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It’s amazing when you score a sweet find from a thrift store – especially if it’s vintage, one-of-a-kind, and unique. However, have you ever purchased an item from the thrift store, only to get home and find that it reeks of that “thrift store smell”? Some might describe the smell as “funky,” “musty,” or “sweaty.”

Before you incorporate it into your closet, it needs to be cleaned or deodorized. Why? There’s no telling the history of your items and how clean they are. Thrifted clothes have been exposed to a lot, and it’s hard to say where it’s been over their lifetime.

Nonetheless, cleaning thrift store clothes can be tricky, as these garments often come with their own challenges – from stains and odors to delicate fabrics and unknown histories.

Here are some ways to clean your thrift store finds and eliminate the thrift store smell.

thrift clothes on rack
Image Credit: Hilda Weges | Intreegue Photography via Canva

Before You Clean

It’s important to evaluate the item’s condition before you clean it. That way, you can figure out the best course of action to take when cleaning it. Some fabrics, materials, and even age might require specific type of cleaning technique. That said, here are a few other things to consider before cleaning your second-hand clothes:

Check the label – always check the label or tag of your thrifted clothes for care instructions. The tag will typically provide you with details on how to care for your clothes, including wash instructions and/or dry cleaning.

Do a sniff check – check your thrifted clothing for peculiar smells like smoke or sweat. The type of smell matters, as some will need a special type of cleaning to get rid of the scent.

Do a spot and stain inspection – does your product have any stains? Stains might include unexpected blood, coffee, or normal wear and tear stains. The type of stain will determine the type of cleaning it needs. Most stains can be successfully removed, but the longer a stain sits, the harder it becomes to remove.

Type of fabric – Fabric type matters. A pair of jeans may be able to be washed regularly in a washing machine, while a vintage piece with a more delicate fabric might require special care.

How to Get Odors Out of Thrifted Clothes

1. A good wash

Try washing the item the same way you would your regular clothes. Follow the care instructions first to ensure the item is washable. Use your favorite detergent and give the item a good wash by machine or hand. Try not to add too much detergent as it can leave behind a residue, which can trap odors.

For stronger odors and smells, give it a second wash or leave the item to soak in the washing machine or bucket of water overnight. Use baking soda and vinegar as an alternative to detergent, and then wash it regularly. This should help to eliminate the smell.

If the items are not machine washable or require special care, consider taking them to the dry cleaner.

2. Take it outside 

clothes hanging outside

Sometimes, the thrifted items need to be aired out. Take it outside and allow it to get some sunlight and breeze. The sun has natural deodorizing properties that can help eliminate odors. Leave the item out for a few hours and see what happens. The item likely needs some sun and air to breathe.

This technique is especially great if the clothes have a smoke smell present. Smoke odors from cigarettes or fire burning from a firepit can stick and settle on clothes.

Avoid the dryer, as the odor-producing bacteria on your thrifted clothes will resurge with heat. The extra heat from the dryer will re-activate the odor making the smell worse.  Air drying your clothes outside is one of the best ways to remove odor from clothes.

3. Vinegar spray 

Grab a spray bottle and add water and white vinegar. Spray your thrifted item and let it air dry. Try not to overspray and allow the natural mist to absorb the item.

Since vinegar is multipurpose and known as a natural deodorizer, it should instantly eliminate the odor and remove the musty smell from clothes.

4. Baking soda trick

Sprinkle the baking soda inside or on top of the item. Place the item in a plastic bag and knot it. Let it sit overnight.

The baking soda will absorb the odor and get the smell out of clothes.

5. Wash small loads of clothes

Try not to overfill your washing machine with clothes when doing laundry. An overloaded washing machine will reduce the machine’s ability to clean your clothes effectively.

Wash your clothes in smaller loads for the best results. For items that are thrifted, try washing them together before mixing them with your existing clothes.

6. Dry clothes immediately after washing

Ensure you promptly dry your thrifted garments right after laundering them. If you neglect to attend to damp clothes, bacteria can quickly accumulate, leading to the development or, perhaps more notably, the lingering of unpleasant odors.

