When Drycleaning Just Doesn’t Help

drycleaning doesnt workReader E has a fabulous question that we have always wondered about…

I just got some dresses back from the cleaner – a good one that I’ve been using for years – and noted that the underarm areas smelled less than fresh. What can I do about this, short of sending the dresses back to the cleaner (and possibly having them no fresher)? I’ve been trying to switch to washable shirts – detergent + Oxy Clean do a better job of getting rid of the stink. But meanwhile, what of the dresses?

Honestly, we’ve had this problem also, and don’t know what to say. (Pictured:  Stinky Bklyn, originally uploaded to Flickr by abbyladybug.) We’ve taken them back to the drycleaner, sprayed Febreeze, and more. We almost worry that once the clothes have been drycleaned the stink is, well, stuck on them.  We wish we could say the problem were limited to some particular fabric, but we’ve noticed it with natural fibers as well as polyester.  Perhaps there’s a secret trick we’re missing that a reader can clue us in on?

The best advice we can offer is to let your clothes airdry completely between wearings.  Hang them up outside the closet before you put them away, and do the same before you take them to the drycleaner.

But readers, we’re really curious — any other tips?



  1. for clothes you can wash – even by hand – tide w/febreeze can get out the smelliest of smells, even from weeks old workout clothes.

  2. divaliscious11 :

    There is also another detergent or add in for smelly athletic clothes that does wonders…I’ll find it and post.

    • It’s called Win Detergent. I used it several years ago but wasn’t impressed.


      • There are more “athletic” detergents on the market today than there used to be, which is good. Win is no longer the only option, although I’ve used it and thought that it was decent. The thing is that these are intended to be used specifically on moisture wicking clothing…. so I’m not sure that they are going to work that well on regular work-wear.

      • divaliscious11 :

        No, not WIN, its called sports suds or something like that….

    • Whenever my athletic clothes are getting stinky, I just put about 1/2 c vinegar (in addition to my regular detergent) in the washer with them and let the clothes soak in that for 30 minutes before I close the lid to start the actual washing cycle.

      • Vinegar is amazing as a cleaning/deodorizing agent. I use it to clean up dog messes and it works wonders.

  3. I just had this happen with my favorite jacket!
    I am at a loss. I usually don’t have a problem with my dry cleaner so I hesitate to assume it’s them & bring it back for a re-do.
    I have heard of new drycleaners that actually follow a wet cleaning method & wonder if that might do the trick.

    Meanwhile, back to febreeze & hanging my clothes on the balcony, with my fingers crossed, it is!

  4. Anonymous :

    I use Nature’s Miracle and keep it in a little spray bottle under the bathroom sink so I can spray problems as they come up.


    I originally got it because I have a cat but have found that it works great on all sorts of stains and odors, even those not from pets.

    • Wow, that’s a great idea. I might give that a try.

    • OdoBan is a very similar product that is about half the cost of Nature’s Miracle. My SO and I buy it in big jugs at Sam’s Club for around 12 bucks, then it lasts forever because you use it diluted with water in the spray bottle that comes with. We used to use Nature’s Miracle when we first got a puppy, but now we swear by OdoBan.

  5. Aside from the smell problem, for the past few trips to the dry cleaners I literally cannot see or smell a difference in my suits when I get them back. And I tried more than 1 cleaners. They have also been unsuccessful in removing some stains. I fear they are not doing anything over there – just returning them pressed on hangers, not actually cleaning my clothes.

    My question is: How can you tell if they actually “dry cleaned” your clothes? And how can you tell if they actually tried to remove a stain (but were nevertheless unsuccessful)?

    • Whenever my dry cleaner can’t get a stain out, they alway note it on a piece of paper pinned to the garment. The next time you have a stain on something, you might try pointing it out specifically…if they don’t get it out AND don’t say anything about not getting it out, I would switch cleaners.

    • I too have had this sneaking suspicion that they do nothing at all out there…

    • Experienced :

      I had this issue with one cleaner. When I complained after about the 3rd time, the cleaner insinuated that I might have a problem! Needless to say, I’ve not returned there. I researched this problem after that embarrassing exchange, and found the following: 1) you are supposed to seek a dry cleaner with an “ozone” room. -I’ve not found a dry cleaner that knows what this even is in my town! However I do go to a better quality, more expensie cleaners now; 2) Tried hand washing the underarms in a vinegar and water solution -this helps a little. 3) Tried airing out the jackets and this helps a little; 4) Tried Frebreeze, and it helps a little. In short, I’ve gained a little ground, but not solved the problem.

