Help, My Travel Mug Smells Like Ass

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Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.

So I’m sure that you’re just going to say “white vinegar,” but just in case … how do I get the smell/residue of stale tea out of my travel mug? Don’t get me wrong, I like masala chai tea plenty, but sometime a guy’s gotta get his jasmine fix and doesn’t want the black-tea scent to linger.

I guess the same question goes for coffee, because I’m sure most of your readers would rather know that.

Maybe you all won’t find this as odd as I do, but I get an absurd number of questions regarding the cleaning of travel mugs. Like, a new travel-mug-cleaning question arrives just about every month. I never thought of travel mugs as being so darned problematic.


Before we get into what to do about these pesky things and their pesky tendency to hold onto odors (peskily), I’m going to take a personal detour, because, well, this is my column, and I can! I picked this specific version out of the trove of travel-mug questions in my Clean Person folder for one precise reason that has nothing to do with cleaning: The word chai means “tea”—saying “chai tea” is redundant. I blame Starbucks, entirely, for the fact that a whole bunch of you are wandering the streets asking for “tea tea,” and so I’m taking this opportunity to mention it. Now you know that! Go forth and tell others.

Now that my version of “On Language” is behind us, let us now turn our attention to the stanky, stained travel mugs plaguing the commuters of the world.


There are two separate solutions to your problem that we need to discuss, and we’ll work a bit backwards and start with what to do when you end up, as our LW has, with a grotesquely stained and smelling travel mug. Many people report that even a spin through a proper dishwasher leaves behind a smell, and there are of course those of us who don’t have the privilege of owning one of those fine machines, which I mention because someone will inevitably read the question and be all, “Duh, just wash it, dude?”

So if you find that the dishwasher isn’t enough to get your travel mug back to a pristine state, it’s time to step things up a bit, scrubbing-wise, by essentially following the instructions for cleaning a bong. (And you were worried today’s column would be a bore!)


The idea is that we’re going to treat the mug and its lid to a spa-like soaking for 15-30 minutes using either denture tablets, baking soda, salt, and/or vinegar. The choice is largely up to you, and should take into account whether buildup or smells are the bigger problem you’re facing. If crud buildup is the bigger problem, go with the denture tablets or kosher salt and water—those will lend sloughing power that will help to eliminate whatever is stubbornly clinging to your mug. If lingering smells are troubling you, try the baking soda and/or vinegar for their odor-neutralizing properties. Or! Mix them together and get both fizzily scrubbing action and smell-killing power all in one. Plus, that cool volcano effect.

From what I gather from the large body of questions I get on the subject, the lid is what’s causing the most problems for the travel-mug owners of the world. A good soak will do wonders, but the problem is that most lids are made of plastic and will float to the top of whatever solution you make for it. So just like we talked about when we discussed cleaning a bong’s bowl and slide, stick that lid in a sealable container like a large Ziploc bag or a food-storage container, add the solution of your choice, and close that baby up.


There are your triage instructions, which means it’s time to go back and talk about preventative measures. Ugh, I know! It’s like I’m asking you to do something sensible like taking a daily multi-vitamin to ensure good health like a big loser. But I embraced my loserdom ages ago, so I will not apologize for this, nope, not one bit: Guys, you gotta rinse the darn travel mugs out! And not, like, two days after you finished your tea or coffee. When you’re finished with the drink, that’s when you rinse the mug out. If there’s coffee or tea that has gone cold, dump it out and rinse the thing with water. If it’s empty, rinse it with water anyway. I’m not even requesting that you wash it! ALL I’M ASKING FOR IS A RINSE.

In return, I’m giving you a gift. This is the family recipe for masala chai, courtesy of Father of Clean Person, who writes, “The basic recipe for masala tea is the best as far as I am concerned. So here it is, with some variations mentioned after the basic recipe.”


Chai for two:

  • 2 mugs
  • 1-3/4 mugs cold water
  • 1/2 cup milk (whole milk, 2%, or skim milk as you wish. See below re condensed milk.)
  • 2 level teaspoons tea leaves. Use a strong black tea; Assam, Nilgiri, or Kenya teas are best. Darjeeling tea is fine, too, but it is lighter. If you must use teabags, the rule is one teabag per mug, but after about five mugs, you can add one more bag for every two mugs. Depends on how strong the tea you are using is.
  • Sugar to taste—2-3 teaspoons should be enough. You can substitute artificial sweeteners such as Equal, Stevia or Sweet ‘n Low, but if you do, add them after the tea is ready.
  • 3-4 cardamom pods (elaichi in Indian stores) crushed in a mortar so that the seeds inside are cracked.
  • 1 heaping teaspoon fennel seed (saunf in Indian stores) crushed in the mortar along with the Elaichi.

Note: The extra 1/4 cup of water accounts for absorption by the tea leaves, etc. so the yield will be just about 2 mugs. If you want to make more than 2 mugs of tea, you still only need an extra 1/4 cup of water to account for leaf absorption. Adjust the amount of tea leaves by adding 1/2-3/4 teaspoon of tea leaves per additional mug.

  1. Put the water and milk in a pan and heat over medium high heat. The object is to heat the water to near boiling point but not to actually boil it.
  2. Add the crushed cardamom pods and fennel seed to the water and milk right from the start to let the flavors infuse.
  3. If you are using sugar, add it along with the cardamom and fennel.
  4. When the water is approaching the boiling point, add the tea leaves. Two minutes is usually enough steeping time. You can let the tea leaves infuse for up to 3-4 minutes for stronger tea, but any longer will make it bitter.
  5. When satisfied with the strength of the tea, pour into two mugs through a tea strainer.


1. Use condensed milk instead of regular milk. This makes the tea thicker. Use 2-1/4 mugs of water and add about 3 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk. Adjust sugar to taste.


2. Skip the milk.

3. Add a small piece of ginger (1/2” or 1-1/2 cm) peeled and crushed lightly in the mortar. You can also add cloves, cinnamon, and/or peppercorns for a more pungent tea.


Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume); more of her cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found onTwitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.

Illustration by Sam Woolley.

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