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Cleaning old smelly sheets

Posted by ejr2005 (My Page) on
Sun, Feb 16, 14 at 21:23

I have some old sheets that I'd like to revive. They are a bit smelly and yellowing in areas such as where our heads rest. I originally posted on the Cleaning Tips forum and was advised to soak the sheets for 24 hours in 1-2 cups of dissolved Oxiclean with a full water level and then wash normally adding 1/2 cup of vinegar to the rinse water. I did this and it seemed to work well except there is still a bit of a smell.

I started researching on this forum and my head is spinning. There is so much information here! I have a newer top loading Speed Queen.

From what I've gleaned here, the Oxiclean may not be the best to get out what's probably in the sheets - oils from hair, skin and moisturizers. After draining the Oxiclean, I washed the sheets with Arm and Hammer Free for Sensitive Skin, and then did a second rinse. I'm wondering if I should use a different detergent like Tide or Gain that have been mentioned here. I also just bought Green Shield Organic Free and Clear from Costco. I tend to be sensitive to detergents so I like sticking to what I know, but I could always rewash in the Arm & Hammer if there is a problem.

I'm also wondering about changing the color of the sheets. I guess Oxiclean is bleach. The sheets I washed were ivory and do look a little whiter now than I think the were originally. That's fine for these sheets, but some of the others I want to clean are pastel colors - tan and a peachy color.

Also wondering if the 24 hour soak is overkill. It really ties up the washing machine and I think I saw here that the Oxiclean probably isn't active for more than a few hours.

The first set of sheets were Royal Sateen which I don't care as much about. I also have several sets of old Charisma sheets which I'd really like to use for another 15 years.

Thanks for any advice you can give me.


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Try adding 20 Mule Team Borax in the wash cycle, about 1/2 cup.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Use the hottest water you have available. The hotter, the quicker and deeper the body soil will be removed. Soaking for 24 hours is pretty extended, but once in a while will not hurt anything. Oxyclean works best in hot water. It is Oxygen bleach, and is color safe on lighter fabrics. Once the soaking water is cooled, it is probably not doing much work. I second the suggestion of Borax, too. I would also try some Tide with Bleach POWDER. It is the best detergent in the States, as far as I am concerned. You could re-wash with your Arm and Hammer if allergy is a concern. Good luck!

This post was edited by Miele1966 on Tue, Feb 18, 14 at 8:04


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

2nd the suggestion for using Tide with Bleach. I'm a total cheapskate but I still buy this. It's amazing how clean it gets things (especially whites) without worrying about hunting for stains and pretreating them.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

yes, definitely include hottest water and Oxiclean!


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Stain removal and odor removal are different IME. Stain removal is much easier and Oxiclean + hot water has given me consistently excellent results in my top loader. But I can get 165 degree water. No idea if a Speed Queen has a heater and can do that.

The only laundry product I have found that removes odor from old sheets is the Persil green gel.

Here is a link that might be useful: Persil green gel


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

rocoogurl, are u seriously claming that Oxiclean doesn't remove odors??


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

dave, I am devoted to Oxi and IME it removes most stains and yellowing. Odors, not completely.

I had several sets of older very high quality sheets that had been laundered for several years in our apartment house washers. When we got the Bosch FL we tried washing them multiple times with Oxi, vinegar and more than a half-dozen laundry products I was testing. Nothing removed the odor until we tried the Persil gel.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Borax is an excellent odor remover.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

I've had variable luck with vinegar, roco--guess it depends on what the odor is. Personally I havent relied on Oxiclean to remove odors--I use it to keep whites white and to help get my oily rags clean. There is quite a bit of commenting on line about Oxiclean supposedly working on odors.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

I love buying new linens from time to time. Maybe it's time to go shopping for new sheets.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Do a hand wash of the sheets and pillow cases using Dawn dish soap in hot water and let them soak for a while. Swish them around a bit then rinse thoroughly. Wash them on the longest heavy duty cycle in hot water with your detergent and Oxy. Wash only one set of sheets and pillow cases at a time.

This post was edited by twebbz on Tue, Feb 18, 14 at 20:05


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Thanks everyone - these are some great ideas.

I may just try a few of these - Persil, Borax, Dawn dish soap. I'm experimenting with the Royal Sateen sheets which I really don't care about and are pretty sturdy so I won't do any real damage.

We're pretty basic with laundry which is why we got the Speed Queen. But it won't hurt to have a few more complicated processes for those special items.

I'll have to take the temperature of the water in the washer...


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Smelly yellowing where heads rested on sheets is probably from oxidized oil. Over time, oils react with oxygen to form tough films.

Oxiclean is a great product for removing organic pigment stains, but not grease and certainly not oxidized grease.

