A party, a discourteous guest, a family member with a smoking habit—it doesn't take much to find yourself with lingering smoke odors in your home. Here are six proven steps for getting rid of them for good.
Recently, one of the vacation rentals my husband manages was rented to a smoker. The guest had stayed about 2 weeks and had blatantly ignored the “No Smoking” sign that sits prominently in the living room.
But as frustrated as we were by the lack of respect for the home and our rules, we knew that—more importantly—we had to get the smoke smell out of the home before the next guests arrived.
Using some ideas I had and some that I researched, I put together a plan of attack. Then my husband and I worked together using the 6 steps I’m going to share with you, and within about 48 hours, the smoke smell was completely gone from the house.
So whether you had a visitor who disregarded your home’s no smoking rule, or are moving into a new space that previously housed a smoker, following these steps will help you remove the noxious smell for good.
The first 4 steps I detail below are inexpensive and should remove the residue from a short-time smoker. The last 2 are more costly, but should do the trick for removing the scent from even long-time smoke exposure.
First things first: open up all the windows in your home and turn on as many fans as you can. This will help to start airing out the home while you do the rest of the cleaning.
Next, gather your supplies. You'll need:
- Vinegar. At least a gallon.
- Baking soda.
- Clean rags/towels. You’ll go through a bunch, so stock up, You can pick up some in the automotive section of your local supermarket or go for microfiber.
- Colander or strainer
- Ozone Machine. This is only for extreme cases.
Step #1: Use Vinegar on Fabrics
If you’ve ever gone to a smoky bar, you were probably reminded of your outing the morning after—when you could still smell smoke on your clothes. The same thing applies to the fabrics in your home, which will hold onto any lingering smoke from your rule-breaking guests.
While it might not necessarily be practical, or possible, to remove all the fabric from your home (a couch can be a beast to move to the patio!), do remove all the fabric items you can from the smelly room. This includes any pillows, bedding, blankets, and curtains. If you have a large washing machine, you can throw all these through a cold wash cycle with 2 cups of vinegar added to the load.>
Then, whatever you do, do not use high heat to dry them; from my research, the heat seems to reactivate the smoke smell, and even sets it into the fabric. Instead, use a low heat or fluff cycle—or, if you have the ability to line dry them in the sun, that will be even more effective in removing the odor.
For larger, bulkier items, you may need to enlist the help of your local dry cleaner. Bag up all the smelly items and take them to the cleaners, and make sure to let them know that you need help removing the smoke smell, so they can work their professional magic on the items.
This is also helpful for delicate items like curtains and window treatments. Window treatments aren’t cheap, so it’s better to get professional help than risk shrinking or damaging them in your washer.
Once the fabric items have been washed and the odor has been removed, the last thing you want to do is bring them back into a smoky home. So put them in large garbage bags and store them in an alternate location until you are able to complete the next few steps to remove the odor from the rest of the home.
Quick note: The next 3 steps need to be completed in a relatively quick manner. If you do one without doing the others, the odor will get redistributed around the home. If multiple rooms have been affected by the smoke, work on one room at a time, then do your best to seal the clean room off to prevent the yucky odor from drifting in from other areas.
Step #2: Use Baking Soda on Carpets and Furniture
After you’ve removed the majority of small, soft items from the room, you will likely be left with large items like furniture, mattresses, and carpet. For these items, baking soda is going to be your best friend.
Your goal is to sprinkle a generous amount of baking soda on all the soft surfaces in your home. The easiest way I've found to do this is to use a 2-cup liquid measuring cup and a large colander. Fill the measuring cup with baking soda, then carry it to the area you want to sprinkle. Pour some baking soda into the colander, then shake the colander over the carpet or fabric. This will help you disperse it evenly over the surface.
Continue to move around the room until all carpet, fabric, furniture, and mattresses are covered in a layer of baking soda. It should look like you have a thin layer of snow in the room.
Whether it’s from cigarettes or a candle, smoke leaves a greasy residue on walls and the ceiling, as it floats through the air and settles on the first hard surface it comes in contact with. The majority of the residue attaches to high areas like the upper half of walls and the ceilings.
Next, let the baking soda work its magic by letting it sit for about 30-60 minutes. During this time, you can help work the baking soda in to the soft surfaces by gently rubbing your hand over the mattress or fabric, or by walking around the carpeted room with socks on your feet.
Try to keep moisture (including dog drool and oils from your feet) from touching the baking soda, as they can create a paste that isn’t as easy to remove.
While the baking soda is absorbing odors from the soft surfaces, it’s time to clean the hard surfaces.
Step #3: Use Vinegar on Walls
Whether it’s from cigarettes or a candle, smoke leaves a greasy residue on walls and the ceiling, as it floats through the air and settles on the first hard surface it comes in contact with.
