The Linen Closet Makes Me Feel Like A Filthy Failure

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

I'm sure this is highly irregular but as an extraordinarily filthy girl, I have TWO questions I've been dying to ask for years. I do hope you can help.

I love to smell nice—it helps distract from dirt—but some of my face cloths and now, disturbingly, one of my towels, have developed a foul odor. It's that "I didn't dry properly" smell, the sour stink that clearly announces my status as a dirty person—or at least as a person who should invest in a dehumidifier. It seems to disappear after washing and drying, but it's always lingering within and comes back once the item is wet again (usually while I'm washing my face. Gag.) I really don't want to chuck out otherwise perfectly usable stuff, but I have no idea what to do. Can you please help?

It's unusual for me to run two questions asked by the same person, but the two questions she asked are actually incredibly common ones and also I'm wicked bummed that this gal is being so hard on herself!

As I mentioned, this problem (and the one that follows) is super common, so if they're things that are happening to you I want you to take solace in the fact that they're happening to loads of other people too. And also just generally: Things go wrong. We make mistakes. We don't always know how to take care of or fix everything. None of that is worth using the kind of language on ourselves that you are using on yourself here. Hugs and Scrubbing Bubbles all around.

But back to those towels: there are two likely things that are going on here, both of which can be connected and both of which are treatable with the same inexpensive product. The first is that the towels have taken on a lingering odor over time, which is a thing that happens and is normal, and the second is that your washing machine is probably harboring some smells of its own. The solution to both problems is white vinegar.

For the towels, you'll add a cup to two cups of white vinegar to your regular wash cycle along with detergent. In normal loads, a half cup of vinegar is all you'll need to help eliminate odors, but since you've got a heavier funk on your hands a larger dose is needed. Once you've taken care of the baseline problem, go ahead and use that half cup of vinegar every time you launder the towels to keep smells at bay, and use the hottest water setting you've got available. White vinegar also acts as a fabric softener, which is great for towels since they don't care for commercial liquid or sheet fabric softeners. Those products leave behind a coating that renders towels less absorbent. And absorbency is one of the key personality traits of a towel, so don't go robbing it of its identity, okay? Okay! If you're worried that you'll sacrifice fluffiness, a pair of dryer balls or a clean tennis ball tossed into the dryer will do you right.

Speaking of the drying process! By the time the towels come out of the wash, the vinegar smell will have dissipated. If there's a lingering odor of salad dressing, the dryer will kill it, so don't worry that you're going to be running around smelling like you've pickled yourself post-shower. If you have access to an outdoor drying line, that's also great—good old fresh air and sunshine are also fantastic odor eliminators.

As for that machine, if you suspect that it's harboring lingering odors that same white vinegar will clear it right out. Think of it like douching your washer! But without all the crappy implications about vaginas being unclean and such. For this, you'll need another two cups of white vinegar, which you'll run through the empty machine on the hottest water setting. No detergent, no clothes—just vinegar and water. If you've got a front-loader, you'll also want to use a rag dipped in white vinegar to wipe down the rubber lip of the machine, which often harbors mold and mildew. And also socks. That is, it turns out, where all your socks have gone.

You can also perform this operation with bleach, but I advocate for the vinegar approach for two reasons: (1) With bleach, you run the risk of leaving behind residue which can cause damage to non-white items and (2) it's not so environmentally friendly, as opposed to the vinegar, which is. But! Choices. You have choices in life and if you prefer bleach or just happen to have it on hand making it more convenient for you to perform the cleansing operation with it by all means please do so.

A significantly more detailed washing machine cleaning tutorial can be found here, which I'm mostly including here because there was an INSANE COMMENT WAR that broke out at the end of the piece that is hilarious and amazing and oh, Internet, never change.

