Mildew: What It Is and How to Get Rid of It

By Beth Krietsch

When it comes to home maintenance, dealing with mildew and mold tends to rank pretty highly on the list of most hated tasks. But the good thing about mildew is that if you catch the problem early, it’s usually not too much work to deal with. Keep reading to learn more about mildew and how it’s different from other mold problems.

What is mildew?

Mildew is a fungus that grows in moist or damp areas both indoors and out. Mildew is a form of mold, but unlike mold, it does not penetrate surfaces. If it’s mildew that you’re dealing with and not mold, then you’ll have a much easier time getting rid of it. 

In the home, it’s not uncommon to spot mildew growing on basement and bathroom walls, ceiling tiles, and other damp surfaces, including textiles like paper and fabric.

How to identify mildew in your home

Mildew is white or grayish, sometimes brown. Inside the home, you’ll find mildew in areas that are often moist, wet, or balmy, like kitchens and bathrooms and and under cabinets. Mildew doesn’t usually have much of a smell. It wipes away relatively easily with bleach or vinegar.

Mold is darker in color than mildew. If you see dark brown or black spots or spores, then you may have a mold problem. You may also smell mold before you see it; mold typically smells musty.

Left Mildew spores on bathroom tiles

Right Mold spores on a wall

What mildew looks like on plants

Mildew can also be found outside the home, where it’s known to grow and spread throughout plant life. It will usually appear as blotchy white or gray spots on the leaves of flowering plants. Typically, neither indoor nor outdoor mildew takes long to develop and will continue to grow until you detect and remove the moisture source that’s causing the problem. But luckily, most mildew can easily be removed with a cleaning brush or wipe and some cleaner.

Mildew outdoors Powdery mildew on plants

The risks of mildew exposure

Mildew can pose risks to human and plant health. Outside, mildew can be problematic to plant health and can quickly spread from one plant to another. Meanwhile, indoor mildew can be problematic to human health. As with other forms of mold, mildew exposure can contribute to a variety of health issues including coughing, throat irritation, wheezing, or even skin irritation.

How to get rid of mildew in the home

Mildew is usually fairly easy to clean, and far easier to deal with than most mold problems. Here’s how to handle it.

1. Start by removing the source of moisture that’s causing the mildew to form and spread. For basements and other humid problem areas, a dehumidifier or air conditioner can be helpful. You’ll want to keep humidity levels somewhere between 40% and 50% to prevent mildew and mold from growing in your home.

2. Get to work with a scrubbing brush and a cleaning solution. Your options here include a bleach and water mixture, undiluted vinegar, an ammonia and water mixture, a baking soda and water mixture, or a borax and water mixture.

You’ll want to use caution with any of these methods, but pay particular attention and be sure to wear a mask (to avoid breathing in spores) and gloves, long sleeves, and long pants (to avoid skin irritation) when using bleach, ammonia, and other harsh chemicals. You can find many of these cleaning solutions at a store or mix them yourself. If going with the latter, be sure to follow directions.

Mildew is a surface fungus that can be efficiently treated with a commercially available cleaner and a scrubbing brush. Just make sure you work in a well-ventilated area and wear a facial mask to prevent inhaling mildew spores, as well as to avoid breathing in fumes given off by the cleaning product you use. It is also advisable to put on rubber gloves in order to protect your hands both from the mildew and from the cleaning agent. Clean all the surrounding areas carefully as well, to ensure that all fungus has been successfully removed.

4. Sometimes professional help can be the most effective way to deal with a mildew problem. Call in outside help if you don’t have the time or ability to deal clean the mold yourself, or are not confident in your ability to effectively deal with the problem.

How to get rid of mildew on plants

If you’re battling mildew problems with your outdoor plants, here are few options.

  • Cut-back or remove plants as soon as you notice the presence of mildew. This can help prevent the mildew from spreading to other plants and keep your garden healthier overall.
  • You can use naturally growing bacteria and fungi (also known as biological fungicides), such as bacillus subtilis or trichoderma harzianum. These are shown to be just as effective as chemical fungicides, but are gentler on your plants and the environment.
  • Try a bicarbonate powder or spray, which can prevent spores from developing on your plants, and may even be helpful for dealing with existing mildew.

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