Between the shoes, boots, dirty jackets, coats, scarves, hats, and extra ‘junk’ crammed into the average person’s closet, odors are bound to become an issue sooner or later.
Common Causes of Closet Odors
Smelly shoes come to mind when you think of the most common problem in bedroom and coat closets. Stuffiness from lack of air circulation is another major factor. Putting even slightly damp clothing and linens in the closet can lead to mildew as well as the dampness activating the natural odors of the other fabrics or fragrances left behind from cleaning products. And, then, there are the clothes you’d like to get one more wear out of before taking to the cleaners. If you’re a smoker or you let one share your space, just one item will affect the rest of the closet.
There are other unexpected possibilities such as pests, leaks, and curious pets. Insects and rodents will leave droppings. Even though the droppings will be very small, enough of them will cause odors. Mice are oily and leave their scent wherever they go. If the mouse population increases, you’ll definitely be able to tell by the smell. And, not all mice will make it out of your closet. One may get inside and die. The tiny decomposing body will leave a really big stench. If there are any leaky pipes or a leaky roof that drains down a wall in your closet, there will be a lot of dampness with mold and mildew. And cats are very good at snooping into closets and finding discreet areas to pee in.
With linen closets and utility closets, there may be spills from cleaning supplies, pest sprays, paints and oils. Some scents permeate the boxes they are in, like soap powder and mothballs, and others will affect the rest of the closet area. If you use your linen or utility closet to store your vacuum cleaner, brooms, mops, and/or power tools, you’re just marinating everything that tight space.
How to Remove Specific Smells
The first thing to do is clean out the closet. For clothing and linens, you may have to wash everything. Hopefully it is a very nice day outside because line drying fabric is one of the best ways to get rid of odors. In fact, if you have removable shelves or storage boxes, letting them sit out in the sun can rid them from odor. For help, see “How to Clean Your Closets.”
If the closet smells a little musty, a good airing will generally handle it. Just by cleaning and organizing you’ll pretty much eliminate the problem. Use potpourri sachets, scented cedar blocks, or charcoal deodorizers to help keep the closet fresh. Putting shoes in shoe boxes that still have their silica packets; or using Odor Eaters Products will keep the smelly shoe problem in check.
If you won’t quit smoking for your lungs, do it for your clothes. The smoke gets trapped in everything around you and that includes your closets.
- Air everything out.
- Neutralize the remaining odor with white vinegar. Don’t worry, you won’t smell like a salad; the vinegar smell will quickly dissipate. You can mix 1/2 cup in a bucket of warm-to-hot water and wipe down the shelves, walls and floors. If the floor is carpeted, sprinkle baking soda on it and let it sit for an hour before vacuuming.
- Even if you do not smell it after your thorough cleaning, you could still benefit from using an odor absorber like charcoal or baking soda to get what’s left.
- If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to get hardcore. Pour 1/2 cup of straight bleach into a bowl or a bucket that you feel you will not accidentally tip over. Sit it inside the closet, shut the door and leave it overnight. You can also use white vinegar or coffee grounds, but bleach is a fail-safe.
If you find evidence of pest-infiltration wipe the shelves and walls down with a strong household cleaner like Pine-Sol. Not only will it kill the odor, it will leave a strong scent that bugs and mice do not want to be around. The scent will eventually fade so identify the type of pest that has invaded your closets and look into extermination or deterrent methods designed especially for your situation.
Mold and Mildew
What’s the difference between mold and mildew? Well, Wisegeek.com says, “Mold and mildew have many similar characteristics, but they are different types of fungi, and are often different in color and texture. Mold and mildew are often mentioned together as they can both grow in many of the same moist and warm locations… Mold is often black, green, red or blue in color while mildew is usually gray or white.” Whatever it is, you’re going to have to stay on top of it with bleach. Fill a spray bottle 3/4 full with hot water and pour in two capfuls of bleach. Shake it up and spray it directly on stains then let sit until they disappear. The odor will go with it.
After finding the exact location of the stain, use a pet urine neutralizer from a pet supply store. There are hand held black lights you can purchase to help locate urine (among other things). Spray the area down really well and let it sit. If the urine has seeped into wood, you may have to repeat this process 4 or 5 more times until the odor is gone. You can also sand a layer or two off of the wood and then shellac the area. The shellac will cover any remaining odor and seal it from ever bothering you again. Just keep kitty out of the closet.
General Odor Removal
If you are not sure what is causing the odor, or you just want a general odor-removing trick to try, here is an easy option that works well in most situations.
You Will Need:
- Deodorizer (choose one):
- White vinegar
- Baking soda
- Activated charcoal
- Coffee grounds
Steps to Remove the Odor:
- Select a deodorizer from the list above. Activated charcoal is said to work particularly well on organic odors like sweat. If you choose to use coffee beans, be aware that they will not only remove the odor but also replace it with a coffee smell, so make sure you choose a coffee that has a smell you like. If you choose white vinegar, don’t worry about the smell; the vinegar smell will dissipate after you remove the bowl.