The majority of the residue attaches to high areas like the upper half of walls and the ceilings, but if there was a significant amount of smoke in the room, it is likely hanging on all the way down the walls—and on the floor, too.
The best thing for removing smoke residue from walls is a vinegar/water mixture. Fill half your bucket with about 75% vinegar and 25% water. If this is too strong for you to smell or touch, you can add a little more water until it’s tolerable to work with.
I would also recommend only filling 1/3 or 1/2 your bucket with this mixture at a time. It is going to get dirty very quickly, so I've found it’s better to use small amounts of cleaning solution and then change it out often, so you have a clean mixture.
Submerge one rag or towel at a time into the mixture, and squeeze it to remove most, but not all, of the liquid. Starting at the top corner of a wall, wipe down an approximately 3 foot-by-3 foot section of the wall, then rinse your rag and repeat on the next section.
When you’ve completed that part of the wall, continue repeating the process around the room until all parts of the wall have been cleaned. If the ceiling of the room is flat, repeat the process across the ceiling, as well.
I've discovered that this step doesn’t need to be done meticulously to be effective. The goal here is just to quickly swipe the walls and leave them with a thin layer of the vinegar mixture to absorb the odor.
I've also tried using a spray bottle of the vinegar mixture to do this part, but I would advise against this method. Spraying the vinegar mixture didn't seem to provide the amount of coverage that the damp rag did, and it was fairly irritating to my senses, buring my my eyes and throat after just a couple minutes.
Step #4: Vacuum the Baking Soda (and Repeat?)
If the smoke smell is still present, repeat the baking soda step. It’s likely that any lingering odor is being trapped in the softer materials, so this step may need to be repeated a couple of times.
After you've wiped down the walls—or when you just need a break from the vinegar smell—move on to vacuuming all the baking soda up from around the room. Use the attachments on furniture and mattresses, and use the roller brush to vacuum the carpet.
At this point, once all the baking soda is vacuumed and the walls are wiped, I’d advise going to get yourself a nice lunch or a cup of coffee. This is not only to treat yourself for a job well done, but also to give your nose a break—so you can evaluate upon your return if the smoke odor has truly been removed from the home.
If it’s still present, repeat the baking soda step. It’s likely that any lingering odor is being trapped in the softer materials, so this step may need to be repeated a couple of times. Luckily it’s the easiest step to do, and is super cheap!
Hopefully, after a couple turns, the odor will be almost completely removed. Leaving your windows open and letting your exhaust fans run for another day or two should help freshen the space right up, too.
Step #5: Use an Ozone Machine for Tough Smells
If all your hard labor didn’t remove the smoke odor as much as you would like, it’s time to bust out the big guns and follow the lead of restoration companies. These businesses specialize in removing odors from homes, and the primary piece of equipment they use is an Ozone machine.
You can call a restoration company and ask to rent one of their machines for a day, or you can check out your favorite online retailer, where you can buy your own for about the same price. In our vacation rental situation, my husband opted to purchase an Ozone machine for under $300, because it’s likely that we'll have another guest smoke in one of our units in the future.
These magic machines emit ozone molecules that attach themselves to the surfaces in the room. Think of them as little bubbles; when they “pop,” they dissipate the offensive odors with them.
Note, however, that ozone is not necessarily safe for humans or pets, so you have to leave these machines running in empty rooms. When you return after the machine completes its cycle, you’ll likely get a breath of super-oxygenated air, so make sure you open up the windows as soon as possible—or you may also get a blast of mucus and cough.
Step #6: Paint and Replace Carpet to Remove Strong Odors
If all else fails, the final step for removing smoke odor from a home is to repaint the entire interior and replace the flooring. If all those parts of the home that you’ve been trying to clean are still holding on to smoke residue, you can cover it up on the walls and ceiling by using a stain and odor blocking primer like Kilz Max brand primer.
After years of smoke damage, the carpet and the pad may be beyond help, too. You can try hiring professional carpet cleaners to give it one last shot, but if you are moving in to a home that has severe damage from years of interior smoking, it is probably a better to simply have the old carpet and pad ripped out and replaced. It’s drastic, but once you get the space down to the hard surfaces, you are more likely to be able to remove or cover the odor.
There are lots of reasons not to smoke, especially inside a home. But if someone does, never fear—there is hope for removing the smoke damage.
Start with the less expensive options, and see if you can remove it yourself. If not, up your game with the Ozone machine or, as a last resort, decide if a quick change of paint and flooring is going to give you the desired result. Either way, you can get the smoke smell to go away—it just takes a little time, effort, and, possibly, a chunk of change.