How To Get Thrift Store Smell Out of Clothes

  • by Reba Collins
How To Get Thrift Store Smell Out of Clothes

Many thrift stores have a distinctive smell when you enter the front door. It’s a smell that reminds you of an old house, somewhere between stale and musty. Sometimes the clothes in those stores have picked up that smell while hanging on the racks or maybe they smelled that way when they arrived. Either way, now you need a way to remove it if you ever want to wear an item purchased there.

Vinegar is one of the best odor fighters when it comes to removing bad smells from clothing. First try adding a cup to your wash. Add it where you normally add the fabric softener. If that doesn’t completely remove the smell, try soaking the item overnight in a bowl with a vinegar solution that is 1 cup vinegar to 1 gallon water.  Then wash as normal.

Clothing from the thrift store doesn’t always smell bad. In fact, most of the time items smell just fine. It seems, at least where I thrift, the clothes move through the store so quickly that they don’t have time to pick up odors from their surroundings. And since most people wash clothes before they donate, smelly clothes just don’t seem to be a problem.

When thrifting I do a fairly good job of checking the condition of the items I buy and one of the conditions I check for is bad smell. But ever so often, I miss it. Just like I sometimes miss rips, tears, and stains, sometimes an item smells bad but not bad enough for me to notice in the store, and then, I need to figure out how to remove that smell.

What Causes That Musty “Thrift Store Smell”?

Musty odors are usually caused by bacteria and sometimes mildew. The smell can be a combination of these and many other things like sweat, oil and smoke. If clothing has been sitting around in a musty house or thrift store, the bacteria causing the smell in the house can settle into the fibers of the clothing.

The longer the clothing is exposed to the bacteria, the harder it is to remove. Cotton and other natural fibers tend to breathe better than synthetic fibers so getting smells out of natural fibers is a bit easier than synthetics like polyester.

Smoke is another smell that sticks to clothing and is sometimes hard to get out. Cigarette smoke has chemicals like tar, oil, and ash, not to mention a ton of other chemicals. All this can be very sticky and if clothing was exposed to cigarette smoke prior to being donated, you might find it in an item you purchased at the thrift store.

Thankfully there are ways to remove these odors. Sometimes it can be hard and you’ll think they will never come out but with a little patience, and sometimes repeated washing, you can usually restore a fresh smell to anything you purchase.

How To Get Thrift Store Smell Out of Clothes - 7 Things to Try

  1. Vinegar. As mentioned at the beginning of this article – vinegar. First add 1 cup to your wash by putting it in the fabric softener cup of the washer. You can also throw a cup of baking soda in the drum. Wash in the hottest water allowed for the fabric, don’t go hotter than recommended by the manufacturer, hot water fades and shrinks. But, do go as hot as allowed.

    If the first wash doesn’t remove the odor, try soaking in a solution of vinegar and water. Mix 1 cup of white vinegar to 1 gallon of water. This doesn’t have to be precise, fill your kitchen sink and ad a cup or two of vinegar depending on how much water you think you have. Soak all day or overnight then wash.
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  2. Lysol Laundry Sanitizer. I swear by this stuff! I wash every piece of thrifted clothing that comes into my house with Lysol Laundry Sanitizer. It comes with or without fragrance, Clean Linen, or Free & Clear. I like the Clean Linen, but if fragrances bother you try the Free & Clear.

    I add about ½ cup to the fabric softener cup of my washing machine and use no softener. It works most of the time, very rarely I will need to wash twice but there are “those” items that are tough to get clean.

    I guess the sanitizer kills the bacteria causing the odor.
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  3. Sunshine. Sunshine is a great cleaner especially for those items that require dry cleaning. Many smells are caused by bacteria and some good hot sunshine will kill the bacteria that causes smells. This method doesn’t work quite as well for cigarette smoke but does help.

    Wait for a sunny day and lay the clothes out flat in a bright sunny area. Let them stay as long as possible, even taking them in at night and replacing them the next day. It can take several days for the sunlight to do its job. Don’t forget to turn them over occasionally.
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  4. Vodka. Yeah! Vodka. I have to be honest, I’ve never tried using vodka but I see it recommended repeatedly in the reseller groups and community. I guess the alcohol kills the bacteria??? I don’t know but if you have an item where the suggestions above didn’t work, maybe give vodka a try.

    Just soak all day or overnight and wash.
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  5. Freezer. Another method I haven’t tried. Just put the item in a plastic bag and put in the freezer for a couple of days then wash. Again, the low temperature kills the bacteria.

  6. Steam. The heat from the steam kills bacteria. Some say steam sanitizes. I find steam alone doesn’t remove smells very well but steaming before you wash may save having to wash twice.
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  7. Activated charcoal. You can buy sachets filled with activated charcoal and hang them in a closet with the clothing. The charcoal will absorb some of the odor. However, it does nothing to remove the bacteria that’s causing the smell, so you will still need to wash to remove the bacteria.

    I’ve heard that clean non-clumping kitty litter contains activated charcoal. To use kitty litter, place a layer of litter in the bottom of a box or container, place the item flat on the litter and then cover with more litter. Let it sit for 24 hours. Remove from litter, ensure you remove all the litter, and wash. For best results, I’d use vinegar or Lysol Laundry Sanitizer in the wash as well.

The best way to ensure your thrifted clothes don’t smell is to check them in the store before you buy them. Believe me, there will always be another cute piece, there is no need to buy items that need a ton of work before you can wear them, just move on to the next piece. But, if you happen to get home and realize the piece you purchased smells terrible, give some of these methods a try, you might be pleasantly surprised.

And by the way, the items you find on our website are ALWAYS washed with Lysol Laundry Sanitizer before we place it for sale. And, if we are unable to remove a bad odor, we don’t sell it. We don’t guarantee it will not have any fragrance, but we do guarantee it will not smell musty. You can buy with confidence and send it back to us if it’s not in the condition we specify on the website.

Do you have another way of getting thrift store smell out of clothes? Leave me a comment below, I love hearing from you and can always learn something new.


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