How Do You Remove Toxic Fragrance Chemicals from Clothes?

How to Remove Fragrance Loaded Laundry Detergent from Clothes by

A long time friend just asked us a really great question and we need your help offering her solutions that really work.  So activate your Non-toxic Ninja superpowers and help us out, will you?

Do you know if there’s anything a person can do to get the toxic fragrance chemicals out of clothing sooner?  If Grandma washes something she brings over for the kids, I end up having to wash it 10 times and still the scent lingers.  What can I use to get rid of the allergy-inducing smell quicker?

We’ve always tried various combinations of vinegar, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. But we’d love to know what magic formula have you found to get the job done without having to put the clothes through 10 wash cycles.

Here Are the Helpful Tips We’ve Heard from You

Kathy T. Says:

If the smell still lingers after that many washings and a vinegar rinse, it sounds like Grandma may be using dryer sheets or fabric softener, which are fat/wax-based, and fuse with the fibers of the clothes. She’ll need to strip the oily/waxy residues. I know it isn’t the most wholesome choice, but running the clothes in a hot cycle with 1 tbs (1tsp for HE) of dish soap, followed by a hot cycle with 1/2 cup vinegar, should do the trick. This is the method cloth diapering parents use to remove things like rash cream build-up. Hope it helps!

Betsy of Eco Novice Says:

We have this problem frequently with hand-me-down clothes. I buy a lot of kids clothes in thrift stores as well, and try to avoid the most heavily fragranced ones. But I have two SILs that use the whole arsenal of products on the clothes we get as hand-me-downs. I wash with RLR, which is what cloth diaper users use to strip their diapers of detergent. Then I might wash another time with just hot water until no suds (just like stripping diapers). Finally, I line dry FOREVER. Until I can’t smell or barely smell the fragrance. Some fragrance I never really can remove completely : ( especially synthetics like a fleece jacket, so then I just have to make a judgment call about whether my kids will use it or not. I mention this process in a couple of posts HERE and HERE.

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  • Good question! My mother-in-law uses fabric softener that is so strong that even her trash can and extension cords smell like it! She washed a load of clothes for me almost a year ago and some of them still smell.

    • I believe it, Cindy! My son’s friend accidentally left his sweat pants at our house. I washed them today and put them in my son’s room, not realizing they weren’t his. He picked them up, smelled them, and immediately said, “Oh these are Jack’s.” It’s just crazy how powerful those fragrance chemicals are! ~Alicia

  • Oh, I had a similar experience with a baby sleeping bag I bought on eBay. It *stank* of chemical ‘perfume’. I had to wash it at least half a dozen times and soaked it overnight twice as well, before we could even think about using it.

    • Isn’t is crazy Kirsten? I actually get headaches from people just walking by me sometimes, leaving wafting chemicals in their wake. ~Alicia

      • Deb

        Me, too! My husband just had cancer surgery, and the visiting nurse who came on Monday left a fabric softener smell so strong that we are still airing out the house five days later. I would think they would teach nurses who are going into sick peoples houses not to wear heavy fragrances, including fabric softeners!

        • ProtectrKids

          I agree. There are so many toxic chemicals that they use in anything with a fragrance,except for therapeutic essential oils .Health care professionals should know better, since there is so many potential adverse health effects from fragrance products but they don’t . I am a RN and I had to leave my job with a county health department after developing multiple chemical sensitivities due to my supervisor’s and secretary’s perfume use and all the perfumed products she brought in for everyone at work. After that I became very sensitive to even small amounts of synthetic fragrance.

  • JBA

    Would this work with that “new denim” smell? That drives me crazy… dark denim seems to always have this awful smell.

    • Another great question, JBA! The nasty smell coming off daughter’s black jeans is enough to kill my sense of smell, so I’ll be trying Kathy’s suggestion on them for sure. ~Alicia

  • Betsy (Eco-novice)

    We have this problem frequently with hand-me-down clothes. I buy a lot of kids clothes in thrift stores as well, and try to avoid the most heavily fragranced ones. But I have two SILs that use the whole arsenal of products on the clothes we get as hand-me-downs. I wash with RLR, which is what cloth diaper users use to strip their diapers of detergent. Then I might wash another time with just hot water until no suds (just like stripping diapers). Finally, I line dry FOREVER. Until I can’t smell or barely smell the fragrance. Some fragrance I never really can remove completely : ( Esp. synthetics like a fleece jacket, so then I just have to make a judgment call about whether my kids will use it or not. I mention this process in a couple of posts:

    The RLR plus the line drying really helps a ton.