      Thinking of getting “inserts” for the jackets. In the winter, I will often wear a very light v-neck t shirt under my shirt, which does the trick. I’ll be interested to hear other solutions! I wonder how much of the “stink” issue is modern fabrics. I had a favorite workout tshirt that had to be tossed -it was some type of blend.

  6. I thought I’d read about this trick here, but maybe it was Real Simple. Put 4 parts vodka to one part water in a spray bottle. Spray on stinky area. Repeat multiple times if necessary. Worked like a charm on a blazer, not so well on a synthetic/silk wrap dress (but then I washed the dress, figuring I’d been planning on throwing it out, and it now smells and looks amazing). Apparently Broadway costume masters swear by it.

    • Little Lurker :

      They absolutely swear by it. (I don’t know any Broadway wardrobe masters, but I do know professional ones, and these tricks do, in fact, “trickle down”.)

      Vodka works great on color stains as well, if you’re willing to let it sit and then rub gently.

      And, of course — onstage, nobody is going to care about how you smell. Make sure to wash/air out any vodka-treated clothing before you wear it to work!

    • I tried the vodka trick on a couple of Dvf tops that I wanted to wear 2x before cleaning (I wear a cami beneath them). Worked like a charm! I didn’t dilute it though, and used a spray (like you’d spray perfume). No smells at all, and no vodka smell either:)

      Maybe a trick to try pre- dry cleaning?

      • Oh, and since we’re talking dry cleaning, just want to say that I took the Woolite idea someone mentioned a while ago (soak 2 mins, lay flat to drip dry), and have washed 2 DvF tops so far and 1 raw silk blouse.

        So far, so good…

        Thanks to whoever mentioned the vodka + Woolite suggestions!

    • Does it matter what kind of vodka you use? i.e. a more expensive versus cheap kind

      • Probably just a simple, average one like Smirnoff would work best. Some of the name brand high-end ones (esp. Grey Goose) are kind of “gloopier” than others.

      • No Grey Goose needed; cheaper is better in this case – and apparently rubbing alcohol is NOT a substitute because there are additives.

        • You don’t want to use rubbing alcohol because it has acetone in it, and that will eat away at the fabric. Instead, get lab grade ethenol from a lab supply store (in person or online). That will be more pure than the vodka, and as an aside, is a nice thing to use for your counter tops since unlike most disinfectants (Lysol, rubbing alcohol, bleach, etc) it all evaporates and isn’t toxic, and therefore doesn’t need to be rinsed before it comes in contact with food.

    • I swear by vodka! Air it out in the sun though, or you’ll smell like a lush.

  7. Baking soda? After last wear before dry cleaners, sprinkle in the offending areas to sit. Leave out in open area. Shake well before handing to dry cleaner. If it’s washable, a spray of vinegar and water in the area before putting in the machine and always, 2 scoops of baking soda. And no fabric softner. It clings to the fibers of the clothing and keeps other smells in.

    • Do fabric softener sheets also cling to fibers? If so, that’s a great tip that I’ll have to remember.

      • Fabric softener sheets work by coating your clothes with a chemical compound that prevents them from clinging. So I’d guess yeah, Lioness’ logic applies to those too.

        • I do use fabric softner but in a limited fashion. While it makes clothing/sheets/towels “soft” it does coat the fabric and weighs it down. I find it takes clothes longer to dry which gives it more time acquire a smell which is harder to get rid of because the fabric has been quoted. I don’t like it on my undergarments because I don’t care for the chemicals near my delicate areas.

          The baking soda gives my clothing all the fresh smell that it needs. I buy the big bag from Sams/Costco and keep it by the machine and every load gets 2 scoops.

  8. I’ve taken the lid off the Febreze spray bottle, put some on a rag and dabbed it on the spot, also had success using rubbing alcohol (and if you’re in a major bind, cheap hairspray will also work, but be prepared to follow up with a quick swipe of another cloth dampened with water to get rid of the stickiness).