7. Steam clean 

If you have a steam cleaner handy, use it on the product to remove the bad smell. A steam cleaner will help to release the odors. Take your time to go over the product a few times for the best results.

8. Essential oil spray

essential oil

Whip up your very own fabric freshener spray using water and a few drops of your favorite essential oils. Essential oils have a ton of benefits, including adding wonderful scents that can be helpful to your clothes.

Just spritz the essential oil mix onto your clothes, and let the aroma work its magic by neutralizing any unwanted odors. Essential oils such as lavender, tea tree oil, peppermint, and eucalyptus are great for getting odor out of clothes and neutralizing the odor.

9. Spray it with vodka

Contrary to popular belief, vodka holds a surprising secret: it’s a true fighter against unpleasant odors. Just grab yourself a spray bottle and fill it with some cheap vodka. Spritz it onto clothes. As the alcohol swiftly evaporates, it carries away those pesky odors, revitalizing your clothes.

10. The power of lemon juice

Like Vinegar, lemon juice can help oust that thrift store smell from your clothes. Begin by diluting fresh lemon juice with an equal amount of water or squeeze the lemon juice directly into the washing machine. Allow the lemon to permeate the fabric.

The acidic properties of lemon juice work wonders in neutralizing odors, leaving behind a refreshing citrus scent revitalizes your thrifted finds.

11. Turn clothes inside out

Before washing your thrifted clothes, turn them inside out for the best results. Since stubborn, smelly bacteria originate from dead skin cells, body oils, and sweat, turning the clothes inside out allows the soiled side of your items to be best penetrated by the cleaning detergent.

For tougher stains and odors, pre-treat the impacted areas, like the armpit areas, with laundry detergent or Shout, laundry stain remover.

12. Use wool dryer balls

Wood dryer balls are an eco-friendly, natural alternative to fabric softeners and dryer sheets. While these dryer balls are meant to keep laundry from clumping in the dryer and boost the drying process, they also make your clothes smell better. This is possible because the dryer balls have the ability to absorb moisture and odor in the dryer.

13. Soak it with Borax

Use your bathtub or a large bucket of water and pour borax into it. Allow your thrifted clothes to soak in the borax water. This borax mixture will remove smells and dirt almost immediately from your clothes.

Why do thrift store clothes smell?

There are many reasons why your thrift store clothes might smell. Here are a few reasons why:

Previous environment – Since thrifted items have been previously owned, they have likely experienced various environments, including workspaces and homes. These environments cause can residues from the surroundings to embed into the fabric.

Storage conditions – There’s no telling how your thrifted item was previously stored. Your thrift clothes may have been stored in conditions with abundant moisture, humidity, or inadequate ventilation. These types of storage conditions can create a breeding ground for musty smells.

Bacteria – Clothes can become a habitat for bacteria due to the body oils and sweat that collect on the fabric, especially in the underarms and private areas. Bacteria flourish in damp environments and feast on your skin cells and hair follicles.

Mildew – Similar to bacteria, mildew can invade almost any surface, thriving in moist surroundings. This fungus-like organism sustains itself on your clothing, causing it to smell.

Thrift Store cleaning process – Not all thrift stores are created the same. The thrift store where you purchase your clothes may determine the condition of your thrift store clothing. The practices at thrift stores may vary, and not all clothes may undergo thorough washing or deodorization before reselling.

Smell sensitivity – Your unique sense of smell may play a role in how you perceive the scent of your clothes. The perception of the “thrift store smell” can vary by person.

used clothes
Image Credit: Massimo Brucci via Canva

How to get musty smell out of clothes without washing?

There are a few ways that you can get the musty smell out of clothes without having to wash them. As listed above, the best ways to get the smell out without washing is by:

  • Taking it outside to get some breeze and sun,
  • Using a vinegar spray
  • Absorbing the smell with baking soda
  • Spraying it with vodka

These are all ways to effectively get rid of smells in clothes without washing them.

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Tamara White is the creator and founder of The Thrifty Apartment, a home decor and DIY blog that focuses on affordable and budget-friendly home decorating ideas and projects. Tamara documents her home improvement journey, love of thrifting, tips for space optimization, and creating beautiful spaces.

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