How to Get Mildew Out of Clothes and Upholstery

Mildew is a type of fungal growth that can affect both clothing and upholstered furniture. Left untreated, it can cause permanent damage and discoloration. Removing mildew requires using the right techniques and products to kill the mold and prevent its return. With some time and effort, you can fully restore clothes and upholstery to a clean, mildew-free state.

What Causes Mildew in Clothes and Upholstery?

Mildew spores are always present in the air we breathe. When these spores land on a damp, warm surface with nutrients they can feed on, they germinate and grow, forming visible mildew colonies.

Several key conditions lead to mildew growth on clothes and upholstery:

  • Moisture – Mildew needs a damp or wet environment to develop. Clothes and fabric that don’t fully dry or upholstery that gets wet can create ideal conditions for mildew. High humidity also provides moisture.
  • Heat – Warm environments encourage mildew growth. Clothes jammed into hot washers or dryers can sweat and stay damp. Upholstery in warm, humid rooms is also susceptible.
  • Nutrients – Natural fibers like cotton and linen, along with the dyes used to color them, provide food for mildew. Upholstery stuffing and backings also supply nutrients.
  • Poor air circulation – Stagnant, still air prevents fabrics from fully drying and allows mildew to thrive. Clothes tucked away in hampers or closets and upholstery placed flush against walls tend to get less airflow.
  • Darkness – Mildew prefers dark locations with little light. Clothes and upholstery sheltered from sunlight are more prone to fungal growth.

Any clothes or upholstered items exposed to these conditions risk developing unsightly, discoloring mildew if preventative action isn’t taken.

Identifying Mildew on Fabric Items

Detecting mildew early is key to stopping damage. Here’s how to identify a mildew problem:

  • Look for visible growth – Mildew first appears as gray, brown, or black spots on fabric. The spots may be small at first but rapidly expand into large blotches. Growth occurs on both sides of the fabric.
  • Check for musty odors – Mildew has a distinctive musty, earthy smell. Give suspicious spots a sniff test – if they smell moldy, mildew is likely present.
  • Feel for stiffness – As mildew grows, it makes fabric stiff and crunchy. Gently rub the area – if it feels gritty or crusty, you have a mildew colony.
  • Examine in bright light – Shine a flashlight on questionable areas. The vivid colors of mildew will show up under bright light. Compare to uninfected areas.
  • Watch for discoloration – Mildew causes fabric discoloration, typically graying, browning, or blackening. Lighter-colored fabrics will also develop yellow stains.

Early action is vital, as mature mildew is harder to eradicate. Conduct inspections regularly and treat mildew ASAP.

How to Remove Mildew from Clothes

Killing and removing mildew from clothing requires laundering with bleach, detergent, and other fungicidal additives. Follow these steps:

1. Pretreat Small Spots

For isolated spots:

  • Mix 1 part lemon juice with 1 part salt and spray on spots
  • Let sit 1 hour, then wash as normal
  • The acid and salt will help deactivate and lift mildew

For larger areas:

  • Make a borax paste by mixing 1⁄2 cup borax with 1⁄2 cup hot water
  • Spread paste thickly over mildew stains
  • Let sit 1-2 hours before laundering

Pretreating breaks down mold prior to washing.

2. Wash in Hot Water

Wash mildew-affected clothes separately in the hottest water safe for the fabric. Heat helps kill mold and prevent transfer.

For whites, use the hottest setting.

For colors, wash in warm or cool water to prevent fading.

3. Use Bleach and Detergent

Add both bleach and detergent to the wash cycle.

  • Chlorine bleach kills mildew and removes discoloration
  • Oxygen bleach (hydrogen peroxide) is safer for colors
  • Detergent helps lift mold from fabric

Note: Check clothing tags – don’t use chlorine bleach on silk or wool.

4. Add Mildew Remover

For severe mildew, also add a commercial fungicidal additive. These provide extra mold-killing action.

  • Borax – 1⁄2 cup per load
  • White vinegar – 1 cup per load
  • Baking soda – 1⁄2 cup per load

5. Use High Agitation

Set the washer to use a high wash agitation cycle. Vigorous motion helps scrub out mildew.

6. Rinse Thoroughly

Rinse clothes in cool water 2-3 extra times to remove all bleach and additives. This prevents residue buildup.

7. Dry Promptly

Immediately place washed clothes in a hot dryer. Heat continues killing spores; drying prevents remolding.

With these steps, you can fully sanitize laundry and get rid of mildew and its musty odors. Avoid recontamination by properly drying all clothing after washing. Store clothes in well-ventilated areas.

