How To Get Rid of Closet Smell

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Mold, mildew, shoe odor and laundry can all lead to a terrible laundry smell! Here are some tips to prevent and rid yourself of closet smells.

Assorted Clothes and Boots Inside a Closet Room. managing closet smell

What causes that unpleasant odour?

​Several things can cause bad odors, here are a few:

Dirty clothes or shoes
Leaking containers
Mold, mildew or other dampness
Poor Ventilation

If you have no idea what’s causing your closet smell, the first step is to remove the contents of the closet so you can rid yourself of the smell. You need to know if the source of the smell is the contents or the closet itself.

While emptying the closet, be mindful of anything that needs to be put in the garbage, the donation bin, or needs to be relocated to another spot in the house where it belongs. 

Laundry or shoes

Yes, there is always laundry. 

Dirty laundry is an easy fix.  Start with a load of laundry. Sweat, oils and cosmetics attract bacteria. Keep in mind, silk, cashmere and wool can attract moths; take extra care with those.

Tackling laundry musty odors

Put a generous sprinkling of baking soda in running shoes or heels overnight if the problem is smelly shoes. Let all wet footwear dry before storing it in the closet.

Do not put damp clothing in your closet, only fully dry pieces. If it can’t go in the dryer – like technical fabric/workout gear or delicate fabrics – use a drying rack or hang it in your bathroom or laundry room until it is fully dry. This means also means not storing sweaty gym clothes or your laundry hamper in the closet.

The first thing you should do when bringing home dry cleaning is remove the plastic bag. It will trap moisture. If you need to keep dust off an outfit, use a garment bag instead.

Choose wooden hangers instead of plastic ones as they will absorb moisture. Cedar hangers can also repel pests if that is an issue where you live. 

You can also pop dryer sheets in your closet for a fresher scent!

a pile of teenager clothing can definitely cause laundry smell you need to get rid of

Leaking Containers

This is never a good surprise. You may be able to identify an unpleasant odor as you hone in on the problem

​What to do:

Check each bottle or jar of perfume, soap or cleaner you store here. Hopefully, it is a loose cap, but if it’s a leak or spill, you may need to do a good scrub.

Declutter if it is too tight and things are frequently getting knocked over. 

Consider using a tray or basket to contain items that are at risk of spilling. 

Managing leaks is a fantastic way to rid yourself of closet smells.


Oh good grief, I sometimes feel like I have phantom mold trauma in my brain from the awful mouldy smells form the past!

Dealing with mold

In the empty closet, look for mold or mildew. It’s usually black or white, but it could be other colours.

If you find mold, stop and judge how much there is. Mold covering an area larger than 0.92 m (10 square feet) should be handled by a professional mold removal specialist. That’s about the size of a bath towel. You risk breathing in mold spores when it’s so much.

If it’s a minor bit of mold, fill a spray bottle with distilled white vinegar or a mix of bleach and water. Spray it on, leave it for 30 minutes before scrubbing with a brush. Wipe with a clean wet cloth and let fully dry. 

Activated charcoal won’t remove or prevent mold damage, but it may remove mycotoxins in the air from the mold or mildew. If you want to take this extra step after properly cleaning, leave the activated charcoal in the empty closet with the door closed for six hours. 

Clean the closet. Sweep or vacuum to get as much dust, allergens or dust mites as possible. Wipe down all hard surfaces, including the walls, corners and floor of your closet. Do not limit washing to only the mold-affected area.

If you find any animal droppings, use rubber gloves to remove them. Look for entry points that need to be blocked up. Determine if additional pest control measures are necessary.

Mildew stains on shabby wall.
Mildew, ew!


Mold growth doesn’t happen without moisture so this needs to be addressed otherwise the breeding ground will continue and mold will return.

With the closet empty, it is easy to check for signs of water damage. If you see any bubbled paint or discoloured spots on the walls or ceiling, don’t assume they are old. A water leak should not be ignored.

Moisture solutions

If seasonal humidity or proximity to the bathroom is an issue, you may want to look for a small dehumidifier or air conditioner. Remember to empty the water tray often. Moisture absorbing desiccants are another option. (This is what the silica packets found in packaging for shoes and electronics are). 

In a pinch, a few sticks of chalk in a cloth bag or even in a coffee mug on the closet shelf will absorb excess moisture. Use what you have to rid yourself of closet smells.

laundry on a drying rack.
make sure clean clothes are dry!

Poor Ventilation

If your closet is dry and mold-free, it may smell stale from poor air circulation.

If the closet is packed tight, there will be little air circulation. Decluttering your winter clothes, linens or whatever personal belongings you store here might be necessary to improve air movement. Think breathing room. Clothing should not smell musty when pulled out of storage.

How to improve ventilation

Like open windows in the rest of your house, an easy way to get fresh air in your closet is to simply leave the door open from time to time.

A small fan can be an option in a walk-in closet. If you opt for an air purifier, make sure you have at least six inches of space around it. 

If your closet has any vents, ensure they are not blocked or partially obscured. The vent cover may need to be taken off and cleaned periodically. Similarly, dust louvred closet doors regularly to maximize airflow.

Backpacks or bags

Sadly, I’ve come across more than one backpack with moldy and gross old food in it.

Keeping bags clean

I used to regularly (ok, just spring break and summer vacation), go through my kids and other bags in the closet.

I’d take that sucker outside and shake any crumbs and scraps out! On occasion, the bag needs to be trashed, but I always try to wash it in the washer once or twice first.

General Tips for Freshening Up the Closet

When you’ve finished cleaning and refilling your closet, you may want to freshen it up.

Coffee beans are a natural deodorizer. Fill a fabric bag with whole beans or coffee grounds and keep it in the closet. It will need to be replaced every couple of months to keep its odour-absorbing power. Baking soda will do the same but only needs to be replaced yearly.

An essential oil diffuser can add scent to a closet. If you don’t have a diffuser, dab a few drops of essential oil on cotton balls and place them in a shallow dish on your shelf; replace them monthly. (Note: some essential oils are not pet-friendly when diffused. )

Cedar blocks, sachets or hangers that attach to your clothing rod are other options for adding scent.  

Adding the closet to your regular cleaning routine will help; a quick dust and wipe doesn’t take much time.

Declutter your closet and use these tips: A to Z Minimalist Home Decluttering Strategy 2024 

Bottom line: The best way to prevent smelly closets is to keep the contents dry in the first place and trust your nose when you smell something wrong behind that door.

Best cleaning routine:

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