I love buying used clothes. It helps give clothes more life before ending up in the landfill, and it’s easy on the wallet. But there’s a big downside, particularly if you’re scent sensitive…
The fabric softener smell that just won’t quit. (Here’s why this is a problem.)
This question comes up a lot in my Green Product Forum Facebook Group and gets lots of helpful suggestions so I wanted to compile them in a single spot in case you’re also having a hard time with this!
If you struggle with MCS or more severe allergies, buying clothes that have fabric softener may not be an option at all. But for anyone else, if you’re willing and able to put in extra effort and time, the smell will eventually dissipate.
I’ve tried a range of strategies, and have found some clothes easier to deodorize than others. I’ve decided it depends which fabric softener was used – I have had a mix of success using the same methods on different clothes so it can be a lot of trial and error to find something that works.
Time and lots of washes seems to be the only constant.
Vinegar soaks, baking soda/borax/soap stripping, baking soda in wash, vinegar in wash, outside drying…. they all help to varying degrees but I’ve had some clothes that are still very stubborn.
Sometimes the smell will be from residual laundry detergent, which will be easier to get rid of. Fabric softener is most stubborn as it actually coats the clothes with chemicals that are designed to stay put.
Best Ways to Get Fabric Softener Smell out of Clothes
Remember, there isn’t a magic bullet solution here. It might take some trial and error to find the right strategy depending on what fabric softener or laundry soap was used.
Here’s a run-down of some of the most commonly recommended ways to get that fabric softener smell out of used clothes.
1. Baking Soda Soak + Vinegar Pre-wash
This works best for mildly scented fabrics, I don’t find it successful for strong fabric softener.
1. Soak the clothes in a bucket of warm water with a healthy amount of baking soda – say, 1 cup for a handful of clothing items – for a few hours or overnight.
2. Rinse well with cold water.
3. Then, run a wash cycle with prewash and add 1 cup of vinegar to the pre rinse dispenser. Use your normal green laundry soap (I like Eco-Max or homemade). Use cold or warm water.
2. Laundry Stripping Method
This helps with the more stubborn odours, but isn’t fail-safe. You can Google “Laundry Stripping” and get all sorts of laundry magic/horror stories (the colour of water after doing this is pretty gross, sometimes it is set grime, sometimes it’s just dyes from the fabric). Here’s how I do it:
1. Add the clothes and the following to a laundry sink:
- 1/4 cups baking soda (or washing soda)
- 1/4 cup borax
- 1/2c laundry soap or 1/4c liquid castile soap
OR simply add my homemade laundry soap powder.
2. Soak 4-12 hours, stirring occasionally.
3. Rinse well.
4. Machine with warm water and give it an extra rinse.
5. You can try vinegar in the rinse cycle as well.
The key is to keep washing/rinsing before running it through the dryer as that can “set” the smell further. Hanging outside in the sun also helps. Here’s a little tidbit from our Community Manager, Samantha:
“The most luck I’ve had with this issue is lots of sun and fresh air (days even). I usually wash and then hang out in the sun and just leave them out there for a few days (even if it rains!).”
Tips from the Green Product Forum Community
My Facebook Group, the Green Product Forum, is a wealth of information (join us here). There are lots of other helpful suggestions that have popped up when this question is asked, so I wanted to share a few in case they help:
- Soak with fruit and veggie wash to help break down the chemicals used to fuse the fragrance to the fabric (from Naomi)
- Put the clothes in the freezer for a couple of days (from Diane).
- Charlie’s Laundry Powder (suggested by Carol and Alexandra; only in Canada and I haven’t vetted ingredients myself, but you can use the label-reading guide here to help).
Pack Your Patience & Communicate
Some clothes will take a LOT of effort to get the smell out. You might find it’s just not worth it, and that’s OK.
If you’re buying clothes second hand from a retailer, talk to them about the problem and encourage them to skip the fabric softener.
If you’re arranging to collect hand-me-downs from a friend or family member, speak to them first about washing and ask them either to skip the fabric softener, or let them know you’re happy to wash them after you pick them up.
Do you have other ways to get fabric softener smell out of clothes?
Share them with us over in the Green Product Forum Facebook Group! Click here to join.