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What Happens If You Leave Wet Clothes in the Washing Machine, Experts Say

There's so much more that can happen than just a bad smell.

It's an experience everyone knows well. You throw a last-minute load of laundry into the washing machine at night and swear you'll remember to switch it to the dryer before bed. Then, oops, it's morning, and you realize last night's load of damp laundry is still sitting in the drum. Depending on how long it's been, you open the washing machine and are met with either relief or the smell of must and mold. However, have you ever thought of what's really going on when you leave clothes in the washer? Here, experts break down everything that takes place, from the impact it has on your clothes to the toll it takes on the appliance.

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Your clothes will develop a musty smell.

Young Woman Looking At Smelly Clothes Out Of Washing Machine In Kitchen

One of the first things you'll notice if you leave your clothes in the washing machine too long is that they'll develop a musty, sour scent.

"This is because the warm, damp environment inside the washing machine provides the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and mold to grow on the fabric," says Johanes Bangao Godoy, laundry and cleaning expert at Liox.

And no, that scent won't go away simply by drying them. "To eliminate the scent, you can try rewashing the clothes with a cup of white vinegar in the rinse cycle or using a laundry sanitizer product," Bangao Godoy adds. Give your clothes a sniff after that second wash to ensure the smell is gone. If it's not, you might have to go for round three.

The fibers of your clothes can weaken.

A hand putting a bra in the washing machine

Unfortunately, it's not just the scent of your clothes that can take a hit. The actual fibers can deteriorate. "Dampness can weaken the fabric or even cause holes," says Craig Anderson, owner of Appliance Analysts.

Even if you don't notice any issues immediately, it could cause faster wear and tear over time. Or, the fabrics could become so stretched or misshapen that they're impossible to iron back into a wearable state. This is especially true if you leave the clothes for longer than 24 hours.

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Your clothes can fade.

top load washing machine

After leaving your clothes in the washing machine for a long period, you might notice a difference in their coloring. In particular, their colors might fade, says Anderson.

"The detergent and fabric softener can also leave residue on the clothes, which can cause discoloration or even stains," says Bangao Godoy. Unfortunately, this may not be reversible.

The washer can become moldy.

Woman demonstrating how to clean a washing machine with a sponge

Your clothes aren't the only thing that might become mildewy or moldy. Your washer can also take a hit.

"Over time, the moisture from wet clothes can cause mold and mildew to grow inside the machine, leading to unpleasant odors and potential damage to the machine's components," says Paulo Filho, owner of Celestial Cleaning Service. The weight of the fabric can also stress the machine's motor, which can shorten its lifespan.

If your washing machine begins to take on a musky scent, set aside an afternoon to give it a good cleaning. According to USA Today, you can add 1/4 cup baking soda and 1/4 cup water to the machine's detergent container and 2 cups of white vinegar to the drum. Run a normal load on high heat to thoroughly cleanse. If there are any remaining dirty spots after the wash, remove them with a wet sponge.

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You could attract pests.

cockroach on white tile wall
Shutterstock / KoKiChs

The ickiest thing that could happen if you forget your clothes for too long is that you attract insects. "The damp, warm environment created by wet clothes is an ideal breeding ground for these unwanted visitors, which can cause additional problems and damage to your home," says Filho.

Once there's a pest problem inside your washing machine—with all of its tiny, dark, and moist crevices—it could take lots of time and money to eliminate.

Juliana LaBianca
Juliana is an experienced features editor and writer. Read more
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