    I also tuck used bounce sheets in my clothes before putting them away to keep everything fresh.

    • I stick Bounce in the underarms and that seems to do the trick. I’m a stinker so if it works for me it should work for everyone

    • Used dryer sheets really do work great for underarm smells that washing/dry cleaning doesn’t get out! I use this trick all the time when I want to wear a dress more than once between dry cleanings.

  9. Prevention is easier than remediation too – I’m really bad at remembering this, but my clothes last so much longer when I do. These are some things that I’ve found help: Make sure the deodorant you wear is right for your body chemistry (I’ve had deodorants leave nasty, stinky discolored underarms). Make sure you replace your deodorant if it starts smelling off or looking strange. Wash or dry clean items promptly after a sweaty day. Leave items out to air while they are waiting to go to the dry cleaner (ie, not balled up in a laundry bag, like I used to do). Sadly, I’ve had no luck getting out the really stuck in smells.

  10. Anonymous :

    Suits – Febreze.

    Anything that isn’t a suit – soak the armpits in very diluted vinegar. Rinse *well* to rid of the vinegar smell. I learned this b/c I had the same problem w/ my workout clothes.

  11. AnneCatherine :

    This is an after-the-fact fix. I’ve done this only as a last resort, when, like the original poster, I got clothes back from the drycleaners that, after repeated wearings and cleanings, just . . . smelled bad, so bad I could not wear them without fear of offending, and thus, I was about to throw them out. This is what I’ve done:

    Placed ice-cold water in a huge Rubbermaid container, along with a capful of Woolite. Turned the offending jacket inside-out. Placed in cold water and let sit for two days. Took out. Filled up tub/container with more COLD water. Let the water sit until it was cold if need be. Placed the jacket back in the water. Let sit overnight. Took out jacket, let drip dry (yes, this takes a long, long, long time—but I mean NO squeezing, rolling, etc.—only drip) on a clothes drying rack in the tub (removing the rack to bathes, obvs). When jacket is finally dry, turn it right side out, and steam iron to get out many, many wrinkles.

    I am not recommending this as anything but a last, last resort. I was able to revive two (lined) jackets this way, and, on their next cleaning, the professional pressing sort of put them back “in shape.” And they smelled fine!

    Nowadays, I’m a fiend for not wearing jackets more than twice, at most three times, before I have them cleaned, EVEN IF I wear a top with sleeves. It’s just not worth ruining a jacket, which most times means ruining a suit. Maybe it’s because I live in the South, maybe it’s because I sweat too much, I don’t know, I’m not going to say EVERYONE has to dry clean their clothes every two wearings, I’ve just found I do have to. And I know that’s not green and that does bother me.

    • What’s the rationale for those steps? What would be wrong with towel drying the item a bit, for instance? Not doubting you at all – just don’t understand

      • AnneCatherine :

        Just not to rough up the fabric. Maybe it’s overkill but it’s what I decided to implement to be extra-careful when hand-washing things that really aren’t washable . . .

  12. Sometimes I’ll wrap clothes around some particularly strong lavendar sachets I have for a day or so (e.g. like jeans I plan to wear for several days on vacation–I’ll do this in between wears). I imagine wrinkly fabrics might be a problem though.

  13. Anonymous :

    Slight thread-jack: I’ve had a few silk, dry-clean-only blouses literally disintegrate in the underarm (i.e. develop holes, but kind of in a line-like pattern, if that makes sense?). Does anyone have any idea (a) how this happens and (b) how I can prevent it? I love silk tops to wear under suits…

    • If the holes are in a line, then your problem is probably due to abrasion. Check to see if the line corresponds to a seam in your jacket, or if the blouse bunches up under your armpit in that spot.

      The bacteria that feed on sweat can do quite a bit of damage. Make sure you are airing the blouses out properly before putting it away (once the blouse is dry, the bacteria go dormant)

  14. i have a related question — one of my suits has just come back from the dry cleaners and the “hand” of the fabric is totally changed, almost like there is a harsh finish on it. it’s one of my good lafayette suits, and i’m sick about it. now a second one has just come back with the same issue. anyone else had this problem? we’ve gone to this cleaner for over a decade and they’re the best one in town.

