Musty Smells in Carpeting, Clothes, Shoes, and Cars: Prevention and Remedies

Do you ever notice a musty or mildew smell in your clothes? Or maybe you notice it in carpets or other surfaces around your home?

This is usually a sign of excess moisture. Luckily, there are steps you can take to eliminate the problem.

The information in this article will help you better understand what might cause this smell, and what you can do about it.

Keep in mind, the severity of the problem varies depending on the amount of moisture in the material. There are some cases where it may be necessary to hire professionals to get rid of it.

That said, in many instances, you can easily fix the problem yourself using basic everyday materials. Keep reading to find out how.

What Causes Musty Smell in Clothes?

You expect your clothes to have a pleasant smell when you remove them from the washing machine. After all, that’s one of the main reasons you use detergent, right? Detergent’s main purpose may be to remove dirt and other contaminants, but it’s also supposed to leave your garments smelling fresh. So why do they sometimes smell musty and mildewy after washing?

There are several reasons this can happen. Musty smells tend to be a sign of bacteria or mold spores. The problem is, people often make the mistake of assuming that the inside of a washing machine is naturally clean. They think that the machine essentially cleans itself while also cleaning their garments.

This is not the case.

Mold and bacteria can easily build up in a washing machine over time. There are a few factors that can increase the likelihood of this occurring.


Overuse of detergent is one. This surprises people. It’s natural to assume that detergent will only have a positive impact on the cleanliness of their washing machine.

In truth, however, using too much detergent can damage the machine and make it more prone to mold and bacterial growth.


Using fabric softener that is applied during the rinse cycle (instead of dryer sheets or other substitutes that are used when drying clothes) can also result in a musty smell in your washing machine that can transfer to your clothes when you remove them.

Excess softener that accumulates along the sides of the machine provides a source of food for mold and bacteria. That’s why it may be a good idea to switch to dryer sheets if you’ve noticed this odor emanating from your washer.


You should also make a point of running the machine with warm water every now and then if you primarily use cold water. While cold water can help a machine run more efficiently, hot water is needed to remove the bacteria that contributes to the musty smell. 


This odor can also develop if you go for a long period of time without using the machine. Maybe you went on a long vacation, or maybe you divide your time between different homes.

During the long period of time when the machine isn’t in use, bacteria and mold have a greater opportunity to thrive. Thus, you may want to ask a friend to occasionally run your washing machine if you expect to be away from home for a long time. This helps reduce the odds that mold and bacteria will accumulate.

If you notice this smell in your washing machine, you might also want to contact a specialist to inspect it. Sometimes damage or obstruction of major components like drain pipes could be the culprit. An expert can fix the problem.

Take this opportunity to ask them about maintenance tasks you can perform in the future to ensure the machine stays in the best possible shape.

It’s worth noting that clothes are more likely to pick up or develop a musty smell if you forget to remove them from the washer and allow them to stay damp for a long period of time.

That’s why it’s important that you be ready to take clothes out of the washer and put them into the dryer as soon as the washing process is complete. While this doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to prevent a musty smell, it certainly boosts your odds of avoiding it.

Of course, clothes aren’t the only things in your home that can start to smell like mildew over time. Even materials that don’t have contact with the washing machine can develop this odor.

The information below explains what typically causes these related issues.

How To Prevent Musty Odors in Clothing?


One of the main ways to prevent clothes from developing musty smells is simply to make sure you’re ready to take clothes out of the washing machine and put them in the dryer as soon as the cycle is complete.


Coordinate with an appliance specialist to make sure you’re practicing effective maintenance. Take care of your washing machine, and it’s less likely to become vulnerable to mold and bacteria growth.


Use hot water on occasion, and make sure you have someone run your machine regularly if you expect to be away from it for a long period of time.

Because moisture tends to attract bacteria and mold, you should also make a point of washing damp clothing as soon as possible.


If you got caught in the rain, remove any damp garments as soon as you get home and start washing them. The longer they stay damp, the greater the odds they’ll start to smell.


Some experts also recommend washing any soiled clothing as soon as you can regardless of whether it’s damp. It’s possible for mold to develop as a result of mere food stains.

Remember to follow the directions on the product label to make sure you’re using the appropriate amount of detergent. Using too much can actually make your laundry more vulnerable to mildew smells.

You should also consider adding some white vinegar to the wash as the machine begins to fill up with water. Vinegar has a naturally deodorizing effect.

