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Help! My Bra Smells Even After I Wash It

The real secret is hand washing your unmentionables

Morten Olsen/Getty

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Out, Damned Spot has long provided general tips to keep your fashions looking amazing, but now, twice a month, I'll also be answering questions about the very specific problems your new (or old!) purchases may present. Do you have questions for me? Ask away!

Hi Jolie!

I was wondering if you could help me figure something out. I have a bra that I LOVE that still smells a little funky after I wash it. I was hoping there would be a way to disinfect it.

I have read about putting tea tree oil or grapefruit seed extract in the washer with cold water. Do you think this would work? I am hesitant to use vinegar to soak it because it is an underwire bra. Would hydrogen peroxide work? Thanks so much! You're great! — Megan M.

I'll tell you a secret, Megan! I'm 68% more likely to give you a pass on machine washing your bras if you compliment me in your question. I'm still going to try to convince you to hand-wash those bras, but I thrive on positive reinforcement and would like you to continue to think me great, so after we talk about what's causing the smell issue and how to fix it, we'll round out today's column with some tips for machine washing your bras without destroying them.

What's Causing the "Funky" Smell

While I can't say for absolute sure, because I can't examine your actual bras, what I suspect is going on is that you're using too much detergent when you're laundering your bras. Overuse will lead to detergent buildup, which in turn will lead to the development of a sort of mildew-y smell, because the soap combined with your sweat, oils, and dander creates a perfect environment for bacterial growth.

It may also be the case that the bras aren't being washed often enough, leading to an excess buildup of skin and sweat that's not getting entirely washed out when you do your laundry. The frequency with which you wash your bras will depend on a few factors, such as how many bras there are in your collection, what kind of activity you're doing in them, and how hot it is outside, etc. Basically, the more often you wear a bra and the sweatier you get in it, the more often you'll want to wash it. A good guideline is to aim to wash your bras every 3-6 wearings.

Odor Eliminators for Delicates

Now that you know what's causing the lingering smell, let's talk about how to fix it and keep it from happening in the future.

Megan asked about using essential oils to eliminate bacteria and odors, and while those are an option, they're not the best option. Mostly because they're quite expensive! It's also very easy to use way too much of the stuff. So, unless you're really enamored of the idea of grapefruit seed extract, skip the essential oils and use one of these products instead.

Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Liquid Soap: Good old Dr. Bronner's is such great stuff, and the peppermint scent, in particular, is incredibly effective when it comes to nuking really funky laundry odors. Substitute it for your regular laundry detergent, being careful not to overuse it.

Borax: Borax is a laundry booster, used in conjunction with your regular laundry detergent, that is great for brightening whites as well as eliminating lingering odors. It's also gentle enough to use on your delicates.

White Vinegar: White vinegar is perfectly fine to use on bras, no problem there at all. A quarter-to-half cup added during the rinse cycle of the wash, will be more than enough.

Baking Soda: If the idea of white vinegar still makes you nervous, or if you just hate the smell of vinegar, baking soda is another pantry-staple-cum-laundry-booster that can be used in concert with detergent to offer a little extra odor neutralization.

Sports Detergents: Sports detergents like HEX or Tide Odor Defense, which are designed to be gentle on the temperamental stretchy and sweat-wicking fabrics that our yoga pants are made of, can be safely used on bras. And, since they're formulated to remove the stench from our workout gear, they'll definitely take care of odors that are lingering on your bras.

Tips for Machine Washing Bras

It's important enough to me that I'm going to state it again: I would really prefer if you would hand-wash your bras! It's a not-at-all time- or labor-intensive operation, and it really is so, so, so, so, so much better for your boulder holders.

However, I also live in the real world with the rest of you, as I'm fond of saying, and I know that many of you will choose to machine wash your bras for a whole variety of reasons. That's okay! You are a grown woman with free will to determine how and how not to care for your things. And because I want to support you in your choices, here's a refresher on best practices for machine washing bras and other delicates:

  • Select the gentle cycle on the washing machine;
  • Cold water is ideal, because warm or hot water can weaken the elastic in bras;
  • Use a mild detergent designed for delicates, and be mindful not to use too much of it;
  • Put bras in a zip-top mesh laundry bag to protect the straps and hooks from becoming stretched or bent;
  • Avoid washing bras with heavy items like towels, sweatshirts or jeans, all of which can abrade the delicate fabric and cause metal or plastic underwire to become bent and misshapen.

While I'm cool with you machine washing your bras, or at least accepting of that fact of life, what I am a real stickler about is air drying your bras by laying them flat or hanging them by the center gore. Never hang a wet bra to dry by the straps, because the weight of the wet bra will stretch the straps out, and that's no good. And please, please, please don't put your bras in the dryer!