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How to Get the Smell Out of Thrift Store Clothes

Love shopping thrift stores and Goodwill for second hand clothes? Me, too. What I DON’T like, though, is that the clothes from thrift stores and consignment stores often have a smell. So I was determined to find out how to get the smell out of thrift store and consignment clothes (and also hand-me down clothing).

purple shirts on wooden hangers

Thrift Store Smell: What Is It?

For someone like me who is very sensitive to artificial fragrance and smells, buying second hand clothing can be a big problem (and a big headache).

Usually, vintage clothing has that “old lady smell.” It seems to be a combination of a musty smell and too much fabric softener.

stack of thick sweaters from Salvation Army

That thrift store smell can also come from moth balls or perfume, too. Or, it can be a combination of all of them. (Can you imagine someone who wore too much perfume who washed their clothing with artificially fragranced fabric softener and then hung their clothing in a closet with moth balls before donating to Goodwill? PHEW!)

Most people aren’t using all-natural detergents and fabric softeners. Usually the laundry products they use on their clothing is full of synthetic chemicals. And those chemicals build up over time on the clothing. The synthetic fragrances embed in the fibers, and it can be hard to eliminate the fabric softener smell.

Not only can the fragrance cause headaches and allergies in some people, but a study found that scented laundry products release carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).

four sweaters on white background

So before I can wear anything that I find at Salvation Army, Goodwill of ThredUp, I have to get the smell out of thrift store and consignment clothes!

When you’re trying to get the smell out of clothes, it’s usually something that doesn’t come out in one wash. That’s the easy solution. What you’re looking for is the smells on clothes that seem to linger way after you’ve washed your clothes like normal.

I hear you.

When I bought these amazing finds from thredUp I absolutely loved the clothing when it came. But I got an instant headache from the smell on the shirt. I couldn’t wear it until I figured out how to get the smell out of the clothes.

The great answer is that it’s super easy to finally get rid of those smells on secondhand clothing. It doesn’t take too much effort, and you’ll be able to enjoy your inexpensive sustainable fashion finds.

Related Posts:

purple shirts on wooden hangers

How to Get the Smell Out of Thrift Store Clothes


This is my favorite trick to get rid of smells on clothes, because it is so super easy. All you have to do is wash the clothes like normal!

I used the white vinegar trick to get rid of the horrible fabric softener smell that lingered in my washing machine when I moved into a new house. The person that lived there before me obviously liked heavily scented fabric softeners. I DID NOT! It gave me a headache just opening the washing machine.

To get rid of the smell in the washing machine, I did 2-3 loads with just hot water and lots and lots of vinegar. It worked!

So using vinegar to get rid of smells on clothes will work, too!

Add 1 cup of white distilled vinegar (the apple cider kind could stain because it’s brown) to your normal wash cycle, either hot or cold water. It will freshen and deodorize all of your clothing in your normal wash.

Smells still linger? Wash the clothing in another load again to remove the smell.

mom carrying laundry basket and baby crawling on floor

Soak Your Clothes

Easily remove smell from vintage clothes by allowing them to soak for a few hours before washing them. You can soak small items in a small tub (this is what I use to soak and hand wash my items) or fill a washing machine with water and detergent and allow to pre-soak for an hour or more.

Baking Soda

Baking soda is a brilliant solution to get rid of smells everywhere. Sprinkle it on your mattress or your rugs to absorb odor and then vacuum off. So you can definitely use it on clothing, too.

The easy way to use baking soda to remove smells on clothes is to sprinkle baking soda evenly all over the clothing (This is obviously okay for cotton and polyester, but you should consider doing a patch test with other fabrics, such as rayon or cashmere sweaters).

Coat the clothing with baking soda by either:

  • Laying the clothes on a towel or sheet, then sprinkling baking soda all over the clothing.
  • Add the piece of clothing to a large zip top plastic bag. Add baking soda to the bag, seal and shake to coat the clothes.

Leave the baking soda on at least an hour. If you want to leave it on for a few hours, that will be great, too.

Wash the clothes afterwards.


The power of the sun not only kills germs and dust mites, but it can help bake out odors and VOCs.

Not all clothing is appropriate to put out in the sun. If your clothing can handle fresh air and sunlight, though, hang it on a clothesline all day in the hot sun. The smell will diminish, if not totally disappear.

