Getting Rid of Mould and Mildew

There is nothing more disgusting than opening your wardrobe and finding your lovely leather shoes covered in a furry green coat. Or the walls and ceilings of your bathroom covered with ugly black specks. Welcome to the musty world of mould and mildew!

Thriving Environments

Moulds and mildews are both part of the fungi family and thrive in damp, dark environments with poor air circulation, such as basements, bathrooms and wardrobes.They can grow in both warm, airless environments and also cold, draughty conditions, and will usually form a thin covering that is white, black or bluish-green. They feed off cellulose-based materials and therefore will grow on cotton, linen, wood, paper and protein substances such as silk, leather and wool. (Synthetics are generally resistant).

They also grow on draperies, rugs and shower curtains, as well as in household walls and ceilings themselves. The mould release microscopic spores which are in the air at all times and spread by air currents – these spores are incredibly hardy and can lie dormant for long periods until there is enough moisture in the environment for them to germinate. Only extreme heat and cold will destroy them.

Not only are they unsightly, moulds and mildews release an unpleasant musty odour and will also cause a fair amount of damage to anything they grow on, essentially “eating into fabrics” until they fall apart and causing wood, paper and leather to become discoloured.

Preventing Mould And Mildew

The best strategy for mould and mildew is prevention, as they can grow and re-colonise faster than you can remove them.

  • Keep things clean, as any soil or grease on dirty items can provide a nourishing feast for mildew to start growing.
  • Dry any damp fabrics. Don’t leave the shower curtain bunched up in the corner and dry any wet dirty clothes before putting them in the laundry hamper.
  • Store clothing with moisture inhibitors and/or spray them with fungicidal products especially designed to give mildew protection. Paradichlorobenzene crystals, widely used for moth control, are very effective. Sun and air the garments periodically on warm, dry days.
  • Protect leather items with commercial aerosol sprays specially designed to fight mildew. Coating with wax is another good method of preventing moisture and thus mould and mildew growing.
  • Try to use mildew-resistant paint on wood whenever possible.
  • Circulate the air to ensure good ventilation – open windows regularly, use electric fans if natural breezes are not enough, and open wardrobe doors frequently to refresh the air inside. Never put clothes still damp from rain or perspiration back in the wardrobe before drying.
  • Perhaps most importantly, get rid of dampness. An average household will release three gallons of water into the air every day through the normal activities of cooking, laundering and bathing, unless the excess moisture is removed by good ventilation. Excessive condensation and leaking roofs will also increase damp. You can dry the air mechanically by using a dehumidifier or by heating the house periodically, then opening all windows and doors to allow the moisture-laden air to escape. You can also dry the air chemically by using commercial preparations, such as moisture-absorbing silica gel or anhydrous calcium sulphate, which can be hung in cloth bags inside wardrobes or left in damp areas in open containers.

Removing Mould and Mildew

Clothing and Fabrics – tackle mildew as soon as you discover it. Try to brush off as much as possible (outdoors so that you do not spread more spores through the house) and if spots still remain, wash them once with detergent and water, then dry in the sun. If the stain remains, moisten with some lemon juice and then spread with salt and leave in the sun to dry, before rinsing thoroughly. Alternatively, you can use chlorine bleach: 2 tbsp of liquid bleach mixed with one quart of warm water and then sponged onto the stain or even soak the stained area in the solution. Leave it for 5-15 minutes before rinsing. Remember to always check colour-fastness and never use chlorine bleach on silk or wool.

Leather – use a cloth dampened with diluted alcohol (eg. 1 cup rubbing alcohol in 1 cup of water) to wipe the surface that is covered with mildew and then dry in an air current. If mildew persists, you will need to wash with a mild detergent or even a fungicide-containing soap, before wiping with a damp cloth and then leaving to dry in a well-aired location. Follow with a good polishing of shoe wax. Mildew inside shoes can be treated with special sprays available from shoe stores.

Upholstery, Mattresses and Rugs – mould and mildew in furnishings can be a real headache. Again, remove any loose mould by brushing outdoors, then use a vacuum to uplift as much of the remaining mould as possible. Dry the item as much as possible, for example by using an electric heater or leaving it to air in strong sun. For upholstery and mattresses, a cloth soaked with diluted alcohol solution can be wiped over the stained area, before it is dried thoroughly. Unfortunately, if mildew is embedded into cushions and mattresses, you will need to have it professionally cleaned by fumigation. Carpets and rugs can be cleaned with dry soap or detergent and then wiped with a damp cloth and dried in the sun again, if possible. You can also use an electric shampoo machine. If the carpets and rugs have become saturated (e.g. by flooding), you are best to consult professional help. It is also possible to spray furnishings with a fungicide to get rid of mildew.

Books and Papers – first dry out the books and papers completely in a well-ventilated area, fanning out the pages of the books to help with air-circulation. If the pages are very damp, sprinkle some cornstarch or talcum powder on to absorb the moisture. Leave for several hours and then brush off, together with any loose mould (outdoors).

Wood – unpainted, untreated wood is particularly susceptible to mould and mildew, whereas indoor wood surfaces covered with enamel or oil-resin paint are usually resistant. However, outdoors surfaces with softer paints will also grow mould, which will penetrate through the paint into the underlying wood and leave a dirty-looking discolouration. Treat the mould by scrubbing with a mild alkali, such as washing soda or with disinfectants which are all available commercially. Rinse well afterwards with water and make sure it is thoroughly dry before applying a mildew-resistant paint. Badly infected wood may have to be replaced.

Getting Rid of the Musty Odour

If an area is well-aired and dried, the odour will usually disappear. Vinegar or lemon juice are both good odour removers, as well as scrubbing with a paste made of equal parts baking soda, water and salt. For odours in shoes, use the special sprays sold in shoe stores designed to freshen footwear.

More Advice

Read what our experts say about removing mildew from pushchairs that were left in a damp cellar for several months in our Q&A Section.

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