How to Get a Musty Smell Out of Cabinets

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A kitchen or bathroom bank of cabinets and cupboards makes a perfect home for these mold colonies to thrive.
Image Credit: ismagilov/iStock/GettyImages

A faint whiff of mildew in cabinets in the kitchen, bathroom or garage can mean there is a larger issue lurking. Mold or mildew enjoy damp, dark places. A kitchen or bathroom bank of cabinets and cupboards makes a perfect home for these colonies to thrive.

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At the first whiff or other sign of mold or mildew in your living spaces, address the issue immediately. The mildew or mold can make the cabinets smell musty and needs to be removed before you can get the cabinets to smell fresh.

White Mold on Kitchen Cabinets

If you find mildew on wood cabinets creeping from the drywall behind the bank of cupboards and drawers, then you may need to address a larger issue happening in the kitchen. White mold is fairly common in damp and dark areas, such as those within a wooden cabinet. It may feed off the bare wood or moist conditions under sinks and along baseboards.

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White mold on kitchen cabinets can be a sign that the moisture level is too high. This can create a musty smell in the cabinets. If there are no obvious leaks or water issues, then a dehumidifier in the area may assist in keeping the cabinets free of the fine layer of white mold and musty scent.

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A bloom of white mold needs to be wiped up immediately. Locate the source and treat that area with strong mold and mildew fighting cleaners, such as bleach, vinegar or a commercial spray.

Cleaning Mold from Cabinets

Wear a dust mask and gloves when working with mold removers. They can be harsh on your skin and emit vapors that can be harmful to breathe. Ventilate the area as much as possible before you begin to work.

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Begin by scrubbing the area with warm water and a mild detergent. Make sure to wipe the area down with a dry towel so that the surface of the cabinet is free from moisture. Monitor the area, and if mold returns, move on to more effective and stronger mold and mildew removers.

To remove the musty smell, wipe down the cabinets that are affected with a solution of 1 part vinegar to 1 part water and a few drops of liquid soap. Bleach can remove the mold, but can damage the cabinet material, so test a hidden area before bringing out this serious mold eradicator. Wipe down the cabinets weekly to keep the musty smell at bay and to prevent the mold from gaining ground and returning to the cabinet's surface.

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Cabinet Removal for Serious Mold Issues

If the musty smell lingers, then you may need to do some investigating. Check the drywall surrounding the cabinets for moisture or obvious signs of water damage. Leaks can go undetected for months before the acrid scent of mold or mildew alerts you to the issue.

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If you find that there is a leak issue behind the cabinets, then you may need to remove the entire bank of fixtures to clean or repair the problem that is causing the mold to thrive. This can be why the musty smell of mildew on wood never seems to leave no matter what you do. A professional contractor can quickly remove cabinets and repair the wall; however, removing cabinets and cupboards is a fairly simple process for the average do-it-yourself fixer.

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Unscrew the cabinets from each other, and then the wall, moving from the bottom up. Mark each door, drawer and shelf with painters' tape to ensure it is returned it to its correct housing. Test cabinets where you plan to place them to ensure they open in the right direction. Don't block doorways or create some other issue. Then, cut holes into the cabinets large enough to fit over any plugs or protruding fixtures before installing the cabinets.

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Vinegar to Whisk Away Whiffs of Mustiness

Sometimes getting rid of a musty smell doesn't require harsh chemicals, such as bleach. Vinegar is natural and an affordable alternative to often harsher commercial detergents. The best way to use vinegar is to mix it right for the level of mustiness in the cabinet, and to give it time to eradicate the smelly issue.

Test a small area of the wooden cabinet before spraying it down with vinegar to make sure the acid-based household cleaner won't further damage the smelly kitchen cabinets. If the wooden cabinets aren't adversely affected by the vinegar, spray the entire inside and outside of the musty cabinet with distilled white vinegar.

Let the vinegar sit on the surface of the cabinet for a good couple of hours before wiping them down with a damp cloth. The vinegar will sink into the wood surface and destroy any latent bacteria, freshening up the scent that wafts from the cabinet each time it is opened.

Follow Up to Keep Musty Smell at Bay

To keep the musty scent from collecting in the wooden cabinets in your home, give them a good airing from time to time. If you are gone for long periods, prop open the wooden cabinets to let air circulate through the shelving, towels, products and other items that can collect that musty smell.

Open windows and let fresh air into bathrooms, kitchens and other areas with large amounts of natural moisture. Turn on overhead fans and bathroom ventilating fans to suck latent moisture from a room after a shower in small spaces.

Odor Absorbers to Tamp Down Musty Scents

For centuries, people have been battling the musty scent of mildew in cabinets, drawers and other enclosed household areas. Scented sachets, cedar wood chips and factory produced liners have been used to cut down on unattractive odors that can collect in wooden drawers and cabinets, as well as the items that are neatly placed and organized inside them.

Pop an opened carton of baking soda into the back of a cupboard to absorb odors that waft around the interior. Fill a netted bag with dried lavender, scented geranium flowers, mint or other favored herb and tuck these homemade natural cabinet odor absorbers into the backs of drawers or behind cabinet doors. These will quickly take down the musty scent and replace it with a favorable aroma.

Investigate the Offending Odor

You put the clothes away clean and crisp, and they come out with an odd whiff of something not quite fresh. There are many ways to remove an odor from a cabinet or drawer, but if they continue to come out containing an unwanted musty smell, then you may need to do some serious investigating.

Check behind the wood cabinets for any mold or moisture. Clothes can come out of a washing machine smelling fresh but dry in the closet carrying miniscule bits of mold from the cleaning appliance. Check all appliances and fixtures for moisture and mold to ensure the musty smell is being addressed correctly.

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