Also … I am a dirty person. But I have some wonderful sheets. They're a silky soft 750-thread-count and I adore them; especially because—if you are of a delicate constitution, please turn away here—I am a dirty person who likes to sleep naked. And so does the boy. But therein lies the problem: Over the years I think our joyfully nekkid bodies have sweated enough to create a big, nasty yellow-y sweat stain on the bottom sheet. It's really gross, but I love the sheets and can't get rid of them. I've even considered dyeing them. Please help, Clean Person!

Well hey look, I'm not of a delicate constitution. So not to worry on that front—that goes for all of you. Seriously, please don't feel that you have to preface any question by apologizing to me! I do this job at Deadspin, for mercy's sake! I promise I have heard worse.

And, I know you know this but I have to say it anyway: sleeping naked does not make you a dirty person. You should sleep in the way that makes you feel most comfortable, and if sleeping naked works for you and your partner—and I know many couples for whom this is true—then you should sleep naked. Also there's an easy fix to those sheets.

Oh but also! Good on you for having sheets that you love. Two of the most important things that we do for ourselves in terms of our mental, physical and emotional health take place in the bed; making that space special is a wonderful thing we can do for ourselves. (The two things are, of course, eating Totino's Pizza Rolls and watching The Sopranos.) (Oh, just me then?)(Ha ha no, the two things are sex and sleep, okay you got me.)

Right then, but enough editorializing from the crazy cleaning person who's clearly been huffing too much bleach lately, let's get those sheets back up to white. And since we've got bleach on the brain the first thing to know is this: Bleach is not what you want to use on your yellowed sheets. Bleach reacts negatively to protein stains, causing them to become more yellowed. And your sheets are full up on protein stains from sweating and sexing and drooling and probably a few other things I'm not thinking of right now. Oh right, bleeding. Bleeding falls into the protein category also.

So what to use? Allow me to introduce you to one of my all time favorite cleaning products: Bluing! It does just what the name implies, it turns things blue! The idea here is to ever-so-slightly tint your whites blue, which will counteract the yellowing, making the white appear whiter. Because you've got a pretty righteous yellow situation going on, you may need to run the sheet through the wash with bluing more than once to get it back to bright white.

Rather than telling you how to use it, I'm going to instead tell you to follow the instructions that come with the brand of bluing you pick up—the usage instructions can vary significantly enough from brand to brand that I don't want to offer definitive marching orders and have you end up with ruined sheets. Two commonly found brands here in the U.S. are Mrs. Stewart's and Bluette; because it's an older fashioned product it can be tricky to find it in stores, though the laundry aisle of grocery stores often is a source. You can, of course, buy it online.

Once your sheets are blindingly white again, you'll want to keep 'em that way. For that purpose, go ahead and add a laundry booster like OxiClean or Borax to your regular linen laundering routine. Because there are two of you sleeping naked on those sheets, you should also aim to wash them on a weekly basis, if you're not already. You can continue to incorporate the bluing into the wash as well, but it's not something you'll want to use every time you launder the sheets as eventually overuse will cause them to appear actually blue, instead of white.

A few other odds and ends before I take my leave:

  • You mentioned that you're considering dyeing your sheets. If you go that route, Rit Whitener and Brightener is the stuff you want.

  • That white vinegar technique I mentioned will also be the ticket to defunkifying any workout gear that's taken on a seemingly permanent odor even after being laundered. We'll talk more about that in an official capacity but I think it's worth mentioning in passing.
  • Bluing will work to restore the color of your blue jeans if they've faded in a way you don't care for.

  • Bluing will also work on white shirts that have yellowed in the underarm area.

  • Which leads me to this teaser: next week Deadspin will be treated to a Very Special Episode of Squalor all about 'pit stains. (Fair's fair: you all got a VSE on bra washing.) But! Since 'pit stains are not a gendered construct I'm mentioning it here so you can be on the lookout for it. GET EXCITED! But not so excited that you start sweating before I've had a chance to tell you how to deal with 'pit stains.

In closing:

The Linen Closet Makes Me Feel Like A Filthy Failure


Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume, 25 February 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.