Sometimes clothes can start to develop a moldy smell if you leave them in the washing machine for too long, but even if they do, you can often remove the smell (and/or prevent it from getting worse) by simply running the laundry through the wash again.

It’s also a good idea to leave the door or lid to your laundry machine open when it’s not in use. If you keep it closed, it will trap in moisture and increase the odds that bacteria or mildew will develop in it.

Leave the door open, and the air will dry out the moisture before they can accumulate.

What Causes a Musty Smell in Carpeting?

A musty odor in your carpeting can be particularly troubling since it’s so difficult to get away from. You don’t want your home to smell unpleasant, but if you don’t know what’s causing the problem, you won’t know what you can do about fixing it.

When carpeting smells like mildew, it’s usually because it’s been exposed to excessive moisture. Mold thrives in moist areas, resulting in the odor.

Again, there are plenty of reasons why your carpeting can become too moist. Obviously, spills can contribute to the problem if the moisture from them seeps below the carpet.

Potted plants kept indoors can also expose your carpeting to moisture. Flooding can do the same. Even humid conditions can result in enough moisture to facilitate the growth of mold.

You may want to contact a mold remediation specialist if you notice this smell. They can check to confirm whether mold is present. Depending on the severity of the problem, it may be necessary to hire an expert to remove it.

Don’t overlook this issue. An unpleasant odor is just one potential side effect of mold. Minor side effects may include headache, skin irritation, and eye irritation.

However, people who are allergic to mold (or who are simply more prone to developing unpleasant symptoms when exposed to it) can experience a wide range of serious side effects, including congestion, difficulty breathing, asthma, nosebleeds, coughs, a sore throat, chest tightness, and even infections of the upper respiratory tract.

These are potentially serious health issues. If a mold remediation specialist or similar professional does find signs of mold in or around your carpeting, take steps to address the issue. The health benefits are worth the cost.

How To Prevent Musty Smells in Carpeting?

Remember, carpeting tends to develop these unpleasant odors when it’s exposed to excessive moisture. That’s why your main goal if you want to prevent these smells should be to keep your carpet as moisture-free as possible.

1. Invest in a Dehumidifier

Humid conditions can contribute to mold growth by exposing your carpeting to too much moisture. That’s why it’s a good idea to purchase a dehumidifier for your home. It’s an especially good idea to install it in areas where you think the surfaces are more likely to be exposed to moisture.

2. Install Ceiling Fans

Although it may not be possible to take this step in every room in your house, you may also want to look into installing a ceiling fan in rooms where the floors are carpeted. Ceiling fans can promote dry conditions and help keep your carpeted surfaces free of unpleasant smells.

3. Fix Plumbing Issues

You should also be proactive about addressing plumbing issues before they become major problems. Small leaks in your plumbing can generate enough moisture that your carpeting will begin to develop a musty odor. Fixing them sooner rather than later will help you avoid the more serious problem of mold growth.

4. Maintain Plumbing Appliances

It’s also important to regularly inspect and maintain your plumbing appliances, from your hot water heater to your laundry machines. If these appliances are damaged or break down, they can send water flooding throughout your home. Preventing all that water from seeping into the carpeting can be a very difficult task.

5. Use Common Sense

Take basic common sense steps as well, like making sure all doors and windows are closed during periods of heavy rain. You may want to look into ways to improve drainage measures on your property to ensure that water is directed away from it.

Keep your rain gutters clean to prevent moisture from seeping in, and make sure downspouts are properly positioned to send rainwater away from the home.

Be careful if you have any sinks or plumbing appliances located near carpeted surfaces. Try not to let water splash or leak onto them. You should also be vigilant about drying up any spills that occur as quickly as possible.

Keep in mind that simply placing a towel over the spill and scrubbing it may not be enough to sufficiently remove all moisture. Luckily, you don’t need to invest in expensive equipment to address this issue.

A simple hair dryer is often enough to help you dry out spills more rapidly before the moisture seeps into the carpeting.

Why Your Car Smells Like Mildew?

Unfortunately, your car can also develop a mildew smell. Again, this is a case in which moisture is likely to blame.

There are a few reasons why excessive moisture can develop in a car.

Humidity is one of them. Just as humidity can lead to a musty smell in carpeting, it can also have the same effect on surfaces in your vehicle.

Spills can also be to blame. If you accidentally left your car windows open during a period of rain, that may be another reason moisture accumulated in the vehicle and attracted mold.