    • Thanks SO much for your magic recipe Betsy! I’m adding it to our list of solutions now. ~Alicia

      • Regina Ryerson

        Thanks, Betsy! I’ll try your process sometimes. But unless there’s full public disclosure of ingredients ( I can’t find any for RLR), we don’t know if we’re substituting one set of chemicals for another. Fragrance can be any of hundreds of chemicals. And just because we can’t smell fragrance, doesn’t mean fragrance chemicals aren’t there.

  • I bought an antique couch that I didn’t realize that smelled of perfume. No matter what I did to clean it the smell never came out. I had to re-upholster. Same thing happened with a bolt of fabric I bought at a yard sale. I couldn’t get the smell out no matter what I did. I even tried using an ozonator. In the end, I had to give the fabric away.

    • That is UNREAL Anna! These outrageous fragrance chemicals just shouldn’t be allowed. ~Alicia

      • I get sick being around people who have too much perfume on.

  • Organic Baby University

    I will soak in vinegar and baking soda for 24 hours. Then wash in hot water with vinegar several times. Leaving outside to dry helps too! Another option is real old fashioned lye soap. Do one wash with that too!

  • rachel sarnoff

    Amazing how those toxic chemical fragrances last, especially when you stop using them and are desensitized! After washing, I hang them to dry in the sun, that seems to help.

  • Belinda

    Thanks for all of these ideas, this is especially needed since I just had to do a load at the laundromat, I used the dryer and when I took my clothes out I realized my clothes smelled like dryer sheets! I’ve rewashed them now twice and they still smell. Horrible, horrible stuff. There oughta be a law!

  • Thank you for asking this question! All of the comments have been great! Toxic chemicals and fragrances on our clothing and other products are a big concern. I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, so these are things I have to constantly avoid, or else I get symptoms flaring up. Glad to see you all realize how toxic these things are! The more people who start to realize it, the more pressure there would on manufactures to begin making changes to their ingredients. Maybe one of these days these harmful chemicals will be outlawed.

    • Oh boy, you really suffer from those darn fragrance chemicals hoisted on you by unsuspecting people then, huh? We do need to just keep talking about it and pushing for change. Go moms! ~Alicia

    • Deb

      I, too, suffer from MCS. Right now, it is 3 AM. I have been up all night, trying to air out my bedroom, as my laundry room is located in the half bath by my bed. I used tide pods today for the first time, trying to get rid of the smell of the all free and clear. Neither of those products was free or clear! How can I rid my washing machine of the smell? There are no clothes in it and it reeks of the tide. Now my nose and throat are burning, and I cannot sleep!

      • Sorry to hear this. I totally understand. Tide is one of the worst offenders! I recommend looking at the Environmental Working Groups database when shopping for cleaners. They grade products. Look for products with an “A”. I’m not sure what will take the smell away. Maybe try wiping the inside of your washer down (a few times) with vinegar.

        • Based on what another commenter said above about castile soap, try Dr. Bronner’s SalSuds soap. I wish I had some now (I don’t have any right now), but I’m going to try their Almond Oil soap – maybe it will work.

  • Belinda

    Well I feel silly that it took me this long to think of this, but I just put the very smelly pants that I washed 4 times (various methods, vinegar, baking soda, hadn’t yet tried Dawn – I don’t like that smell either – or RLR) in a hot water and castile soap only soak. Washed them out, rinsed them, hung them to dry and the smell seems to be gone. I am going to try this with more smelly Grandma washed clothes and hope my luck continues, thank goodness for castile!

    • Wow, that’s fantastic news Belinda! Who knew something as simple as castile soap could do the trick? ~Alicia

    • Signify

      The chemicals are neurotoxic. A few whiffs and you can no longer smell the chemicals.

    • Renee

      Now my washer smells like the clothes that I tried to get the smell out of.

  • Danika @ Your Organic Life

    I had someone ask me this on Twitter a while back. It seems to be a common problem, and one we are becoming more aware of as we remove toxic chemicals from our lives that desensitize our noses. Most of the time 1 or two washes with vinegar and washing soda will work in the hottest water the clothes can take. However, if that doesn’t work, the comment from Kathy above is likely correct, it’s due to fabric softeners & dryer sheets. However, you may be able to remove the coating by soaking in vinegar or boiling them (just as you do to strip cloth diapers) rather than using Dawn.

    • So true Danika, and thanks for the tips! ~Alicia

    • Signify

      The chemicals cannot be removed.

      • Double

        Even if i can’t smell it, if my pants encounter fabric softener, I get a burning sensation around my waistline along with uncontrolled dizziness—indicators that it’s still in the fabric. I’ve let them soak overnight in a hot 5-gallon water bucket with a cup of vinegar, and have managed to get it out.

