I resolve to be a better house cleaner!
My mother was (and still is) the queen of scented aerosol sprays. Floral, tropical or holiday scent -- it didn’t matter. Because those sprays were her “cure” for the various smells around the house. But no matter what the flavor du jour, the smells always seem to come back (and actually, never really seem to go away!).
Being the curious gal that I am, I decided to do some research into this whole smell thing. What I found is funny, interesting, and eye-opening. Here’s what I’ve discovered:
The beautifully intoxicating scent of a rose was once considered to be a possible cure for the plague. At least that's what Europeans during the mid-1300s believed. After the Black Death wiped out about 20 million people on the continent, scientists thought they had it figured out. They attributed the swift spread of the contagion to have occurred because it was an airborne illness.
In his book “Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell,” medical historian Jonathan Reinarz explains. “Specific diseases, like the plague, believed to be conveyed by impure or corrupt air were frequently countered... by burning incense or inhaling perfumes such as rose and musk.” During the height of the epidemic doctors wore specialized gas masks. They filled the masks with fragrant floral concoctions. They believed this would prevent physicians from catching the “disease-causing odors” of the plague.
During the Victorian era posies in the pocket and tussie-mussies became very popular. They were used to overwhelm the ever-present and noxious stench of death. Thank goodness we know better today. (And that we don't have to deal with the smell of rotting corpses as we walk through our city streets. Although there are some public restrooms out there that come close!)
Sometimes it seems we still believe bad air is curable by fragrance alone. The amount of money spent on scented sprays, candles, and wall plug-ins is quite telling. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good three-wick candle from Bath and Body Works, but those are for setting a mood. They're not meant to compete with a dirty commode.
There's a cause for any unsavory scent you encounter. Sometimes it's obvious -- the aftermath of last night's fish fry or the litter box several days overdue for a good dump and clean. But there are some smells that are a little more insidious. Often undetectable by sight these funky smells can permeate a room. And continue doing so until we find the source and deal with it in the right way.
The Musty Must Go. If you live in a humid part of the country this is one culprit you're especially familiar with. Mold and mildew thrive in moist environments. And they create that old and musty smell that I (sadly) associate with my grandma’s house.
The first step when taking a stand against stench is to locate the source. This is where things can get frustrating because M and M -- that's mold and mildew, not Eminem the rap artist -- are very good at finding places to take up residence in your home.
Start with the more obvious areas. The basement is a great starting point. By design, this room tends to be dark and damp, a place where condensation easily forms. Now add some organic materials into the mix and mold flourishes. Common “food sources” for mold include paper, fabric, wood, and drywall. In most houses the ventilation system is located down in the basement. That's why the smell from mildew often permeates the entire house -- the ventilation unit sucks in that “smelly” air, dispersing it to every vented room.
If a basement is used as a storage space, the search should begin there. It may be time to get rid of those 1993 tax returns. Or to finally admit those clothes from your high school days are never coming back into style. A box full of moldy college textbooks or ancient hobby supplies is the best-case scenario. If the origin of the musty odor is not that easy to find, it may be time to enlist the help of a professional.
Did you know there are odor identification specialists? These people have a background in structural science and receive specific -- Certified Indoor Air Quality Technicians (CIAQT) -- certifications. The Indoor Air Quality Association's website (www.IAQA.org) offers a searchable list of technicians by issue, state, or zip code.
Helpful Tip: Avoid a situation where there may be a conflict of interest when hiring an air quality professional. Make sure the pro is someone who only diagnoses problems, not one who will also offer to fix the issue.
Once located, the destruction of the musty-odored culprit can begin. The number one recommendation: it’s not vinegar. Surprised? I was too. Almost every blog post I read pointed to vinegar as the go-to for mold and mildew removal (with an 82% efficiency, they were all quick to point out).
After some digging (that’s code for “did a lot of Google searches”) I came across a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The results from the clinical study found that a plant-derived substance, Melaleuca alternifolia, was the “most effective antifungal agent tested, and may have industrial application for the remediation of fungal contamination in residential and occupational buildings.”
Melaleuca alternifolia = tea tree oil. Who knew? Not me. I knew tea tree was great for just about everything, but this is fantastic news. Scientifically proven AND it smells good. The best of both worlds.
