10 Ways to Conquer Bad Smells in Your Home (Especially in Winter)

Time to clear the air! Use one or more of these tactics for a more comfortable, welcoming living space.

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In a perfect world, your home would smell like delicious food waiting to be eaten, or maybe like your favorite flower. Life generally isn’t perfect, though — especially in winter, when shorter, darker days and post-holiday slump can keep us from getting the dishes out of the sink and the laundry into the washer in a timely way.

Not that dirty plates and old socks are the only culprits. You might also notice stale cooking odors, diaper pails, wet wool garments, cigarette smoke, infrequently scooped litter boxes and overflowing trash cans. Such things are a lot more noticeable in winter, when we stay inside more and keep doors and windows tightly closed.

Time to clear the air! And not by burning a candle or lighting some incense, both of which can produce indoor air quality problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Instead, use one or more of these 10 tactics for a more comfortable, welcoming living space. The nose you save may be your own.

Note: This article will not address mildew or toxic mold, but only the less medically complex causes of stench-y homes.

1. Stay on top of basic cleaning

Man cleaning countergpointstudio / Shutterstock.com

Dirty places smell bad. The solution is cleaning, so do it.

But you don’t have to do it all at once. Instead, focus on just one thing per day: Empty the trash or scoop the litter box, but not both. Vacuum one room, and allow yourself to stop (unless you get in the zone, in which case you should keep Hoovering).

Load the dishwasher immediately after eating. Sweep the entryway to keep mud and muck from being spread throughout the house. Start laundry before dinner and put it in the dryer afterwards.

Got a partner and/or kids? Divvy up the chores so that no one person is responsible for everything.

2. Pay attention to carpets

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Professional carpet cleaners recommend a cleaning every 12 to 18 months. You could also rent or buy a carpet cleaning unit and do it yourself. Consumer Reports rates the pros and cons of all three options in this article.

The smart money would be on waiting until spring/the mud season is through. Until then, clean up spills promptly; for tips, check out: “How to Remove Carpet Stains With Household Items You Already Own.”

If the carpet smells musty, baking soda can help: Sprinkle the sodium bicarbonate all over, wait an hour and vacuum. (Keep pets out of the room until you’ve finished.)

Area rugs can be treated the same way. Most throw rugs can be laundered if they start smelling bad.

3. Clean the furniture

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Leather, faux-leather and upholstery all can collect bad smells and pet hair. Vacuum furniture every so often, using a soft-brush attachment on nonupholstered items.

If more cleaning is needed for leather furniture, talk to the dealer about the safest options. Fabric-covered furniture can generally be cleaned with a mild soap solution and a soft upholstery brush, and then wiped with a cloth dipped in distilled water to rinse off residue.

4. Use a homemade, nontoxic fabric freshening spray

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Got pets, or a smoker in the household? Your upholstery and curtains probably smell funky. Instead of using a commercial fabric freshener like Febreze, make your own. It’s pretty simple:

  • Fill a spray bottle with a 50/50 mix of water and inexpensive vodka
  • Add a dozen or more drops of your favorite essential oil and shake
  • Spray anything that smells funky, from armchairs to gym bags

(Pro tip: Spritz the furniture before you leave in the morning. It’ll be dry — and nicer to be near — by the time you get home.)

5. Use a homemade, nontoxic air freshener, too

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Nothing like spraying a bunch of chemicals throughout the air you breathe! Fortunately, that miracle cleaning agent known as white vinegar also works as an air freshener. Purchase a spray bottle with a fine-mist setting, fill with white vinegar and spritz away.

The sharp smell will dissipate, according to Erin Huffstetler of TheBalance.com. This will happen faster if you dilute the vinegar; the lowest effective ratio is 1 tablespoon of vinegar per 1 cup of water. You could also add scent to the vinegar with citrus peels or your favorite fragrant herbs; let them steep in the bottle for a couple of days.

For an ongoing freshening effect, you can …

6. Make your own reed diffusers

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In effect, it’s a handful of reeds in a jar of fragranced oil. You can pay more than $40 for these things — or you could easily make your own. It’s not rocket fragrance:

  • Create a mix of 30 percent essential oil and 70 percent almond oil and pour it into a narrow-mouthed vase or jar.
  • Add eight to 12 diffuser reeds, which cost 7 to 10 cents apiece at retailers like Amazon, Walmart and Target. (Got a bunch of unused bamboo cooking skewers? They’ll work, too.)
  • In a little while, the reeds will begin to emit the fragrance. Once it starts to wane, turn the reeds upside down to renew the scent.

Critter owners: To help diffusers and fabric/air fresheners along …

7. Clean the pet beds

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Sometimes you walk into a room and immediately know that a pet spends lots of time there. If that comfy pillow or plush kitty-cot is washable, clean it before it gets sniffy.

The PetMD website suggests a biweekly cleaning at minimum, although weekly would be better. Nonwashable beds can be vacuumed regularly and spritzed with that freshening spray mentioned above.

Maybe your dog or cat doesn’t use a pet bed, preferring to curl up on that folded afghan on the couch. In that case, it’s probably time to …

8. Wash or air out the couch throw

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Pets aren’t the only culprits here. Accidents happen to humans who like to eat or drink in front of the television.

Some couch throws are super-washable. Yours might not be. If it can’t be cleaned easily, put it outdoors on the next nice day.

No clothesline? Drape it over a porch or deck railing. The fresh air, breeze and sun — even low winter sun — will do it a world of good. And while you’re at it …

9. Air out your bedding

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I live in Alaska, and we put our bedspread, blanket, top sheet and pillows outdoors once a week or so. They come in smelling like fresh air, and the entire room smells marvelous once the bed is remade.

Bonus: Dust mites thrive in dark, warm places. They don’t stand a chance outside on a winter day.

Another great way to bring in fresh scents is to …

10. Open the windows

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If the day is even slightly warmer than usual, let in some of that fresh air. You’ll be startled at the difference made by even a few minutes’ worth of infiltration.

Yes, it will cost you a little money in wintertime to warm the rooms back up again. The boost to your indoor air quality will be worth it.

What tricks do you have for keeping your home smelling clean? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman @DLFreedman
A former newspaper journalist, Donna Freedman has been a staff writer for MSN Money and Get Rich Slowly, and freelanced for a wide variety of online and print publications. She got a ... More

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