You should also ask an auto repair mechanic to take a closer look at your air conditioning system. Damage to components within the system can result in leaks that may fill your vehicle with moisture.

Because a car typically takes up less space than a large carpeted area, you might feel as though the entire vehicle is affected by the smell. This probably isn’t the case. It’s much more likely that a specific area has been affected.

While the odor itself can waft throughout the entire vehicle, only one area will actually be filled with enough moisture to facilitate mold growth. That’s why it’s a good idea to perform a quick inspection to find out where the smell is emanating from.

Check spots that often get overlooked, like the area where you store a spare tire. You should also check the floor, and beneath the carpeting and mats, as there may be leaks you won’t notice because they’re concealed by these surfaces.

How To Prevent Musty Smells in Your Car?

Preventing musty odors from developing in your car is very similar to preventing them from developing in your carpeting. Again, basic common sense steps, like keeping the windows closed during rainy periods (or during times when you anticipate rain) can go a long way towards keeping your vehicle smelling as fresh as possible.

It’s also a good idea to ask your auto mechanic to look at your air conditioning system during regular inspections. Because leaks can develop in this system, you want to be sure it’s in good condition.

As with your carpeting, make an effort to quickly dry any spills that occur in your vehicle.

Keep in mind that even if you think you’ve taken all steps to keep rain and other sources of moisture out of your vehicle, smaller components may let water in if they fail. Make an effort to ensure rubber trunk sealants, window and door trim, sunroof drains, and windshield trim are all in good condition.

Remember that rain is not the only factor that could expose your vehicle to excess moisture. If you plan on washing your car in the near future, make sure all of the components listed above are in good shape and properly sealed before doing so.

Inspect the interior of your car immediately after washing it to see if there are any areas where too much water soaked into it. Try to dry them as soon as possible. Again, the sooner you dry these surfaces, the better the odds you’ll prevent mold growth.

Ask an automotive specialist to recommend products that aren’t liquid-based if you plan on cleaning the interior of your vehicle. Too many people make the mistake of using liquid-based products when performing this task. They don’t realize that they’re actually making their car much more likely to develop a mildew smell.

You might also want to consider setting aside space in your garage so you have a place to park your car when it’s raining.

Even if you’ve taken steps to make sure all doors and windows are properly sealed, being able to keep your vehicle indoors in rainy conditions simply adds another degree of protection that can be extremely valuable if you’re trying to prevent these odors.

What Causes Shoes to Smell Musty?

Shoes can be especially prone to a musty smell. That’s because they tend to be exposed to a lot of moisture.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that perspiration is to blame when your shoes smell like mildew. Although sweat absolutely can lead to an unpleasant odor in your shoes, it’s usually not the culprit when the smell is mildewy or musty.

That said, there are a lot of other reasons why moisture can accumulate in shoes and attract bacteria and mold.

First, athletic shoes are often stored in areas with excessive levels of humidity, like gym lockers or locker rooms.

Additionally, it can be difficult to protect footwear when you’re walking in the rain. Stepping in a large puddle and waiting too long to let shoes properly dry can definitely contribute to the problem.

All this said, there are definitely steps you can take to prevent these smells from developing in the first place. If they already have developed, you can still clean the affected items and remove the odor.

Information explaining how to do so will come later in the article. In the meantime, consider the following suggestions if you want to avoid odors before they develop.

How To Prevent Musty Smells in Your Shoes?

There are a few different steps you can take to prevent your shoes from developing an unpleasant musty odor. As is the case with other items covered in this article, some of them are common sense.

For instance, if you’re walking in the rain (or if it has rained recently), make an attempt to avoid stepping in puddles as often as possible. Using an umbrella to protect your footwear during periods of heavy rain can also be a good way to keep them from smelling like mildew.

If they do get wet, try to dry them off as soon as possible. This can be as simple as storing them in a non-humid area near a heating source.


Avoid Humid Areas

In general, try not to store your shoes in humid areas if you can avoid it. Again, gym lockers and locker rooms in general tend to expose shoes to excessive moisture.

Consider keeping them somewhere else in your home instead of at the gym if you can. The ideal space should be relatively cool and dry. If the area where you store them has a dehumidifier nearby, even better.


Use Hair Dryer

You might also want to use a hair dryer to speed up the process if you don’t have a strong enough heating source to do the job quickly on its own. That said, while heat can certainly help in the drying process, you don’t want to store your shoes near heat.