The Little Fellas That are Everywhere. Bacteria, like mold and mildew, thrive in moist areas. And (also like M&M) bacteria is a living organism. In fact, scientists determined that bacteria are the single-most existent microorganism on the planet.
Again, like their musty-smelling counterparts, bacteria multiply when they can “feed.” Bacteria survive on organic material such as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates -- the stuff we humans create. These microscopic critters release oils and enzymes that break down organic compounds. This creates chemical byproducts which are responsible for the various smells associated with bacteria. One of the most pungent of these smells (other than a gym locker filled with sweaty socks) emanates from the bathroom. The bathroom, especially right around the toilet, is a smorgasbord for bacteria.
Uh, duh, you say. Right. None of this is new information. But bear with me. Remember: discovering the root cause of smells leads us to a better understanding of how to eliminate them in an effective manner.
Bacteria are unicellular, or single-celled, organisms. The outer surface consists of a cell wall which is surrounded by a membranous outer layer. (Bet you didn't realize you'd be getting a lesson in microbiology when you started reading a post on household smells!)
Here's why all this is important. When cleaning dirty surfaces most of us are making one big mistake. We spray disinfectant -- or use that wonderful cleanser called vinegar which works as well as most chemical cleaners -- then we wipe it away with our sponge or cloth thinking we're removing dead bacteria. Of course, this does kill some of the bacteria. But to really get at it, to not simply minimize the smell, but to fully eradicate it, requires some good old-fashioned scrubbing.
Why? Remember our microbiology lesson? The act of scrubbing breaks down that outer cell wall. After that, the microorganisms are no match for a cleaning solution. Even professionals agree: “Until the bacteria is destroyed, the odor will remain present.”
The Human Element. The final two odor-causes on our list have more of a human-involvement element. These are smoking and pets. Whether the choice is a pack of cigarettes or a pet menagerie these smells tend to linger if not addressed. An air quality restoration professional shared an interesting observation about homes for sell. He explains to “the home guru,” the most common odors he encounters are smoke residue, pet odors, and mold. “Usually no one does anything about the first two,” he says, “because people are not aware of those odors when they live with them.”
Since those comments revolve around the subject of putting a home up for sale, let's pause to discuss why getting a better understanding of smells is so important here. Unpleasant odors in a home can be the death of a sale. The presence of “bad air” sends a message (often subliminally) that a house is unsanitary. It's one of the quickest ways to turn off a prospective buyer.
In this case, baking cookies or placing scented candles in every room won't cut it. Especially if the strongest smells come from smoke or pets. If the thought of dealing with odor elimination adds more stress to an already stressful time, consider hiring a professional service. Look for a service that offers smoke and pet odor removal as part of their in-depth cleanse. These companies have the appropriate techniques and chemicals necessary for wiping out most strong odors that tend to linger.
If you're not planning to put your home on the market anytime soon, or you’re more of a DIYer we return to our faithful friend: vinegar. When it comes to removing tar and nicotine build-up, think white and warm. A one-to-one ratio of white vinegar to warm water works well. Adding the solution to a spray bottle makes the process even simpler. The importance of using warm water cannot be overemphasized here. The substances from smoke stains tend to be sticky, so the warm water helps loosen them. So, spray and -- don't forget! -- scrub, tackling one wall at a time.
Vinegar also neutralizes pet stains. A bowl of vinegar near the litter box does wonders, dissipating odors and freshening the air. If you're leery about wetting your carpet with vinegar, move to the next best remedy: baking soda. Sprinkle a layer of baking soda on the carpet and leave overnight. Baking soda is absorbent, so it pulls out the urine smell. Vacuum in the morning and enjoy the smell of a cleaner home. (If the mess is extreme, several applications of baking soda may be necessary.)
Stink cannot be “cured” with fragrance. Combating the smell simply doesn't work. So, the next time I’m tempted to get trigger happy with the Hawaiian Breeze aerosol spray, I’ll take a moment to consider the cause. Then I’ll go to the source and say “buh-bye!”.
At least we can breathe easier knowing that we've come a long way as a society. In “Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell” the authors share that bonfires were built in city streets as antidotes to bad air. Not only was adding old shoes to the inferno believed to help but “for added olfactory protection, some families kept a goat in the house.”