- Put your selected deodorizer on a plate or in a bowl.
- Set the plate or bowl in the closet. If the closet is large or has multiple shelves, use more plates.
- Close the closet door.
- Let the deodorizer sit for several hours or overnight, then remove the deodorizer.
- Repeat this process as many times as needed for the odor to be removed. Use a fresh batch of deodorizer each time.
- Once the odors have been removed, consider putting a few sachets of potpourri in your closet to give the room a pleasant smell.
- Clean off all of the items in the closet to remove any lingering odors on them so they don’t put the odor back into the closet.
- If you have metal hangers, be sure to clean those as well. When metal becomes dirty from finger oils it can have a metal smell that gets onto clothing.
Pet urine stains: spray full strength vinegar on the stain and let it sit for 15 minutes. Sprinkle baking soda over the vinegar and spray a few squirts over the soda. It will bubble. Let dry completely, then vacuum up. After vacuuming, spritz 1 part lemon juice/1 part vinegar/2 parts water over the affected area, and let dry. The lemon odor will discourage pets from reusing the area. Make sure to take the animal to the vet if this happens in a high traffic area more than once, as your animal may be trying to tell you something.
I got a hanging shoe storage unit that hangs from the closet rod. It is a lightweight canvas-like material with a very stinky plastic lining. It smells like formaldehyde and bleach combined. It is sickening and even makes my eyes sting. It was made in China. What are they using and how can I get rid of this smell? Is it dangerous with the off-gassing? I have hung it in the sun for 8 hours, sprayed it down with vinegar water and shut it in the closet with an ionizing air filter for two days. Any suggestions?
Julie W. says
I got a hanging shoe rack at a rummage sale. It has cardboard in-between the storage spaces, so I can’t wash it in a machine. It has a odor of dog or cat, so was wondering what I could do to get the smell out?
Here are a couple of options.
1) You could make a 1:10 solution of white vinegar and water in a spray bottle, spray the solution on the rack and allow it to dry.
2) Get a storage bin or container that is larger than the shoe rack, pour some baking soda into the container and place a baking rack (or several) in the bottom of the container. Set the shoe rack on the baking rack, seal the container and allow the shoe rack to stay in the box overnight or for several days until the odor is gone.
You can also dust the shoe rack with baking soda, if the materials permit. Also note that vinegar and baking soda will react, so if you decide to use both processes (and do this first), make sure that you have wiped away all of the baking soda residue from the shoe rack before spraying on the vinegar.
3) Use the storage container trick, but instead of baking soda, use a sachet or bowl of coffee beans to transfer a more pleasant odor to the rack.
4) Tuck a dryer sheet into each of the shoe slots.
5) Determine the area on the rack where the smell is strongest and fill the nearest shoe slot with coffee beans, a few tablespoons of baking soda or a sachet.
Kim D says
We are moving into a house that was built in the 50’s. One of the closets has an awful smell; reminds me of an old folks home. I washed it out with ammonia water and sprayed it with diluted bleach water and still can’t get the smell out. Any suggestions?
That sounds like stuffiness. Placing a fan at the entrance of the closet and opening the nearby windows might help to air it out. If not, try out some of the ideas in the other sections. You can sprinkle baking soda on the floor or onto a plate and allow it to sit for several hours. Another idea is to set a bowl of coffee grounds, vinegar or activated charcoal in the closet for a few hours or overnight.
Sunlight is also great deodorizer and cleaner. Since you probably can’t fill the whole closet with sunlight, you could use a UV cleaning light instead.
Also, you have to be very careful when using ammonia and bleach in the same area. If they mix, they can form a toxic gas.
Try painting the closet walls (and woodwork, if necessary). If the smell is very bad, seal the walls first with KILZ or Zinsser primer before painting. A trick I learned from a professional painter.
Thank you for providing a natural and cheap and easy way for me to clean the musty smell out of my walk in closet. I’m pleased to find such a reasonable way to do it that makes sense over buying deodorizers being sold all over that do no good. Will start by washing my clothes today!! Thanks again!
I keep my dog in an open closet in my laundry room. It’s his den & he loves it. However, I can’t get the dog smell out of the closet & my laundry hanging in the laundry room smell musky. I do keep the window open all day & have washed the dog & his blankets & the entire floor & the smell still comes back. What can I do? I’ve turned the closet into an entire den for him. Baby gate & all.
Here are a few ideas to remove the smell from the room/den:
1) Use an odor absorber. Place a bowl of activated charcoal or baking soda in the laundry room overnight while the window is closed. Activated charcoal works particularly well with organic odors. Because a dog’s sense of smell is so strong, it would probably be better (more appreciated by him) for you not to use a pungent odor remover like a bowl of coffee grounds or white vinegar unless he is not in the room and you let the room air out afterwards. Here is an article with more information on removing strong odors: How to Remove Rotton Food Odors from House.
