Sour Smelling Dish Rags?

Do you have nasty smelling dish rags?

A short while ago, a reader told me about a non-absorbent dish rag that just doesn’t get stinky, and I love them as they do what they say they will!

But I still use a terry cloth rag to wipe things up and, well, it still gets stinky — although not nearly so quickly or so badly since I’m not using it for everything.  I highly recommend the non-absorbent dish rags (they’re not expensive) but realize that you can’t use them for everything.

In talking to other cruisers, it seems that almost everyone has this problem.   The good news is that you can do something about it.

Thinking about it, I would have guessed that I’d have the biggest problem with my dish rags smelling nasty when it’s hot out.  But no, it seems to be in cooler temperatures that it’s worst.  Not only do my cloths and sponges smell nasty, but that smell transfers to my hands when I pick them up.  YUCK!

When it’s hot out, even with the higher humidity, the rags dry quickly.  And it seems that they never dry once it turns cooler.  And never drying out is part of the problem.

What I learned was that I had to follow all six of the following steps.  Skipping any of them will still left me with stinky dish rags and sponges.

Step 1:  Rinse the Rag After Every Use

When you’re trying to conserve water, it’s sometimes hard to bring yourself to rinse your rag every time.  But if you don’t bacteria will grow on the food particles that are in the cloth, and the food itself will start to smell as well.

Ideally, you’d use a bunch of fresh water every time you rinsed the rag.  This just isn’t feasible aboard most boats unless you’re at a dock or in the tropical rainy season where you can fill your tanks with 30 gallons of water in a 10-minute squall (we once collected over 50 gallons in less than 10 minutes in El Salvador).

So I kept a bowl with about a quart of water in it tucked into the sink and swished the rag around in it when I needed to rinse it.  I found that if I added a couple of tablespoons (a “glug”) of ammonia or white vinegar to the water, it worked even better.  You don’t have to rinse the vinegar or ammonia out, they just help to kill anything that would cause an odor.  Unless I was doing heavy cleaning, I usually changed this rinse water just once a day, in late afternoon and then threw it out at night.

NOTE:  Don’t use ammonia and vinegar together — the ammonia is a mild base while the vinegar is a mild acid and they’ll cancel each other out.  I’m not sure if the mixture puts off any bad gases, some sources say yes and some say no, but I’m not testing it!

Step 2:  Wring the Rags As Dry As You Can

The more water you wring out, the less has to evaporate.

Step 3:  Don’t Leave Rags Wadded Up

Air has to be able to get to the rag to dry it.  My sweetie and I had more than a few discussions about this one, as he’d just plunk it down on the counter.

Step 4:  Hang the Dish Rag for the Best Air Flow

Basically, you need to hang rags flat, not by a corner where they drape down.  Air needs to get to the whole cloth.  And don’t hang it behind doors or inside a cupboard.  I found that the safety bar in front of the stove was the best place on our boat.  Others hang them over the kitchen faucet.  If there’s a place in front of an open port hole or fan, that’s perfect!

For sponges, the best thing you can do is stand them upright on an edge.  Again, the goal is to expose as much of the surface as possible.

Step 5:  Use Extra Ammonia or Vinegar at Night

Right before going to bed, add a little extra ammonia or vinegar to the rinse water and rinse the rag out one final time, wring it out and hang it to dry.  If it sits all night without being clean first, it will definitely smell in the morning!

Step 6:  Start Fresh Every Morning

If yesterday’s cloth isn’t totally, 100% dry in the morning, get out a different dish rag for the day.  Let yesterday’s cloth continue to dry.  When it is completely dry, you can either put it in the laundry bag or set it aside for use tomorrow.

Somehow, letting dish cloths dry totally before using them again seems to really help.  And I resisted it for a long time, figuring that if it was okay to use it again after it dried, why not if it was still a little damp.  But it does make a difference.

With the limitations on storage space on a 37′ boat, I didn’t have the luxury of using a totally fresh cloth every day.  I tried to get 2 or even 3 days’ usage out of each one, and using these tips I never felt that I was using a “nasty” rag.  My hands didn’t stink, either.

A big side benefit to keeping the dish cloths smelling sweeter and drying them thoroughly before putting them in the laundry bag was that the laundry didn’t stink.  And considering that we kept it in a cubby under the head of the bed, this was important.

One final tip should someone (not you!) leave a rag wadded up on the counter overnight and you get stinky hands taking care of it:  rub a lemon or lime over your hands, or rinse your hands in vinegar or ammonia water.  This does a far better job than soap at getting rid of the odor.

If you know of any other tips for preventing sour-smelling dish cloths, please share them!

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  • Candy Ann Williams
    Posted at 25 December 2010 Reply

    This sounds very helpful….I am so glad that I have found your website and your facebook page…I will share with my cruising buddies. I love the spreadsheet…it is much better than what I was trying to do. Keep up the good work!

  • Tod
    Posted at 09 July 2011 Reply

    My mom periodically boils her dish rags to freshen them: pot of water, plop the offending rag in and boil for a while.

  • Cris
    Posted at 01 February 2012 Reply

    I just found your site today. I’m looking forward to reading your book!

