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12 Ways to Remove Scent from Thrift Store Clothes

Is there a way to remove lingering scent from thrifted clothes? It is a well-discussed question.

The short answer is maybe.

Why maybe? Well, it all depends on the type of fabric and the product used to infuse that scent into the clothes. Since we have no way of knowing what product was used, it may be necessary to layer solutions to get the result you need. In some cases, the scent will not completely come out, but it may reduce to a tolerant level.

The most common scents trapped in second-hand clothes are:

  • Strong laundry detergents, scent beads, and dryer sheets or fabric softener
  • Perfume
  • Body odor
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Mustiness from mildew
  • Mothballs
  • Food smells, like grease

Here are the methods I’ve used to help reduce and even eliminate smells from thrift clothing!

[UPDATE November 5, 2023]

After writing this post, I’ve tried a few more tactics to remove the scent from two pieces of clothing I bought from the thrift store which had a super strong laundry soap scent lingering from whoever washed these clothes before I bought them.

Only one thing, the one thing I did NOT want to use, helped to minimize the scent to the point where I could only smell it up close. Fortunately, the scent of the shirt no longer fills the room!

  1. Sunshine for 4 days did not work.
  2. Vinegar soak covered in baking soda paste for 2 days did not work.
  3. Borax soak for 2 days did not work.
  4. Bleach soak for 2 days minimized the scent.

I do not like using bleach. We keep a small bottle with our emergency hurricane supplies. So I soaked the clothing in bleach for two days and that was the only thing that made a slight improvement to remove the heavy perfume scent in these clothes. It is not the solution I was hoping for and the bleach did not completely remove the laundry perfume odor but it made the item ‘tolerable’ to wear.

I hope this update is helpful if you are also struggling to remove the heavy scent from clothing typically caused by heavily fragranced laundry soap, laundry scent beads, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets. If you have found a solution to this problem, please share your solution with me! I don’t want to stop buying second-hand clothes.

[End of update]

THE PROBLEM

What worries me about the heavy lingering scent in thrifted clothes is that the scent is a result of remaining chemical residue and it can continue to leech out over time, especially as we sweat in the clothes. It is a good reminder that any scent that lingers beyond the washing and electric drying cycle is a chemical that is not good for our health, especially when we wear those chemicals every day, for years and years. The scent can only last that long because they are chemically engineered to do so, and the only type of long-lasting scent molecules are synthetic and harmful to health.

Just like eating bad food every day, exposure to these chemicals builds up in the body over time and can wreak havoc on the inside.

If you are a person who prefers unscented laundry soap or simply cannot tolerate the heavy perfume smells of scent beads, laundry products like laundry detergent with artificial fragrance, and dryer sheets, buying clothes from a second-hand store can be a struggle.

I know because I am sensitive to heavy scent too, which is why I am writing this article hoping to shed some light on the solutions. I wrote an informative post about the dangers of synthetic fragrance with studies to back it up if you want to learn more about it. Click HERE

Thrift store clothes can hold an overwhelming scent, especially when the person who donated the clothes used one or more of the previously mentioned laundry products. The combination of those products can drive the scent deep into the fabrics. To each their own scent, but the chemicals used to produce these strong scents are meant to permanently adhere to fibers and can take some serious work to remove them.

THE SAVINGS

Do you buy thrift clothes? There is a lot of talk about how buying thrifted clothes keeps the clothes waste from going to the landfill, and that’s great! But that’s not what drives me to thrift for clothes. My drive— saving cashola!

Ok, yes, the eco-girl in me loves the fact that I can give clothes a longer life, keeping more stuff out of our overflowing landfills. But I honestly love the money savings I get from secondhand clothes. Firsthand clothes can be so expensive!

I thrifted these TWO new gym outfits for a total of $11.00 !💪

Why would I spend $40+ on an outfit to wear to the gym when I can get one just as cute from my local thrift store?

No matter your reason for purchasing second-hand clothes, whether it’s the savings, the eco-angle, or supporting your local community, you will inevitably come across a stinky garment at some point, so it’s important to know how to get thrift store smell out of clothes.

THE SOLUTIONS

Two of the items smell like unreasonably heavy laundry soap scent. I assume some sort of scent beads. You know, the “Mountain Rain” or “Spring Flower” overpowering scent. I really, really, REALLY dislike that smell!