        • Signify

          I doubt, based on what I have read regarding the structure of the new chemicals formed when heated, that the chemicals are removed. It’s a matter of refusing to use these products or purchase used clothing on which they’ve been used. People who use spray deodorizers on furniture, too, if experiencing odd symptoms, may well wish to stop using those. I use vinegar for many things, and have tried the soaking method. It doesn’t work.

          • Double

            With thicker materials you kinda have to manhandle them inside the vinegar. You know, stretch them, squeeze them, thrust them up and down like a plunger (create some vacuum suction), whatever you have to do to open up the various pores in the fabric.

            Also, if your washing machine is unclean due to built-up soap residues and mold, you may be confusing one problem with another entirely.

          • Signify

            Right – but not confusing one problem with another. The dryer sheets will also foul your dryer heater core.

          • Double

            I have never read any concerns over the heating element. If anything, the chemicals should burn off with use.

          • Signify

            They don’t. Anyway, the idea is not to use these products, nor have to be subjected to their use.

          • Double

            Well I’m not bothered by the dryer after removing the softener from the clothes in the bucket of vinegar. Do you by chance use vinegar in your rinse cycles?

  • Dymtro Khrapko

    Some specialised laundromats have pressurised Ozone chambers which gas all mal-odours. DO NOT take garments with elastics or spandex the Ozone will oxidise the rubber.

    Wash them a few times at home, air dry, then take a few in, one garment at time would be expensive. Also, specify that the garment not be dry cleaned afterwards many laundromats do it automatically, and it’s often included in the price.

  • Hi Ladies! I am very comforted to know that I’m not the only one that believes fragranced laundry products and perfumes should be banned from stores. It’s truly toxic and makes life tough for those of us who suffer from asthma/allergies. What can we do to draw attention to this national problem? Maybe the major networks would run a campaign? It feels like thousands of people would love to see it removed from our daily lives, yet the elephant continues to sit in the room. It would seem that a process to educate the public on a major scale is called for? Thank you guys for being here and shining a light on the issue 🙂

    • We’re definitely right there with you on that Marianne! We love what Women’s Voices for the Earth is doing to bring attention the problem of toxic fragrance chemicals. Be sure to check out some of the campaigns they have going on with Glade and other mainstream companies.

    • Rodella

      please do write every time. I get grief from the major manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble because one of their reps literally said that if people are buying the fragrances they are going to keep selling them. However there is the possibility if they knew the fragrances were a problem they could either “re-tool” and come up with fragrances that don’t make people ill (in the long ago past there were such things) instead of the “unstoppable” stuff made today and the way that happens is write emails or call any and every company or store when you find yourself feeling ill in the store or from their products. The American Lung Association is behind you on the asthma issue yet when I bring that up to my local “activists” even the Environmental Health Coalition that fragrances should not be used in public schools due to the incidence of asthma they shrug their perfumed shoulders and keep wanting to rant about industry…I write to somebody every day. A big one is health care, we ought not to be exposed to fragrances at Doctors offices or hospitals and emplyees and other patients should be asked to refrain from wearing them. Carbon and other odor neutralizers can take care of bodily fluid smells so their no reason to have to wear perfume. I went to a ob/gyn office that reeked of perfume, apparently they never heard of morning sickness! We pay for our health care, we are legally required to purchase health care plans so we ought to have access!

      • Renee

        My dermatologist leaves a recorded reminder for appointments, requiring that patients wear no fragrances or perfumes. It doesn’t mean people will think about their laundry detergent, hand cream, ect., but it’s a start. I walked into a Dr. office where they have scented candles burning, told them I would not stay, nor would I pay their fee, and sent them information sp they know what they are doing to their patients.

  • Dayna Colvin

    Ok here’s one for you, you buy a used appliance like a pc/tv monitor, plug it in and it starts to outgass a fragrance, hard to believe but this happens all the time when we buy used appliances like from Goodwill, we figure the previous owners sprayed themselves near the appliance and it somehow entered through the vents, since it pours of them, the latest smells like euphoria, get a perfume jag from this one and your brain takes to the hills, that’s how they used to say it back in the 50’s. Had to take it out of the house and put in the garage, any ideas how to get fragrance out of an appliance, clothes is hard enough, sheesh!