    Whenever possible, I prefer to use a fresh rag every time I do dishes, or at least once a day. An easy way to make several lightweight, easily storable, and most importantly, quick-drying rags is to cut a thin cotton flour sack kitchen towel into dish rag sized pieces and surge the edges so they won’t unravel. I like the ones from Crate and Barrel, which are sold in packs of three. You can make 6 large or 8 small dish rags from one colored towel, and more from the white ones, as they are larger. The towels are also extremely absorbent and do a great job of drying dishes or wiping up spills.

    Also, I always cut my scrubby sponges in half, thirds, or even quarters, depending on the original size. I find that in most cases it’s just as easy and effective to use half a sponge as it is to use a whole one. The smaller sponge dries out more quickly, as well. And, if it gets too gunked up or stinky, you still have the other piece(s) fresh and clean and ready to go.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 01 February 2012 Reply

      Cris — Thanks for the ideas. I’ve always used half a paper towel, but never thought to cut my scrubbies in two! Guess what I’m off to do . . . .


  • Diane Dashevsky
    Posted at 27 February 2012 Reply

    I have noticed that MANY boats have stainless steel sinks like mine. Anytime your hands get stinky from the sour rag, cutting onions, peeling shrimp, etc….just rub your hands on the stainless steel. All the odor is magically GONE from your hands/fingers!! I actually have a small gadget – actually a piece of stainless steel wrapped around a plastic “bar”…kind of looks like a sm bar of stainless steel soap. I now have to use that at home since I just got rid of my stainless steel sink at the house. This works the best for me since of course I never have a fresh lemon/lime when I need one! LOL!

  • Jessie
    Posted at 17 March 2012 Reply

    I just tried a dischloth that doesn’t get stinky. We bought it for camping but now we use it at home. It’s called Scrubr and made by Lunatec. It dries so fast it doesn’t have time to get smelly. Here is the link to a review where we read about it,

  • Jim
    Posted at 11 May 2012 Reply

    I bought six of the Scrubr rags last time you suggested them. I tried one in the house and I am now a Scrubr junkie! I bought 18 more, 12 for the boat and 6 for the office.

    I am going to have to buy more because I found another great use for them! I keep the teak on my boat au naturale (no varnish). The Scrubr rags are the perfect texture for cleaning bare teak as it turns out. They are just abrasive enough to remove dirt without removing the beautiful outer layer of wood.

  • Sami Bolton
    Posted at 11 May 2012 Reply

    Hi Guys…..I have a simpler way that seems to work for us:

    I keep a spray bottle filled with rubbing alcohol and water….about 4 to 1……and spray sponges, brushes and yes, tea towels to keep them from getting funky. I also spray
    countertops and cutting boards and even silverware if hot water is hard to get. It kills germs as the fine mist dries. Once its dry its gone. I do this in the head after each use as well and on bath towels. So far doing this for 6 years onboard, no ill effects or anything ruined. Its VERY cheap and easy.

  • tami
    Posted at 06 September 2012 Reply

    Just found this tip for sponges:

    Personally, I’ve found that bleach solves most problems, and vinegar solves the rest 😉

  • Liz
    Posted at 27 June 2013 Reply

    I’m lucky enough to have a microwave aboard. About every other day, I pop my moist soapy dish rag or sponge into the microwave and nuke it for a minute or so until it’s really hot and steamy. I then carefully remove it and allow it to dry as quickly as possible by hanging the cloth or positioning the sponge upright for air circulation. I assume this prevents insidious onset of stink by murdering (cooking to death) the germs that cause the stinking. I find this doubles the time-between-washings of dish rags and doubles the useful life of sponges.

    A few words of caution:
    Don’t put a dry sponge or rag in the microwave, it could potentially catch fire if it gets hot enough.
    Don’t burn yourself when you take the hot rag/sponge out of the microwave.
    Beware, if your sponge or rag already stinks, microwaving it will permeate the entire boat with stink. Only use this as a stink-preventive measure, not a stink-curative measure.
    Don’t leave the rag or sponge nuking in the microwave unsupervised. Watch it as it nukes to make sure it doesn’t dry out.

  • Skylar Walker
    Posted at 27 August 2014 Reply

    I like all your suggestions and would add that if your sponge or dishrag gets smelly you can get it wet, add a gulf if dish soap & microwave it for about 1 minute. Let it cool before you try to use it but, it kills the bad smell & probably kills at least some of the germs.

  • Sue
    Posted at 27 August 2014 Reply

    I have found vinegar works too -a bit more environmentally friendly than bleach. But I use boiling water…half a cup seems to work…when I have wiped down everything, briefly rinsed it and wrung it out, I place it in half a cup of boiling water. I do this whenever I wash up…and my dish cloths don’t smell.

  • Martha Howard-Griffith
    Posted at 27 August 2014 Reply

    I just use handi wipes. They are disposable, very inexpensive, when they get smelly I just toss in the trash. Also I have trouble “squeezing” out larger rags due to aching hands. This seems to work great.

  • Tammy Swart
    Posted at 29 August 2014 Reply

    I make my own laundry soap with tea tree oil as an ingredient and haven’t had a stinky towel since we started using it…except for the one time we forgot to bring it and did laundry with commercially purchased soap again…

  • Stephanie Ellen
    Posted at 26 May 2016 Reply

    microwave them for 2 minutes every 2 days…kills bacteria/ etc…

  • Diana K Weigel
    Posted at 26 May 2016 Reply

    Now to train the DH!

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