    • They should replace the suits for you. I’d go back immediately, with the suits still in the dry cleaning bag, and speak to them.

  15. Baking soda + hydrogen peroxide – mix into a paste and put on the offending areas – let sit for half hour and then wash out. I’ve only used it on whites, but it takes out both the smell and the yellowish underarm stains that look so gross. I’ve tried it on silks, wools and cottons – so far so good. Be warned though, it gets a little messy! However, I have revived many other-wise unwearable items of clothing through this process!

  16. Elizabeth :

    I live on the humid Gulf Coast, where it’s 50 degrees inside but 105 outside. I second the recommendation to air out clothes before hanging them, and offer the following four tips that I swear by to manage the sweaty season(s):

    1. The vodka method described above.

    2. Put the garment in the freezer overnight or for a few nights (I have seen clothing that actually comes with this instruction – raw denim and other fabrics that are 100% impractical and can never, ever be washed).

    3. Spritz the area with Bac-Out – http://biokleenhome.com/products/household/general – I use the all-purpose cleaner but I see now that they make a fabric refresher. This stuff is enzymatic (it’s also what we use when the cat pees on something and it makes it good as new), and while ymmv it hasn’t ever hurt any of my jacket linings or other fabrics.

    4. Lay it out in the sunshine for a few hours, if the garment won’t fade. (If it fades in just a few hours, you have other problems anyhow.)

    • I second the sun recommendation, if you live in an area that gets enough sun. Sunning stuff in the equatorial Pacific solved almost every problem yet failed miserably in Maine.

    • I second the Bac-Out recommendation. I pour it directly on the underarms and/or stained areas of my suit jackets, let it sit for a few minutes, and then put the jacket/dress/skirt/whatever in the dryer with a wet hand towel on low. The moisture helps release wrinkles and my suit comes out looking good as new, with no odor. I haven’t used Bac-Out on more delicate fabrics, but it does just fine on all my suits. I love that I can wear suits 6 or 7 times now without taking them to the drycleaner. More convenient, better for the environment, and easier on my budget.

  17. After each wearing, I use a Tobi steamer on the underarm areas of the garment, then hang in the open until dry. Steam seems to diffuse or evaporate whatever is causing the smell. I originally tried this with a beautiful but unwearable Chanel jacket as a last resort and now it is back in the rotation instead of in a giveaway pile. Good luck!

  18. Interesting ideas! As a drycleaner, I can tell you that Drycleaning does not remove odors. It removes soils that can cause odor, but Drycleaning alone does not. Some of the better Drycleaners have ozone rooms, or something similar that are designed specifically for removing odors. Fabreze is a good product also, and there are other textile deodorizers available.
    They make armpit protectors for silk blouses and the like which I highly recommend. Persperation is a water based soil and often is difficult to remove from dryclean only garments. Add to that all the harmful chemicals found in most antiperspirants and you have the makings for underarm tears (weakened fibers), color loss and odor!
    So my recommendations:
    1 wet clean whenever possible
    2 use pit protectors
    3 point out your concern to your
    4 sunshine is a great freshener – esp when combined with fabreze
    5 don’t let the clothes sit in your closet, take them in immediately
    Don’t be afraid of redos. . . They may not be checking for odor, and they would rather address the problem than lose a customer (at least a worthwhile drycleaner would)

  19. I have no suggestions for dry clean only fabrics, other than febreeze and fresh air, but I have recently discovered that adding a cup of vinegar to my wash (or letting it soak if it’s particularly bad) will get any mildewed smell out of my towels (my twisty-turban hair towels were particularly bad about not really getting dry and therefore getting that mildew smell–no longer a problem at all). My next laundry goal is to get some of the deodorant underarm stains out of my white shirts–I’ll have to try the baking soda+hydrogen peroxide trick someone mentioned above.

  20. Actually, I don’t think I ever keep clothing that long. It usually gets a hole or stain before it really starts to smell. Maybe I need to buy better clothes.