    • Wow Dayna, that IS a good one! I’ve never experienced that before, but surely some of our friends have. We’ll ask everybody in a new post here soon, so keep you eyes (and nose!) on the blog, okay? ~Alicia

    • Rodella

      I find that rubbing alcohol to clean parts helps, though I started to buy new stuff not knowing whether bed bugs or something worse was coming along for the ride with used stuff. The new stuff off gases for awhile but I keep bags of zeolite around, always have a window open no matter what the temp and use hepa filters with carbon pre filters. I just wrote to the Goodwill and I recommend you do and explain your problem. They can’t remedy what people bring in but the more they hear from persons who can’t work for them or buy their stuff due to fragrance sensitivities the more likely they will start asking people to clean stuff with fragrance free before they donate it…after all they are supposedly helping certain parts of the disabled community and chemical sensitivity is now being recognized particularly for persons who are getting migraines or asthma from the fragrances.

    • Signify

      You have to get rid of them. This is a permanent odor and toxic.

  • Donna

    Forgot that my Ocuvite 50 pill was left in my flannel jacket pocket – I washed & dryed it. It had melted in the pocket and my husband got all of the hard crusted residue that was left behind out BUT NOW HAS LEFT A NASTY SMELL BEHIND!!!! Have washed it several times. This is my favorite keep warm jacket – the smell is horrific!!! Is there anything I can use other than regular detergent to try & get this TOXIC SMELL OUT!!! Thanking you in advance !!! Needing your help!!

    • Signify

      The smell is not “toxic.” People here are dealing with serious chemical toxicity. Heh. Contact the Ocuvite 50 manufacturer and demand they clean the jacket.

      • Renee

        I just looked them up, fish oil and sardines, very smelly, but not toxic.

    • Renee

      If it is something that you are ingesting, it shouldn’t be toxic like the synthetic fragrances that contain phaylates and hundreds of other toxins. If it is, indeed toxic, you should not ingest them.

  • E.

    Dawn dish soap CONTAINS toxic fragrance chemicals. So you are just adding more perfume to your clothes, this is not good advice.

  • Laura Yoerger

    Do these washing tricks work to rid our clothing of the other toxic chemicals in our clothing?

    I’ve just been reading about how synthetic fibers, like polyester, acrylic, rayon, nylon, etc…and the chemicals used to make even natural fiber clothing, like 100% cotton, are toxic, mess up our endocrine system, and cause disease and cancer.

    We are a single income family with 5 our 9 children still at home. We can’t possibly afford to ravamp all of our wardrobes to completely organic clothing. I’ve read that there have been studies showing that at least some of the pesticides can be removed via washing but what I read didn’t explain how this was accomplished. I would appreciate any help you could give me in learning how to neutralize as much of the chemical backlash to my family as possible.

    ~ Laura

    • Signify

      The best you can do is prohibit all clothing that has been exposed to scented dryer sheets.

  • Thank you for the information. Our neighbor found that her dog had stolen our child’s stuffed animal, so she washed it for us. Now, I’m afraid I’ll never get that smell out of his favorite bunny. I’m going to try every one of these ideas until something works.

    • Did anything ever work? Why oh why do people use these terrible products?

      • Well, sort of. I washed the little guy about 8-10 times in the washing machine with combinations of my regular unscented 7th generation detergent and sometimes dr bronners liquid soap. I did soak it in vinegar as well, but I did not find that to be helpful. I am positive she used a liquid fabric softener. It took a long time of him saying,this smells like C’s mon” before he stopped noticing the smell. Even now, if I wash it again, and the kids grunge gets washed off, you can faintly smell it. It just took lots and lots of water and soap.

        • I got rid of most of the smell by running through the wash cycles 3x with a soak in between (without letting it go to rinse) with 2 cups of vinegar, 3/4s of a pound of baking soda, 2 squirts of organic dish soap (to cut the oil they use that makes that gunk stick to the fabric), the normal amount of Seventh Generation laundry soap, and a big squirt of Dr Bronner’s almond oil castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds soap would have been better, but I was out).

          That actually worked pretty well – only a little residual smell. Then I ordered some RLR laundry treatment and that worked best off all. Still some residual smell, but tolerable – so I ordered more of it. I got mine on eBay

          • Double

            I wouldn’t use the vinegar with your clothes in the washer at all, you might be inadvertently putting the washer’s soap scum back into your clothes. If your clothes need vinegar, do it outside the washer in a bucket.

        • Signify

          I’m afraid it is toxic. Buy another bunny.

  • happyhedonist

    Drat. Like everyone else I was hoping for some magic chemistry trick. Ha ha ha!

    I bought a steel cup with a silicone-and-plastic lid, new, at a store that stocked them near the candles, though I didn’t realize until I got it home that the lid would always smell like the candles, gak. Goodbye, lid. I have tried everything I can think of and nothing will get that stink out.

