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How To Get The Smell Out Of Dish Cloths

Updated on July 4, 2022 by Joseph D. Nielson

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Happy woman in a spotless white kitchen uses her best dish cloths to wipe the stove

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re entertaining guests tonight. Some friends (or worse, in-laws) are coming for dinner, and you want the kitchen and dining table to be fresh and spotless.

As you clean up the kitchen, however, you notice a funny thing happening. Despite all your rubbing and scrubbing, the kitchen isn’t smelling any fresher. In fact, it smells worse than before!

The likely culprit in these cases is a smelly dish cloth. But don’t panic. There are a few steps you can take before your guests arrive to sanitize, sterilize and freshen even the grungiest kitchen dish cloths. Below, we explore a few ways to prevent and address dish cloth odors so you can maintain a fresh and clean smell in your home.

How to Prevent Dish Cloth Odors

As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In this case, a few precautionary measures help you avoid smelly dish cloths in the first place.

First, a short science lesson. What causes unwanted odors in the first place? How do innocuous liquids go from being essentially odorless when you wipe them up to smelling like death warmed over just a few hours later? The answer – it may come as no surprise to home cleaning aficionados – has to do with bacteria.  

Let’s put ourselves in the mind of a bacterium. Bacteria like to eat whatever organic material they can find: food particles, dead skin particles, household starches, etc. Most of the time, their feeding goes relatively unnoticed, since it happens in dry environments where their numbers are controlled. You see, bacteria need a warm, moist environment to proliferate, otherwise they stagnate in numbers.

A dirty dish cloth is the perfect environment for bacteria. Think about it; it’s wet, warm, and covered in micro-particles of dander, kitchen spills, grease, etc. It’s like the land of plenty for bacteria, who breed, eat and eventually die. It’s this last process that causes odor. That musty, sour dish cloth smell is caused by millions of bacteria dying and decomposing. We know: it’s super gross!

Young woman pulls smelly dish cloths from the washing machine

Now that you know the causes, you’ll have a better understanding of solutions. To prevent dish cloth odors, you can try:

  • Rinsing your cloths thoroughly after each wipe. Think of this as washing off all the excess bacteria hitching a free ride on your dish cloth.
  • Hanging them to dry after rinsing, ensuring that the cloth gets lots of air circulation. The goal here to create a dry, unhospitable environment so bacteria won’t multiply.
  • Using silicone sponges to wipe up instead of fabric cloths. Silicone creates kitchen sponges that don’t smell since it is non-porous and non-absorptive. There’s nowhere for bacteria to call home!
  • Keeping kitchen dish cloths in the freezer, which inhibits bacterial growth. Store wrung-out kitchen dish cloths in a Ziploc bag, folded neatly and separated for easy access.
  • Using disposable dish cloths. They aren’t very eco-friendly. But if you have sensitive or potentially biohazardous messes to clean (pet vomit, toddler “accidents,” etc.), disposable dish cloths are good to have on hand.
  • Routinely following the tips below. The tips in this article aren’t just for smell emergencies! Incorporate these tips into your regular kitchen practice to help prevent that sour, unpleasant odor from ever rearing its ugly head.

Now, let’s assume that you’ve come to this article with a smelly dish cloth. You’ve dried rinsing it and wringing. You may have even run it through the washing machine – to no avail. Follow these simple tips to free your dish cloths of unpleasant odors.

Smell-Busting Tip #1: Vinegar

Vinegar is highly acidic. No living thing on earth can live in a highly acidic environment – not you or I, not plants or animals, and certainly not bacteria. It’s one of the reasons that vinegar makes such a vigorous cleaning product. You can find lab-designed cleaning products with twenty ingredients, but it’s hard to beat natural, old-fashioned vinegar.

To get the smell out of your dish cloths, submerge your dish cloth in vinegar and leave it to soak for around 20 minutes, before transferring it to the washing machine. (You don’t want a lingering smell of vinegar). Dry immediately and thoroughly to ensure no remaining surface bacteria can multiply.

Alternately, you can boil your dish cloths in a solution of water, vinegar and dish soap; the mixture of high heat, acid and grease-busting dish detergent will force any lingering bacteria and food particles from the cloth. A gallon of water to a half-cup vinegar, with a couple teaspoons of soap – that should do the trick! Apply the same subsequent procedure as above and run the cloths through the washing machine.

Please note: avoid using vinegar on cleaning instruments with metal. Recently, we posted a collection of drill brush reviews for cleaning hard-to-reach nooks. For drill brushes, and any other cleaning tools with metal, simply use hot water (or water with gentle soap). Vinegar can be corrosive to metal.

A collection of natural cleaning products, like vinegar and fresh lemon, sit on a stone countertop

Smell-Busting Tip #2: The Microwave

If you can’t blast the bacteria with acidity, blast them with heat! Microwaves are the perfect odor-busting appliance because they apply a fast, dielectric heat that simultaneously cooks and dehydrates objects. Put your dish cloths and sponges in the microwave for 30 seconds to a minute. Even the best dish sponge can benefit from a little “heat therapy”!

Microwaves don’t just kill bacteria; the USDA found that microwaves were effective in eliminating >99% of bacteria, yeast and mould particles from kitchen sponges and cloths. Essentially, the intense heat of the appliance sterilizes your kitchen dish cloths of any unwanted microorganisms.

Please note: Per the Guardian, it’s possible that dish cloths in the microwave may start a fire, depending on the cloth material. Please approach this method cautiously, starting with just a few seconds of zapping, and then more if needed. And always be around to supervise.

Smell-Busting Tip #3: Heavy Duty Cycle

If you don’t own a microwave – and you don’t want your home smelling like boiling vinegar – you have a third, more discreet option.

Run your dish cloths through the hottest heavy-duty cycle of your washing machine. Add a cup of white distilled vinegar during the rinse cycle to ensure a complete sterilization of your dish cloths. Set a timer for your washing machine because you want to pull the cloths out as soon as they’re finished. Letting them stagnate in water can cause them to smell musty all over again.

Immediately transfer the cloths to the dryer and run them through the highest setting. If you don’t own a dryer, hang-dry the cloths immediately, preferably in the sun, which is also a fantastic disinfectant.

Please note: never mix bleach products with vinegar. The combination can create potentially dangerous chlorine gas.

So, there you have it! Crisis averted. With a simple solution of vinegar, a quick spin around the microwave, or a heavy-duty ride through the washing machine, your kitchen dish cloths will come out smelling like new. You can get on with cleaning your kitchen and dining room. And your guests will be none the wiser!

About Joseph D. Nielson

Former journalist and editor for various press groups, I now dedicate my time to reviewing products for the home and family life. When I get time to myself, I enjoy rock climbing, taking my dirt bike for a rip, and most importantly providing my family with the best home possible!