The first approach to try is heat + strong surfactant + friction. I would scrub some Tide liquid detergent into the stained area with a stiff brush, then soak in a pot of near-boiling water. Remove and scrub while rinsing with hot water. Apply more detergent, scrub, and soak again. Reapplying is very important for removing grease with surfactant. After 2 or 3 reapplications, let the fabric dry (without heat) and see how it looks.

If there is still a greasy stain, try a solvent like Citrasolv or heavy-duty degreaser. Scrub into the fabric with a brush (without water), let it sit, then scrub in some detergent, soak in hot water, scrub and rinse in hot water.

Once the greasy film is gone from the fabric fibers, the smell will probably be gone too. Oxidized grease itself smells bad, and holds other odor molecules as well. The heat of the hot water soak would kill any odor-causing bacteria as well.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Nice to know what makes sheets smelly over time. And oxidized oil -- now that I know how to ID it -- is what I certainly had.

However, sateen sheets are woven with longer fibers on top and do not lend themselves to scrubbing with brushes unless you want snags and, eventually, tears.

Tide was used to wash the smelly sheets and didn't do the job. Nor did repeated washing with the Sanitize cycle in the Bosch front loader.

Sounds like odor removal is a combo of product, aggressive agitation and very hot water.

Again, no idea about water temp in a Speed Queen though they certainly have devoted users. If there is no onboard heater, then it's likely house-hot-water temperature which could be supplemented with the tea kettle.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

I was able to get the bad smell out of old sheets by first washing with oxi clean in my short 25 minute cycle which uses cool water and then using Persil , the green gel on a full heavy duty cycle using warm , not hot.
My machine has a heater so temps are pretty accurate.

I read online that to get the rancid body oil smell out
of sheet, use warm , not hot water. I thought it was strange,but decided to give it a try and it worked.
I've continued to wash them that way with two cycles. I don't use Persil every time because it is so expensive (probably every other time)


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Might try Wisk liquid. It claims to remove body oils and dirt best. Rated high with CR.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Do a prewash with cool water, detergent, and STPP.

Do a long main wash with fairly hot water (120-140F), detergent, and STPP (I have no experience with oxy clean). Note - if you have a FL washer with internal heating, you may be able to skip the prewash and have it fill with cool water but heat it until it's hot)

Rinse twice or three times. I like to add liquid fabric softener on the last rinse.

Removes stains and odors IME.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Thank you all for your suggestions. I've been experimenting with a few of them and wanted to report in.

First I tried washing the Royal Sateen sheets (which I don't care as much about) in 2 cups of Oxiclean - hot water (about 125 degrees), extra large load, heavy setting, agitate, soak 24 hours, rinse twice. Then wash in my regular Arm and Hammer Free of Perfumes and Dyes (A&H) - same settings, rinse 2X with vinegar in one of the rinses. After drying it still smelled a bit. Rewashed in Wisk liquid similar procedure. It really smelled of the perfume in the Wisk so I rewashed in the A&H. They still smelled a bit of the perfume in Wisk but I let them sit in the laundry room for a few days and they were better.

The second set was similar but I let them soak in the Oxiclean for only 3 hours. I used liquid Tide instead of the Wisk and added 1/2 cup of Borax. Rewashed w/A&H. Forgot to add vinegar.

The third set of the Royal Sateen I did the same as the second but I remembered the vinegar.

All three sets came out remarkably clean. I was amazed at how scented both the Tide and Wisk were - I guess I'm really used to unscented laundry. The Wisk smell bothered me much more than Tide. I was afraid that the detergent scents were masking the old body smells, but both detergent scents seemed to go away over time and the body odors did not come back. I was also okay sleeping on the sheets in sets one and two. I tend to have sensitive skin but had no itching. The only thing I noticed was that my sinuses cleared the first time I slept in each set (maybe that's a good thing?).

I did notice that the color on all the Royal Sateen sheets changed a bit - from a tannish ivory to a more yellow ivory.

Then I decided to try a combination of andersons and tweebbz's suggestions with the worst offenders of the Charisma sets - the pillowcases. I didn't have a pot big enough to do the sheets too. I pretty much followed andersons instructions using Tide liquid on one case and Dawn dish soap on the other. They both got rid of smelly residue completely. The Tide one was a bit perfume smelly. The Dawn one smelled great but it did change the color of the pillowcase from off-white to white. That's okay because I have a set of white Charisma sheets it now goes with.

I then tried washing 3 white Charisma pillow cases in just Tide, Wisk or Persil liquids and see how clean they got. All had some yellowing but they weren't all the same so it was very unscientific. I let all three air dry and then inspected them. The Wisk one was still the most yellowed and smelled the worst. It did though hang dry almost wrinkle free. The Tide one was the least yellow and smelled the best, but it was very wrinkled and looked like the threads were "hairy" and not silky smooth like the Wisk one. The Persil one was a little more yellow, more smelly and more smooth. It also had an old stain on it which I treated with a variety of things and will rewash later.