2) Use enzyme digesters, which are cleaners that contain beneficial bacteria that will eat away all the organic material (and the odor produced by that material). There are enzyme digester laundry detergents, such as Seventh Generation, and also enzyme digester cleaners, such as a pet accident cleaner or Nature’s Miracle Hard Floor Cleaner. The dog odor can generally be attributed to either yeast or bacteria, which you need to use the right cleaner to completely remove. Yeast is actually a fungus.
3) Make sure there isn’t anything wet in the laundry room that could be causing the musty smell – such as lint trapped in the dryer vent. For more information, see the article How to Remove Musty Smells from the Dryer. To give the dryer vent a thorough cleaning, use the article How to Clean a Dryer Vent.
4) You can also wash the walls. You could try using white vinegar to wash the walls since it is an odor remover and also a mild fungicide and antibacterial. Test it on a hidden spot first to look for any adverse reaction first though. Try using a solution of about 1 part white vinegar in 6 parts water. Follow the information in this article: How to Wash Walls.
If the dog (and not the dryer) is the cause, it is also important to treat him. Dogs are known to be a bit smelly, but anything more than a normal dog smell could be an indicator of a health issue. It could be something as simple as him needing a rawhide to chew on to remove a bit of tooth plaque or needing a different kind of shampoo or food, or even just needing a foot bath. However, there are also more serious medical conditions that could be contributing to the odor, such as an ear infection, dental disease or diabetes. Consider taking him to a vet for a checkup as well.
Source: Wikihow – 6 Ways to Make Your Dog Smell Better
Source: The Daily Puppy – How to Rid Dogs of a Musty Smell
Source: Paw Nation – 10 Ways To Improve Your Dog’s Bad Breath
Source: 1-800-PetMeds – Causes of Strong Pet Odors
I have a closet with a hot heater that has a horrible smell. I just moved into an apartment and it’s the only room that smells. I have freshener in the rest of the apartment, but you can smell strong mustiness just passing by the door. What can I do?
You could try using an odor absorber to remove the smell. Put a bowl of either white vinegar, coffee grounds or a plate of baking soda in the closet overnight. Repeat with a fresh batch of vinegar (or coffee or baking soda) each day until the smell is removed.
I recently purchased a vintage coat, but it smelled very musty. I have had it dry cleaned, which has helped, but I’m still aware of the musty smell. Would a solution of white vinegar sprayed onto the coat help, or might it cause damage? The fabric is a wool mix.
Diluted vinegar is safe to use on most (if not all) washable laundry items, and in particular, is safe to use on wool. To be sure though, you could test the solution on a small, hidden area first to look for any adverse reaction. Spraying the garment directly with vinegar might remove the smell, or you could try setting a bowl of undiluted vinegar next to the coat and that also could remove the smell.
Source: eHow – Vinegar & Wool Rug Cleaning
Hey there, I was hoping you could help me erase the odd smell coming from my wardrobe.
This wardrobe is very old, but in very good condition; the scent is the only problem. The previous owners had it for almost twenty years now and it had only ever been used to hold one set of earrings. It was in those many years sitting in the same location with all its doors open opposite the bathroom and was very dusty.
I gave it a good wipe down and allowed it to sit in direct sunlight for several hours before putting into my bedroom. The scent had gone down a little bit, but it is still enough to make my siblings and myself gag and it only has to be opened for a few minutes to make my room reek.
I’ve tried tea tree oil, chalk, and even bread! The scent does get weaker, but in a few days it comes back stronger.
Feels like a battle and I’m getting owned!!!
Wood can absorb odors, and it may take repeated efforts and time to remove the smell, but it can be removed. This article should help: How to Remove Cigarette Smells from Wooden Furniture.
I have a problem with every closet in my apartment with the wood shelves they smell awful, and they all smell the same, what can I do to get rid of the smell, and it’s not mold or mildew?
Check it out! We’ve answered your question! Yay!
Ughh my apartment wood in closets have a bad odor, permeates into my clothes. A spirit, only explanation. You can smell it in the common hallway too. I’ve washed some shelves with bleach water and it helped some, for now, fingers crossed.
Why do people put their shoes in their clothes closets? It just seems dirty to me and I do not want to sleep in a place that smells like or even feels like a place I walked through…all the sidewalks, etc. I have a rack in my garage. If you have a bigger collection, I think you need to have a shoe closet, separate from your clothes closet, and outside where you sleep.
Baking soda and white vinegar are great odor eliminators. You can also place fresh lavender where you need to eliminate the odors. I hope this helps.
We moved to an apartment that has a closet that smells like they stored a lot of carbolic soap inside. I lived here for over a year and the smell is still there. We tried Baki soda, but the scent of carbolic soap is too strong. We want to put baby’s clothes in there but it would absorb the scent. Any advise on how to get rid of it. Thanks.
First, wash out the walls and shelves of the closet using dish liquid or all purpose cleaner. Then, if the odor remains, try other deodorizers like leaving a bowl of vinegar in the closet overnight, or a bowl of activated charcoal (plain barbeque briquettes work for this), etc. You can also try commercial products like OdoBan. Good luck!