  21. To prevent issues in the underarms, I recommend Hollywood Under the Seams from the great folks who brought us Hollywood Fashion Tape. It’s a throwback to my mother’s era – liners for your clothes. “Pretty, self-adhesive, disposable apparel shields that keep you fresh, dry, and clean.” I actually put them in my wedding dress and they worked wonders. Just take them out promptly – that’s some strong adhesive. http://www.hollywoodfashiontape.com/products_behind_the_seams.cfm

    • Does anyone know of a product like this that is washable? This looks like an excellent idea.

      • back in the day, before deodorant, people used rags as “dress shields” for this purpose.

  22. Does anyone have any tips for removing the yellow underarm stains in white blouses? Gross, I know. I don’t really have a problem with the garments being stinky, but I often get yellow stains that I can’t get out.

    • Yes, I have this problem as well but someone above mentioned a mixture of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. I’m so trying this.

  23. Nobody makes money from telling us that products as cheap as vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice, even sunshine work great as cleaning agents. This thread has been an excellent reminder that sometimes it’s cheaper to skip the chemicals of the dry cleaner and spend a few minutes of elbow grease with more natural products. Thanks!

  24. If clothes come back from the dry cleaner with a body odor, you should find a better cleaner. This should never happen!

    When clothes come back from the cleaner nice and clean, it is a good idea to air them a bit before putting them in the closet, because there will always be a trace of cleaning fluid, which needs to volatilize off.

    I try to plan my purchases so that most things do not need to be dry-cleaned. I used to be running to the cleaner all of the time, and it was inconvenient and very expensive.

  25. Anonymous :

    Try this as opposed to drycleaning. I have one and love it.


    • Experienced :

      Could you tell us more? What clothes do you use this for? How long have you had it?

  26. Once I had a black cotton knit blouse that got terrible underarm stink. As I was ready to throw it out, I threw caution to the wind and BOILED it… for maybe about 12 minutes, with some laundry detergent added. I tried this b/c the offensive odor is, after all, bacteria – and the bacteria must be KILLED to rid a garment of odor. It worked like a charm, with no color loss, even. I do like the vodka idea, sounds like it would kill the stinky germs, too!

  27. Thanks, this thread has been incredibly informative. Until recently, I didn’t have much in the way of dry-clean-only work wardrobe, but now most of my wardrobe is, so I’ve become really familiar with the dry cleaner. But for me, odor is the main problem, so if dry cleaning doesn’t address that, I’ll use other methods in between dry cleanings. The main concern I have is that we have no environmentally sound options here, and no way to recycle anything, and each time I take suits to be cleaned, which is every 5 or fewer wearings, I leave with a toxic-smelling plastic cover and a new neon orange plastic hanger.

    I’ve had some luck with using Dryel, but mainly for removing sweat stains and traces, rather than odor. I’m going to look into vinegar and vodka!

  28. I hang all of my clothes out on my laundry drying rack out in the sunshine for a while. The sun is one of the best disinfectants. It is a must for getting the smell out of my baby diapers. So if it works for that it should really work for a little body odor.

    I have to wonder if the left over smell is a natural thing from your body or maybe a chemical reaction to your deodorant and the dry clean chemicals.

  29. A theatrical wardrobe trick for getting odors out of wool/cashmere: get a small spray bottle and fill with half water and half vodka (there are debates over which type works best – some say it doesn’t matter, don’t waste the good stuff, while one person I know swears by rice vodka). Spray on the mist setting at underarms, necklines, cuff areas, etc., any sweat points or places your skin may come into direct contact with the item. Let air dry. This is usually used as actors sweat a lot, and wool overcoats/suits cannot be sent to the cleaner that often. I’ve also tried this on hand-crocheted lap quilts too delicate to wash.

    Silk is another issue – sometimes after laundering a garment will just smell like I imagine silkworms smell. For this, I hand-wash the item with a cleansing shampoo. This makes the item soft, and gives a fresher smell.

  30. Smelly Pea Coat :

    I have a Pea coat …I got at second hand store the pea coat has a foul musky odor I have had it dry cleaned 3 times and the smell is still there help…100 wool

  31. Tide with lavendar febreze and Bounce dryer sheets/bar together makes EVERYTHING smell better !!!! My boyfriend HATES that I spend that kind of money, but its WORTH it !!!!!! Hes not complaining his shirts smell anymore, does he ??? ;)