The fourth, fifth and sixth loads were done with the same basic procedure as the third load with Oxiclean soaks between 3 and 5 hours. The fourth load was with off white Wamsutta Elite Pinpoint, and fifth and sixth were white Charisma. The fourth and fifth load were done with the green Persil instead of Tide. They both seem really clean. A bit detergent smelly at first but it faded with time. The sixth load is being done with liquid Tide. I'm rerunning the pillowcase. I'm curious as to weather everything will now have that "hairy" look.

I have one more load of white Charisma sheets which I will do similarly but with Wisk instead of the Tide or Persil. I'll put in the still yellowed pillowcase done with Wisk prior to see if the yellow and smell come out.

I have a few remaining loads that I'd like your advice on. They're tan and peach-colored Charisma. Light colored but I really don't want to change them. I bought Oxiclean liquid that's color safe and I'm thinking about using that instead of the powder. I also don't know about Borax and vinegar. Any advice, cautions?


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

The technique I've always used to remove any type of organic stain or odor is cold soak followed by hot wash. It works on the coffee, works on blood etc. I've used that for 10 years now with 3 different washers.

Warm or hot water will set organic stains. Once a stain is set it's very tough to remove.

So whether it's in the sink or the washer, I start with cold water -- the colder the better -- and no more than 1/4 cup powdered Oxiclean. That's quite a lot. I can't imagine using more.

That's followed by a hot wash. Ideal hot wash water is 140F. In my machine 125 F would be very warm.

When you say " I was amazed at how scented both the Tide and Wisk were" I wonder if too much detergent was used. Fragrance should not be very strong if things are completely rinsed.

A good laundry product should not change the color of a sheet. If that's happening I would be very concerned about using that product again.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

Oxiclean CAN affect the colors of fabric dyes. So if you don't want any color change at all, don't use any Oxiclean on your Charisma sheets. Don't use vinegar either. Acids can also attack dyes.

The active stain-remover in Oxiclean (powder) is hydrogen peroxide. HP works much more strongly with heat, and is barely active at all in cold water. Concentration is extremely important; too-strong solution will fade dyes. It seems that blue-green colors are most vulnerable to HP. Tan fabrics are combinations of blue-green and orange-yellow, so when the HP lightens the blue-green in a tan fabric, you are left with very ugly neon peachy color.

Incidentally, a similar effect happens with hair color, which uses hydrogen peroxide to raise hair's cuticle and attack the melanin pigment in the hair shaft. The pigments (for all hair colors) include various amounts of red, blue, and yellow. The blue is most easily attacked, leaving red (in the darker hair colors) and yellow (in the lighter colors), hence the problem with "brassiness" or "blorange" in hair coloring.

Anyway, Oxiclean is a very useful product for many types of organic stains, especially because it is cheap at Costco, but I never use it unless I have specific organic stains I want to remove from laundry. I don't use it if I really don't want ANY color fading on certain fabrics. I completely predissolve it so that no particles dissolve in the cycle and lighten little spots. I either use hot water cycles, OR leave a warm cycle soaking for several hours. I make sure that the powder stays dry, sealed in an air-tight bucket. (If product doesn't produce a lot of bubbles when dissolved in hot water, it has lost its potency.) I carefully measure according to package directions.

I have heard the advice to treat certain kinds of stains in cold water so that they won't "set." But when I have experimented personally, hot water (hot tap temperature) has removed stains for me faster and more completely than cold.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

I agree that oxygen bleach will lighten/ fade color, especially in cottons. It won't be as dramatic as chlorine bleach, and the fading might not be discernible after one wash. I have noticed fading in some cottons after one wash, so I reserve use of OxiClean for whites only.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

I would wash the sheets and pillowcases, by themselves, using 2 Tablespoons of Charlie's Soap on my longest, hottest cycle, followed by a double rinse. You might consider an extra rinse beyond that, as well.

Prevention is key to yellowed sheets and built-up body oils. My sheets and towels are always washed in my hottest water, with Charlie's Soap and no fabric softener. Daughters were concerned about their lovely wedding-gift towels having an awful smell--just the ones their husbands used. LOL! They were washing those towels in warm water, on gentle cycle, and adding fabric softener. Body soil requires hot water. Charlie's rinses clean so I don't need fabric softener--which, IME, leaves a waxy coating on fabrics over time.


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RE: Cleaning old smelly sheets

My husband used to be a short-order cook, lots of greasy fried foods, and I would put about a Tablespoon of Pine-Sol in each load of his work clothes.


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