Perma-Smell in Clothing Is a Real Thing, and Here’s How to Vanquish It

We need to talk about a terrible affliction, one you may have noticed on your most reliably flattering scoop-neck, or those yoga shorts that feel like putting your legs in nylon clouds. Yes, we're talking about perma-smell, the unshakeably musky, sweaty, whatever-it-is scent that has marked itself on your most beloved garments. If you've noticed a smell in your clothes after washing (and washing and washing and washing), you may be wondering: what gives, and how can I best get rid of it?

Well, fabrics just have a love for absorbing certain scents, either because they're being worn out or overworked, or because they're being exposed to something extremely pungent.

"Odors found on textiles are caused by people’s bodies or their environment," says Katie Brown, owner of Rytina Fine Cleaners. "Body odor is the result of perspiration encountering the bacteria on our skin and then absorbed into fibers. Sautéing garlic or a smokey fireplace are examples of environmental odors that are absorbed into textiles. Once the odor encounters fibers, there's a scientific bonding that occurs that can be difficult to reverse."

That really sucks, especially when we're talking about a beloved piece of clothing, like grandma's (musty) gorgeous wedding dress, the (overly perfumed) shirt you lent your sister, or your ex-lover's sweater that very distinctly smells of eggplant parm and broken promises. And while just about all fibers absorb order to some degree, there are some items that are going to be naturally prone to sucking up smell.

"Natural fibers made from cotton are the easiest to wash as they release odorous substances more easily during the cleaning process," says Brown. "Polyester, an oil-based fiber, is extremely likely to hold onto bad odors. Similarly, today’s exercise clothes are commonly made from synthetic fibers. Our perspiration absorbs into these fibers, and over time is difficult to remove."

That means that you want always check the care label and wash your exercise clothes especially after every work out. And pay attention to the clothes where you're probably perspiring the hardest.

"Turning clothes inside out and pretreat areas such as underarms, wash according to the care label, and keeping up with your laundry is essential to preventing permanent odor buildup," says Brown. "The more you wear and use your garments, the more likely your clothes will suffer from permanent odor damage."

But okay, let's say you're not like me—a literal gross troll who never washes her bra—and are doing your due diligence on the laundry front. You've done everything by the books, you've cleaned this piece a million times, and it still absolutely reeks. In this scenario, you might want to call in reinforcements.

"Ozone air purifiers are successful at deodorizing bad smells," says Brown. "Ozone takes oxygen and gives it an electrical charge. When this charge hits molecules of the pollutant, it eliminates odors. Ideally, it's better to find a professional dry cleaner who can do this for you."

So maybe that beloved-but-stinky garment can still be saved. Godspeed to you in your quest to vanquish the perma-smell.

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