Spotting the Differences Between Mold vs. Mildew

Alison Kasch
Written by Alison Kasch
Updated March 17, 2023
A view of a blue bathroom
Photo: Astronaut Images / KOTO / Adobe Stock


  • Mold and mildew both grow in chronically wet or damp areas.

  • Mold has a pungent odor, while mildew has a musty odor.

  • Both can trigger allergy and respiratory symptoms (mold is typically worse).

  • Vinegar is a natural killer of mold and mildew.

  • Widespread mold issues in the home require professional remediation.

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When a bag of clementines becomes a science project, or a dingy smell overtakes a day-old bath towel, fungi are to blame. Seeing mold or mildew rear their ugly spores is enough to make you lose your lunch (literally, RIP to those clementines). 

To make things worse, these growths also carry health risks for some that make it important to deal with them STAT. But first, it’s necessary to identify what you’re looking at before deciding on a plan of action. Here are the key differences between mold and mildew.

Is Mildew the Same as Mold?

Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, mold and mildew aren’t quite the same. Mold refers to all species of microscopic fungi that grow on organic matter within damp areas. It can grow on 

  • Fabric

  • Paper

  • Wood 

  • Leather

  • Plants/soil 

Along with that, it can grow in many areas of the home where moisture issues are present, including:

  • Ceiling tiles

  • Windows

  • Roofing

  • Paint

  • Wallpaper

  • Carpeting

  • Drywall

  • Insulation

  • Upholstery

Mildew, on the other hand, is a specific type of mold or fungus. Like mold, it also thrives in excessively damp or moist conditions. All mildew is mold, but not all mold is mildew. 

How to Tell Mold From Mildew​

Before taking any actions against mold or mildew, the first step is identifying which is which. Fortunately, the differences between the two are simple to spot.

Comparison of mold and mildew, with mold being fuzzy and mildew having a dry powdery appearance
Photo: cmannphoto / E+ / Getty Images, Emilija Manevska / Moment / Getty


Mold is typically black or dark green and fuzzy, growing in a variety of grotesque raised and bubbly shapes. Mildew has a flatter, more powdery appearance and is usually white, yellow, or grayish.

Which looks worse/is more noticeable? Mold


Mold has a strong, pungent odor that’s enough to make you gag. Mildew has more of a musty smell that can make you wrinkle your nose, but it doesn’t invade the senses as much. If the smell is reminiscent of wet, forgotten laundry or a damp basement, then you’re likely smelling mildew rather than mold.  

Which smells worse? Mold

Health Impacts

The effects of mold or mildew vary from person to person. For those who are sensitive to spores or who suffer from allergies or asthma, mold can trigger serious symptoms. Others may experience little to no symptoms at all. In severe cases, especially from prolonged exposure, an individual may experience shortness of breath or even develop a fever.

According to the CDC, the most common mold-related symptoms are:

  • Stuffy nose

  • Wheezing

  • Red or itchy eyes

  • Itchy or irritated skin

Overall, mold typically affects people far worse than mildew. Most people experience very few or mild symptoms from mildew, aside from being bothered by the smell. However, the spores can still cause symptoms similar to mold, so it’s important to take care of it either way. 

Which is more harmful to your health? Mold

Mold vs. Black Mold vs. Mildew

You’ve probably heard of black mold before and don’t want it lurking around your home. Unlike your typical fuzzy, bumpy mold growths, black mold looks more like flat, black spots. And while it may be tempting to ignore these, you definitely shouldn’t.

Black mold releases mycotoxins, which are toxic substances produced by the fungus. And while no mold is good, the CDC notes that the mold’s color does not appear to indicate a certain danger level. However, black mold can still aggravate allergies and cause respiratory issues, with the biggest risks coming from long-term exposure.

Since it’s not as rounded outward as regular mold, black mold is not as easy to tell apart from mildew. The key difference is color—mildew is lighter and can be gray at its darkest. If you’re looking at large black splotches or sprays of black or green dots, it’s most likely black mold.

Which is the worst to have around your home? Black mold

Mildew vs. Mold Treatment Methods

A closeup of a spray bottle
Photo: Catherine Falls Commercial / Moment / Getty Images

Before treating mold or mildew, the most important step is to get proactive with moisture in your home. Without solving the root cause, mold and mildew will keep wreaking havoc on your home. Here are the best ways to keep moisture in check:

If you’re currently dealing with mold or mildew, here’s the good news: Mild cases are treatable, depending on the surface. Plus, if you have white vinegar and baking soda stocked in your pantry, you’ve already got what you need. Vinegar can kill mold naturally, while baking soda can take care of stubborn odors.

Mildew vs. Mold on Clothes

To get rid of that musty, mildewy smell in your clothing and linens, you can add 1 to 2 cups of vinegar straight to your laundry. If there is still a smell, re-wash the clothes in another load with 1 cup of baking soda. Be sure it isn’t the washer itself that is causing the odor—if it is, you should take the proper steps to remove the mildew smell from the washer

If mold develops on your clothes, they’re probably still salvageable, but call for a soak first. Separate all the moldy clothing and place it in a solution of 1 gallon of water with 1 cup of vinegar. You can also use a half cup of borax in place of the vinegar. Let it soak for at least one hour before washing it as you would for the mildewy clothing. 

Mildew vs. Mold on Wood

Whether it’s mold or mildew, fungi issues on wood are usually solvable with elbow grease and either dish soap or vinegar. If the spores are only on the surface, spray them down with warm water mixed with a few squirts of dish soap. Then, grab a scrub brush and go to town until the spots are gone.

If that doesn’t work, spray the wood with a 1:1 mix of vinegar and water. Allow it to dry for at least one hour, then wipe it down with a dampened cloth.

Mold vs. Mildew on Furniture and Upholstery

Vinegar is also an effective killer of both mold and mildew on furniture, curtains, and other upholstery around the home. Fill a spray bottle with a 1:3 ratio of vinegar to water, then spray it down. If possible, put it through the laundry afterward.

Mold vs. Mildew in the Home

If mold and mildew start growing in your home’s roofing, insulation, carpeting, ceiling tiles, or drywall, replacement is the best option. It’s typically impossible to remove the spores completely, so it’s best to tear it out and rebuild.

For hard surfaces, scrubbing with vinegar can tackle mold in small areas less than 10 square feet. Larger problems are hazardous to DIY, so you’ll want to get in touch with a local mold remediation specialist to ensure your home is spore-free.

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