You might want to consider turning your clothing inside out if you worry about the sunlight bleaching out colors.

Fresh Air to Get the Smells Out

While fresh air outdoors is best, there have been many times when I can’t put clothing outside because it has been raining or too cloudy. In those cases, I hang clothing on an outside porch, in my garage, on the front porch or anywhere else I can have fresh air from open windows or doors. I always make sure to put the clothing in a place where I won’t need to go for a day or two so that I don’t smell that thrift store smell. Sometimes I let it air out for a week if the smell is bad.

Scented Detergent

If you are not chemically sensitive to the smells on the thrift store clothes, but you just don’t like them, consider a scented detergent to mask the smell until it disappears.

Lots of natural detergents and fabric softeners are scented with plant-based aromas, and could hide the smell.

vintage clothes on hangers

Charcoal Deodorizers

The power of charcoal is unprecedented in naturally removing odor from clothing. Charcoal closet deodorizers are awesome at keeping your clothes fresh. Check out my favorite charcoal closet deodorizers for some ideas.

Love thrift store shopping, but hate the funky smells on the clothes? Me, too. If you like saving money on clothing by buying sustainable fashion via consignment stores, garage sales and thrifting sites, then you MUST know these tips to get the odor out of clothes. Bye-bye nasty fabric softener smells and musty odors. Hello fresh budget-friendly wardrobe!

For clothes from the thrift store or consignment store, put the piece of clothing in a bag with a charcoal deodorizer for it to absorb the smell. Large pieces of clothing, such as a wool coat, might benefit from stuffing the pockets with charcoal deodorizers. Also, put the clothing on a hanger and hang a charcoal deodorizer from it to absorb nearby smells.

Note: I might not like selling clothes via thredUp’s online consignment store to make money, but I sure did have a positive experience buying secondhand clothes for less on their site. Check out thredUp and see my review on my Clearance section scores.


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Tuesday 14th of November 2023

I have a lot of reactions to those chemically scented products on thrift store clothing. Usually it comes out after a couple of washes, but I’ve had several very stubborn smells that even after 6-7 washes continue to be unpleasant. I’m convinced there’s a fabric softener out there labeled “thrift store scent”!😆. I’m wondering if these tough ones are even worth it! Each time I handle the item wet it transfers to my hands and then I get headaches and my heart beats faster. I have a difficult one presently and when washed with another thrift store shirt it actually transferred some scent and some kind of stain to the other clothing! I may end up gifting it back to the thrift store where undoubtedly it will be laundered again in those awful chemicals😬


Wednesday 15th of November 2023

Jean, I agree! Some of the clothes have a much stronger scent that just never goes away. I have had a few pieces of clothing that I've washed multiple times and sanitized and baked in the sun for days and the smell is still just as strong. It makes me worried what type of chemicals are being used that can embed a fragrance in fibers for that long without diminishing in strength.


Saturday 8th of April 2023

share a house with those who use scented dryer sheets and scream at me if i use vinegar, saying it will wreck the dryer. bought a heavy robe from a thrift store and washed it but it still smells sickening, causes me headache, dizziness etc. no public laundromats around. they are even worse! suggestions?


Tuesday 14th of November 2023

@chris, the fabric softener sheets are what wreck the dryer! Stand up to those who question your vinegar! If they can use dryer sheets you should be able to use your vinegar. It’s unfortunate the dryer sheet smell still transfers to clothing even if you are not using one . I feel for you. Tell them they make you ill.


Tuesday 1st of February 2022

Borax in the wash drum, unscented powder detergent or soap flakes for the wash, and white vinegar in the rinse. If that doesn't work pre- soak for a day or even two in borax and water and repeat the washing instructions above. Don't forget to lay flat or hang to dry in the sun if it's that kind of day.


Tuesday 3rd of August 2021

I've used lemon Pine Sol many times but now I've got a cool purple shirt it didn't work on so I'm gonna try your vinegar. I read the oils in old perfume go rancid.


Friday 8th of March 2024

@BONNIE, The oils in new perfume ARE Rancid


Sunday 1st of December 2019

thanks, Im new to threaded up, but have allways bought from thritfs. Really helpful