “washed laundry that smells musty or earthy is caused by leaving wet laundry in a closed washing machine. Molds and mildew grow quickly in dark, moist environments, particularly during warm, humid weather. Remove laundry immediately after washing. To remove the musty odor, wash the laundry again.”
2. Time to clean the musty smell out of your clothes
If you have clothes that smell mildewy, stale, or otherwise just bad, there are a few different options you can use to remove the smell.
- Add a cup of white vinegar to the washer when you wash the musty clothes
- Wash your clothes with a cup of baking soda on the hottest setting your washer offers
- Mix 1 parts Borax, a natural mold-killer, with 2 parts hot water and add it to the washing machine with your smelly clothes in it after it has filled with water
- Let your clothes air out on a clothesline outside (weather permitting)
More tips for keeping your laundry fresh and must-free:
- Do not leave wet laundry in the washing machine
- Make sure all of your laundry is fully dried before putting in your dresser or closet
- Toss sweaty clothes directly into the washer so they don’t make the rest of your dirty clothes smell bad
- Clean your washer out every few months to prevent mold growth
Keep it fresh: banishing musty odors for good
Your home and your clothes are natural magnets for a musty smell. To keep them fresh and in good condition, you may want to take preventive measures. Preventing mold and mildew is always easier than cleaning it up. Eliminating musty smells for good also means you will be improving your home’s indoor air quality — it is a win-win!
- Use a dehumidifier — Keeping your home at an ideal humidity level (between 40-50%) will go a long way in preventing mold and mildew and, of course, that musty smell.
- Keep all surfaces dry — Your bathroom and kitchen, especially, should be kept as dry as possible. Taking a few minutes to wipe down hard surfaces after a shower or after cooking will help keep mold and mildew from forming. Do not forget to wipe away condensation that forms on your windows and leave your washing machine open between uses so it can air out!
- Change your air filters regularly — Your HVAC filters can easily become filled with mold. By changing them often, you can avoid this and make sure your home’s air quality stays high.
- Inspect for mold often — Mold happens. The earlier you catch it, the easier it will be to treat.
- Do maintenance as needed — Water leaks can be prevented by performing (or hiring a contractor to do) regular maintenance in your home. This can include roof and plumbing inspections, as well as HVAC inspections.
- Keep your home ventilated — Fresh air from the outside can help keep mold at bay. When air gets stagnant, humidity levels rise and mold thrives. Getting the air flowing in and through your home will help reduce condensation and will improve your air quality.
Mold prevention is key to a fresh home and fresh clothes
While musty smells sometimes just happen, your best bet is to take proactive measures that keep your home and clothes fresh. Though it may seem like many steps — regular maintenance, using a dehumidifier, cleaning out your washing machine, and wiping down damp surfaces — doing these things upfront takes far less time and (frustration) than trying to remove musty smells.