A: Cigarette smoke clings tenaciously to furniture, clothing, and even the very walls, floors, and ceilings of a house that once belonged to a heavy smoker. If you recently quit smoking or live in an area that has been affected by wildfires, it’s not uncommon for a smoky smell to linger for some time. As a cigarette smolders, it produces smoke molecules encapsulated in microscopic bits of oil and tar, which adhere stubbornly wherever they land. Smoky evidence of a cooking accident can also stick around after the burned meal has been discarded.
A commercial air freshener can effectively tackle smoke odor removal in mild cases of stale smoke, but these sprays mask odors rather than absorbing or neutralizing them. (Note: While the chemical ingredients in these products are generally safe for use around people, cats and dogs, they’re harmful to birds—do not use them if you have feathered pets.) After the air freshener’s aromas fade, the smoky smell is bound to return.
Getting rid of the smoky smell rather than masking it is the goal here, and if you have patience you’re sure to greatly reduce—and perhaps totally eliminate—the offending odors. It may take some trial and error to determine which of these smoke smell removal methods will work best in your home, but in the end you’ll be breathing much easier than you did before.
Don’t discount the power of fresh air as a smoke odor eliminator! If your home’s interior smells stale and smoky, open all the windows and place a portable fan or two in front of the largest ones, with the blades blowing outward, to pull smoky air from the room. Keep this up for a full day, if you can. Set smoke-ridden furniture, books, and clothing outside in a sunny spot for several hours—UV rays can also help neutralize odors. Because intense sunlight can damage or fade delicate or dyed fabrics, consider airing that stinky-but-delicate vintage shawl or embroidered pillow in a shady spot.
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Sodium bicarbonate is an effective deodorizer because it absorbs smells rather than masking them. Here are some of the best ways to use baking soda for to remove odors:
White vinegar is another nontoxic household staple that works to neutralize bad odors such as smoke. Its low pH “attacks” the higher-pH smoke molecules, altering them just enough to reduce their odor. Don’t worry, vinegar’s pungent smell will dissipate once it dries or is wiped away.
It may sound odd to use a material with which you barbecue to clear smoky odors, but it works! Carbon molecules in charcoal chemically “trap” smells, clearing them from the air. While grilling briquettes can be used for odor removal in a pinch, activated charcoal is processed for better porosity and absorption power (and as a bonus isn’t treated with flammable chemicals). Most home improvement centers carry a range of activated charcoal products. They’re often packaged in small fabric or burlap bags, and are usually labeled as smoke or odor eliminators.
Set or hang several bags of activated charcoal around a smoky room or car to absorb odors, or place the bags atop smoke-damaged furniture or carpeting. Don’t set loose activated charcoal powder directly on fabric, though—it can leave a stain.
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Steam cleaning can be especially effective on smoky walls, floors, and upholstery. The heat melts the hardened tar and oils encapsulating the smoke molecules, making it easy to wipe them away with a microfiber cloth or sponge. To reduce odors, mist the stinky surfaces lightly with hot steam, taking care to keep the steam cleaner’s head moving continuously so that no single area is saturated. Oversaturating can damage silk and other delicate fabrics, and can even melt drywall.
RELATED: The Best Multi-Purpose Steam Cleaners to Sanitize Your Home
Air purifiers offer mixed results when it comes to removing tobacco-smoke smell. Many air purifiers are designed to collect particulate matter and are thus ineffective against gaseous pollutants, which are what cigarette smoking creates. Some air purifiers, however, specifically those that use charcoal filters, might offer you some relief. “Activated carbon” is another term for a charcoal filter, so units that use that technology are worth considering if you’re tired of smelling cigarette smoke and want to get rid of the acrid odor.
If you’re in a wildfire-prone area and wildfire smoke smell is what you’re trying to remove, an air purifier with a high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filter might do the trick.
RELATED: The Best Air Purifiers for Wildfire Smoke
While air filters for your HVAC system won’t remove all of the pollutants that cause smoke odors, they’re an important part of a comprehensive strategy for approaching how to get rid of smoke smell, especially if they’re used in conjunction with the tactics listed above. Set reminders so you’re certain to change your air filters regularly. Many experts recommend changing them quarterly, although if you’re battling cigarette smoke, pet hair, or other ongoing pollutants, changing them more often is advised.
An HVAC system armed with HEPA filters can be a valuable ally in the quest to eliminate smoky smells, but not all AC systems can accommodate HEPA filters. Because your unit’s airflow might not be powerful enough to push through the denser HEPA filters, it’s important to consult experts before taking this step. Talk to your HVAC service team about whether installing HEPA filters in your system makes sense.
For very severe smoke damage, or if the above options fail, it’s a good idea to get professional help. Many cleaning services specialize in smoke remediation, treating walls, floors, and upholstery with stronger chemicals and cleaners than the general public can buy, and they’re trained in the proper techniques to use them safely and effectively.
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