It’s also important to remove your shoes as quickly as possible after a run or similar workout. Drying them out fast is key to preventing moisture from accumulating.


Wear Synthetic Socks

Wearing synthetic running socks (instead of cotton ones) will help reduce moisture, as cotton socks tend to hold on to moisture.

People who run or perform other athletic activities should be particularly vigilant about trying to reduce the amount of moisture in their shoes.


Use Baking Soda or Dryer Sheet

For even better results, add a little bit of baking soda to your shoes after working out. Baking soda can absorb excess moisture and help prevent mildew smells.

If you don’t have baking soda on hand, a dryer sheet can also do the trick. Rip one in half and places the halves in your shoes after working out. Leave it there overnight for the best effects.

While all these tips can help you prevent musty smells in clothes, shoes, carpeting, and vehicles, if the odors have already developed, you probably want to know what you can do to get rid of them.

Again, not to worry. This task doesn’t need to be difficult. While you may need to address a more significant problem like mold growth in your home if an expert identifies it, in many cases, you can get rid of these odors using very simple products and methods.

10 Effective Ways to Get Rid of Musty Smell

Consider the following suggestions if you’re struggling to get mildew and musty smells out of any of the items featured in this article.

1. Use Baking Soda

You know how you can use baking soda to prevent your shoes from smelling musty? You can also use it to remove these smells from your clothes.

Just add a little bit into the wash basin the next time you wash your laundry. The proper amount to use will vary depending on the amount of clothes you’re washing and the severity of the odor, so you may have to experiment with different amounts before you get the results you want.

In other words, don’t assume this tactic didn’t work simply because it didn’t completely remove the odor the first time around. Give it a few tries with different amounts of baking soda to find out what works best.

2. Use White Vinegar

Remember earlier in this article, when you were instructed to add white vinegar to a wash if you want to keep your washing machine from passing a musty smell along to your clothes?

As it turns out, white vinegar is also useful if you want to get rid of a mildew smell in your carpeting.

For this remedy, start by finding the area of carpeting where the smell appears to be most noticeable. It may be a good idea to vacuum it first in order to remove any contaminants that may be making the odor worse.

Next, mix about a cup of white vinegar with two cups of warm water. While you may need to use more if you’re cleaning a particularly large area, err on the side of caution when deciding how much vinegar to use in the solution.

Your goal is to get rid of a musty smell. You don’t want to replace it with the overwhelming smell of excessive vinegar.

Fill up a spray bottle with the solution. Spray the affected area, then cover it with baking soda. In this case, you can use what might seem like an excessive amount. The baking soda won’t cause any damage. Allow the carpet to thoroughly dry. The baking soda should also absorb a lot of the moisture. Once it has, simply vacuum it up.

Remember that mold may have already begun to develop and thrive if your carpet was exposed to large amounts of moisture. Even if the carpet itself isn’t home to significant amounts of mold, the surfaces beneath it or surrounding it could be.

Thus, while this method should help you remove the odor, get in touch with a professional if it comes back. You may need to have mold thoroughly removed.

3. Use Vinegar on Other Surfaces

Your carpet isn’t the only place where you can use white vinegar to remove an unpleasant musty odor.

The solution described in the remedy above can also be applied to surfaces in your car, as well as your shoes.

Simply adjust the steps according to what you’re treating. For instance, odds are good you won’t need as much baking soda to remove an odor from your car or shoes, as you’re unlikely to be treating an area of the same size.

4. Shop Vacuum Your Car

If you catch a mildew smell in your car relatively early, before excessive amounts of bacteria have the opportunity to thrive, you can remove the moisture that’s causing it with a shop vacuum. This is a smart investment if you’re worried about these odors developing in your vehicle.

If the moisture is spread throughout the vehicle, and you don’t believe you’ll be able to effectively remove it on your own, you may want to park your car in a sunny area, leaving the doors and windows open for a while.

The sun can assist in drying out the moisture and removing unwanted smells from the vehicle. Simply airing it out and letting it dry in the sun is often an effective way to prevent and remove musty smells.

5. Wash Your Shoes

Many people don’t realize that it’s entirely possible to wash certain pairs of shoes. Doing so can be a simple but effective way of removing mildew smells.

That said, not every pair can be washed. Even those that can typically need to be washed in a particular way to avoid damaging them and/or your washing machine.