Mildew Removal from Upholstery

Eliminating mildew from upholstered furniture requires a combination of cleaning methods to kill mold and lift it from stuffing, fabric and backing materials.

Vacuum First

Use a vacuum attachment to remove loose mildew from the upholstery’s surface. This prevents spreading spores when scrubbing.

Scrub With Bleach

Create a cleaning solution of:

  • 1⁄4 cup chlorine bleach
  • 1⁄4 cup mild soap
  • 1 quart warm water

Use a soft brush dipped in this solution to gently scrub mildew spots. Let soak 5 minutes, then blot dry. The soap boosts the bleach’s cleaning action.

Rinse Completely

Wipe all treated areas with a sponge dipped in clean water. Rinse soap and bleach residue – leaving it will damage fabric. Blot dry with towels.

Disinfect with Vinegar

Wipe down the upholstery using undiluted white vinegar. The high acidity kills mold spores. Let air dry.

Allow to Dry

After cleaning, allow the upholstery to completely air dry. Use fans to speed drying. Remaining moisture lets mildew return.

Vacuum Again

Once fully dry, vacuum again to lift any remaining mildew out of fabrics. Dispose of the vacuum bag afterward.

With heavy mildew growth, you may need to shampoo or steam clean upholstery after disinfecting. This flushes out mold from stuffing.

How to Prevent Mildew on Clothes and Upholstery

Preventing mildew from forming in the first place is easier than removing it after the fact. Here are proactive measures you can take:

  • Completely dry clothing and upholstery after washing. Don’t let items sit wet.
  • Use drying racks or fans to help clothing and fabric dry faster.
  • Avoid overcrowding washers, dryers, and closets – allow airflow.
  • Clean out lint traps and vents in washers, dryers, and HVAC systems.
  • Use an air conditioner or dehumidifier to lower indoor humidity below 50%.
  • Vacuum and brush upholstery regularly to remove embedded dirt and moisture.
  • Use UV sanitizing bags when storing clothing long-term. These kill mold and spores.
  • Spray vinegar on damp upholstery. Its antifungal properties inhibit mildew growth.
  • Add borax or baking soda along with detergent when laundering clothes.

Catching moisture buildup quickly and keeping fabrics fully dry is key to stopping mildew in its tracks. With proper prevention habits, your clothes and upholstered furniture can stay fresh and mold-free.

Common Questions About Mildew on Fabrics

How do I get mildew smell out of clothes?

To remove mildew odors from clothing:

  • Wash in hot water with bleach, borax or vinegar added
  • Rinse multiple times to eliminate residue
  • Air dry instead of machine drying when possible
  • For musty smelling clothes without visible mildew, add baking soda to the wash cycle

Does vinegar kill mildew on clothes?

Yes, vinegar is highly effective at killing mildew fungi. Its acetic acid is a proven disinfectant. When added to laundry, it sanitizes clothes and removes odors. Undiluted vinegar can also be used to wipe down mildewy upholstery.

What removes old mildew stains?

Bleach is best for eliminating old, set-in mildew stains. Make a paste of 1 part bleach and 3 parts baking soda and rub it into stained areas before washing. For colored fabrics, try hydrogen peroxide and lemon juice instead of chlorine bleach. Extended sunlight exposure also helps lift old stains.

Should you dry mildewy clothes in the dryer?

It’s best to thoroughly line or air dry clothes after washing out mildew, especially if stains remain. The heat of a dryer can set in any remaining discoloration. However, dryers provide additional mold-killing heat, so if clothes are only slightly affected, the dryer may finish eliminating mildew.

How do you get mildew out of upholstery foam?

To remove mildew deep in upholstery padding and stuffing: Mix a chlorine bleach cleaning solution and use a turkey baster or syringe to inject it deep into cushions. Let soak 15 minutes then blot dry. Repeat until no discoloration shows on towels. A wet/dry shop vacuum can also suck moisture and mold from deep inside.


Left unchecked, mildew can quickly spread across clothes and upholstery, causing unsightly staining, odors and permanent damage. Clothing should be washed promptly at the first signs of mold, using hot water, bleach and other anti-mildew additives. Upholstery takes a bit more effort to scrub, disinfect and dry out, but vigilant cleaning can eliminate mold before it ruins the fabric. With the right techniques and solutions, you can return clothes and furnishings to a fresh, mildew-free condition. Consistent prevention and drying is key to avoiding recurrent mold issues.