    The same problem comes up all the time with secondhand clothes. If it didn’t save so much money, I would give up on thrift shops. I’ve also washed the stinky laundry soap clothes in everything I can think of many many times, and the only thing that works reliably on every fabric is to hang it outside for. ever. Sun is great if you have it, but it’ll work either way. It just takes a long time. I feel sorry for the outdoors, that it has to absorb the stink. :./

    I did notice a difference when I got a spin dryer to extract more of the water from the clothes than the washing machine does, especially synthetics like fleece that take the longest to de-stink. I hang them outside for a few days first, to spare the washing machine. Then a wash with unfragranced detergent, run it through the spin dryer, and then hang it outside until I can’t smell it anymore. There have been a few synthetics that I can’t ever get the stink out, and those I just had to throw away.

  • I came here looking for a solution to removing detergent or fabric softener smells in some shirts I bought on eBay. I washed them in organic, scent-free laundry soap in hot water; then soaked them in that soap; then washed them again and they don’t reek any less now than they did AND now the 2 pairs of new jeans I washed with them because they had a little laundry smell now reek as bad as the shirts. Whatever you do, don’t wash them with anything else until you manage to get the stink out.

    • Renee

      I’m working on 4 loads of clothes that my husband washed while he was on the road. I’ve soaked them with OdorZout, put them in bags tied up with a Bad Air Sponge, then washed with my fragrance free detergent, baking soda, and Borax; they still smell. Now I covered them with alcohol, I figured it would break down the binders in the scent; those detergent smells are designed to last through multiple washings. It would have been much easier for me had he brought home dirty clothes. I could have washed them once.

  • Signify

    The chemicals remain in the fabric, on skin, and are absorbed by the body. The only thing to do is throw out the clothing.

    • Renee

      My husband did laundry while he was at a relatives, I’m trying to get the fragrance out, and just told him I might have to throw the clothes away. Seriously, I have them in bags outside with a Bad Air Sponge in them.

  • Branch Basics came across our radar several months ago, and we tried to contact them with a couple questions, but we didn’t get a response. The information on their website does look promising though. ~Laura

  • We just received an update about Branch Basics today, Ashley, and it’s not good news. Unfortunately, their products are neither natural or plant-based. Here’s an excerpt from an email we received from Dr. Mitchell, Pesticide Sheriff:

    “Based upon information and belief, from at least mid 2013 to today, Marilee, Allison, Kelly, and Chip sells “Branch Basics” online making a litany of intentional false fraudulent misrepresentations. What was discovered is that:
    -Branch Basics is not a soap, in fact there is no soap of any kind in it;
    -Branch Basics is neither organic nor natural (plant-based is a ruse);
    -There are no enzymes in Branch Basics;
    -There are no actual organic substances in Branch Basics;
    -Branch Basics is a 100% synthetic detergent and oil spill cleanup agent containing:
    · Cocamidopropyl betaine (synthetic surfactant)
    · Disodium EDTA (chelating agent),
    · Alkyl ether C12-15 Pareth-12 (synthetic surfactant / emulsifier),
    · Coco-glucoside (synthetic surfactant / foaming agent / cleanser),
    · Petroleum product Propylene glycol laurate (emollient / surfactant)
    · Petroleum product Propanediol 1,2 (synthetic surfactant / emulsifier / chelating agent).”

    And it goes on…It appears that Branch Basics has suspended sales on their website as well since all of their products are listed as out of stock at this time. ~Laura

  • Diane Keenan

    I’m so glad I found all of you. My own grown children and my siblings families are all sensitive in varying degrees, if not just disgusted at the thirst to pollute everything with scents. I know which days all of my neighbors do laundry just by walking my dog. My favorite thrift store has a machine that sprays scent at intervals. The longer the clothes are there the more they smell. I have them unplug it whenever I shop, which is once a month after my haircut. If it’s sprayed recently, I don’t even shop. I bought a trash can two years ago for a project and use it for recycling, now. It reeked but I had used it enough before I discovered it was responsible for stinking my garage up. I contacted the manufacturer about it. It is made from recycled laundry detergent bottles! People seem oblivious to the situation and now I read why. someone I care deeply about lived in an apartment where the laundry was in the kitchen and the boyfriend smoked. The smells bonded together and found its way into the food. Her nose was deadened to it then and baked goods on the holidays were inedible. Thankfully, all things are changed for her and her ability to smell these things has returned and she has joined our population and is even more fierce than I about matters. Now, how do we convince the masses that they have been polluted into ignorance and insensitivity of chemical odors and the needs of those who aren’t? Meanwhile, you can now buy extra scent to augment your laundry scent so that you reek every time you move for months!

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