That’s why it’s important to consult the manufacturer’s instructions before attempting to do so. These may be listed on a tag inside the shoes. If not, do some research online or contact the manufacturer directly in order to find out what you can do to wash your shoes safely.

6. Dry Clothes in the Sun

Again, keeping clothes dry and removing moisture is key to preventing and getting rid of musty smells. That’s the main reason it’s important to dry your clothes as soon as you’re done washing them.

However, if the dryer itself isn’t effective, you should try drying your clothes in the sun instead.

This doesn’t simply remove moisture. Sunlight can actually be effective at killing the types of microbes that could otherwise make your clothes smell mildewy. Give this method a shot if traditional drying methods haven’t worked.

7. Use Cat Litter to Absorb the Smell from Carpets

This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, you want to remove an unpleasant smell from your carpeting. The problem is, many people find the smell of cat litter to also be unpleasant. Why would you use it to get rid of a musty odor?

The simple answer is that cat litter is actually very effective at absorbing odors. That’s one of its main functions, after all. The temporary unpleasant smell it may add to a room could be worth the results.

Just make sure you’re not applying cat litter directly on the affected area. While you could clean it up, doing so may be more of a hassle than you wish.

Instead, put cat litter into a container (or several, depending on the size of the space you’re trying to clean) and place the containers/containers near the affected area. Leave the open containers there and replace them with fresh litter on a regular basis. Over time, they should absorb the odor sufficiently.

You can also use this method to remove the odor from surfaces in your car. Of course, you don’t want to drive around with open containers of cat litter in your vehicle, so this method is best if you have another vehicle you can use in the meantime.

You can even use cat litter to remove unpleasant odors from shoes. That said, you probably don’t like the idea of filling up your shoes with litter directly. Luckily, you don’t have to. You can fill up a pair of socks (try to find a strong pair that won’t let too much litter leak into the shoes) and place them in the shoes overnight. The cat litter should absorb the odor.

8. Use Charcoal Briquette

Did you know that the same kind of charcoal briquets you might use when grilling food can also be used to remove unwanted musty odors from shoes? They’re natural deodorizers that are often very effective at absorbing unwanted smells.

This remedy is very simple. All you have to do is place a couple briquettes in a pair of socks and place the socks in the shoes, leaving them there overnight. This is often an easy but powerful way to combat musty smells.

If you don’t have any charcoal briquettes on hand, consider stuffing your shoes with newspaper instead. This can have the effect of absorbing moisture and removing odors.

Get Rid of a Musty Odor in Your Car with Laundry Detergent

Remember, one of the simplest ways to remove a musty odor from clothes is simply to run them through the washing machine a second time around. Thus, it makes sense that you could also use laundry detergent to get the same unpleasant odors out of surfaces in your vehicle.

  • Mix approximately two tablespoons of laundry detergent with eight ounces of water and add the solution to a spray bottle
  • Spray the affected area with the solution liberally. Wait a few minutes so it sets in. 
  • Once it has, use a cloth to blot the area.

There will likely be some moisture left over. This could lead to more unwanted smells in the future if left unaddressed. That’s another good reason to purchase a shop vacuum.

You can use it to remove any excess moisture that wasn’t removed from blotting the affected area.

Remove Mildew Smells from Shoes with Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil is a natural ingredient that has many potential applications. Thanks to its pleasing scent, it can be particularly effective at removing unpleasant odors.

This is another fairly simple remedy. All you have to do is mix two teaspoons of tea tree oil with two cups of warm water in a spray bottle.

Spray the insides of your shoes fairly liberally with the solution, then leave them out to dry. The tea tree oil should help remove the mildew smell easily.


Don’t have any tea tree oil?

While this item is relatively easy to find in stores or order online, in the meantime, you may be looking for a way you can get rid of unpleasant odors in your shoes as soon as possible. If so, tea bags can also be very effective.

On top of that, using them to get rid of musty smells in shoes is extremely simple. Just put dry tea bags in your shoes and leave them there until the odor goes away. This method may not require a lot of effort, but it often works surprisingly well.

Final Words

Again, while there are plenty of steps you can take to avoid developing musty smells in your clothes, carpeting, shoes, and vehicle, it may be too late for that. This doesn’t mean you need to get rid of your clothes or accept that your carpet and car are going to smell bad.

Using simple methods and ingredients, you can get rid of musty smells for good. Keep these tips in mind in order to so.


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