I hoped after a few wears and washes, the scent would fade, but it hasn’t. Yesterday, my husband washed his workout clothes with these new-to-me workout clothes and now HIS CLOTHES have the same strong perfume scent. UGHHH!

Here are the top 10 solutions for how to get detergent smell out of clothes. Most of these I received from Tangie followers and a couple I found online and plan to try in order to remove the scent booster smell from clothes. They should also be effective for smells caused by things like smoke, food, mildew, and body odor.

  1. Booze
    Fill a spray bottle with cheap vodka or plain grain alcohol, spray the fabrics well on both sides then allow the garment(s) to completely air dry.
    If you’re wondering how to get the perfume smell out of clothes, some people have had success by using isopropyl alcohol. Just be sure that alcohol won’t damage the fabric! Certain materials like wool, silk, acetate, rayon, and acrylic fibers can be damaged by the harsh alcohol.
  2. Sun Treatment
    Hang the item(s) in the sun for a couple of days.
  3. Classic Vinegar Soak
    Soak the clothes in vinegar and water then wash with added baking soda.
  4. Baking Soda Bath
    Cover the perfumy clothes with baking soda and enclose them in a container for a few days then wash.
  5. Baking Soda Soak
    Try soaking your clothes in 1 cup dissolved baking soda for several hours or overnight then wash with some white vinegar in the fabric softener compartment. If you can pause the last part of the wash cycle, pause it for an hour, then let the wash finish. You may need to do it a few times before it gets the perfume smell out completely.
  6. Washing Soda
    Use a cup of washing soda (not baking soda) for a full load of laundry in hot water.
  7. Coffee Refresher
    Try putting the smelly clothes in a zip lock and make a parcel of coffee grounds in a filter (unused) so you don’t cover the clothes in coffee.
  8. 20 Mule Team
    Soak the items in a Borax solution then wash as usual.
  9. Simply Wait
    Let the clothes air outside your drawers for a while to let them breathe and not stink up the clothes in your drawers and/or closet. You can keep them somewhere where the smell won’t bother you, but ensure that they are in an environment that won’t make new bad smells, like a musty attic.

Here are some other solutions to smelly clothes problems caused by things like smoke and body odor, however, these methods may not be the most helpful for heavy laundry soap scents.

  1. Essential Oils
    Some essential oils like cedar, rosemary, peppermint, lemon, clove, and cinnamon may be strong enough to overpower the smell on the clothes. It won’t get rid of the existence of the chemical smell, but may be able to mask it, while allowing you to wear the clothes so you work on getting the embedded scent molecules out through multiple washes between wears. Just be mindful not to put the oils directly ON the clothes, as they can leave an oil mark. Try putting the oils on a cloth or cotton ball and putting it with the clothes in a closed container for a few days.
  2. Freezer
    For bacterial smells like body odor, you can reduce or eliminate the bacteria by putting the garment in the freezer for a few days, which should kill quite a bit of the bacterial colony. Then, wash the item to get the dead bacteria out of the fabric.
  3. Boil
    Oppositely, you can boil clothes that are safe in hot water (ie NOT synthetic, plastic fabrics like polyester) to kill bacteria. Use a large soup pot and boil enough water to cover the clothes (it’s best to do one garment at a time, for safety!). Boil and stir for at least 5 minutes. Let the water cool down so you can safely remove the wet item. Then, either let it air dry or pop it in the washing machine.
    This method could possibly help reduce the scent of laundry soap by destroying the scent molecules with high heat.

If you’re having trouble getting results with these methods, try adding in some good old-fashioned elbow grease. For example, after letting your item soak in vinegar, try scrubbing the cloth with baking soda either with a scrubbing brush or by rubbing the fabric against itself (just be sure your scrubbing method won’t damage the fabric).

Looking for ways to remove stains? Check out our articles about stain removal here and here!

By manually forcing the vinegar and baking soda through the fabric, the friction might help remove more of the scent molecules than soaking and swishing alone.

Have any of these options worked for you?

I am currently testing my newly thrifted workout clothes with options #2 and #4 in hopes the overpowering perfume scent goes away!
I will post an update to this article soon.

Thanks for reading.
Xoxo Angie

Author:

Angie Ringler

A lifelong learner with an entrepreneurial spirit long before I knew the word entrepreneurial. I spend too much time reading labels, researching ingredients, and I enjoy cooking, writing, traveling, and listening to live music. I am a woman who believes in gratitude, love, and respect.

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