1. Cleaning Residues Off Surfaces and Furnishings
These are the techniques used to remove cleaning product, air freshener, fragrance, and smoke residue from walls, floors, and furnishing.
Some chemical odors can be particularly difficult to remove, especially plug-in fragrance chemicals which contain oils. Cigarette smoke also contains greasy tar residue.
Any porous materials with a prolonged exposure are also particularly challenging to remediate.
This is a complete list of the strategies to use for each contaminant. I include my own experiment comparing sealants side-by-side to remediate Febreeze and cigarette smoke from drywall.
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i. Baking Soda or Vinegar
You can use baking soda or vinegar to wash down the walls. Baking soda provides some abrasion and helps remove odors. Vinegar is a degreaser and helps remove odors as well.
You can also sprinkle baking soda on horizontal surfaces, hard surfaces, carpet and upholstery, and leave them until they seem saturated with the odor, then clean up.
Vinegar and lemon or vinegar alone can also help neutralize smoke and nicotine. Alkaline cleaning products will not remove nicotine residue. Acidic cleaning products work best for cigarette smoke, and vinegar helps with the greasy residue (source).
You can also set out bowls of vinegar and bowls of baking soda to absorb malodors.
ii. Baking Soda & Hydrogen Peroxide
Baking soda mixed with hydrogen peroxide is a powerful cleaner (and bleaching agent!) Some people add a little bit of Seventh Generation dish soap to this mixture to wash down the walls. Dry them, and repeat.
This can be used to remove odors on the wall. It also works on urine odors and is the best formula for skunk smell (source).
You can mix one part 3% hydrogen peroxide with one part white distilled vinegar in a spray bottle to remove smoke odor in upholstery.
Hydrogen peroxide does bleach many materials, so test for compatibility.
Vodka can work to remove odors on walls and furnishings.
You can mist upholstery and fabric lightly with vodka to help remove smoke odors, musty odors, and bacterial odors.
You can use it on hard surfaces like furniture and walls to help remove smoke odors. Test for compatibility.
If you have personal care product and cleaning product residue on shower walls, this can help cut through grime to help remove that odor. It can remove sticky residue as well.
Like vinegar, vodka is a degreaser and can neutralize odors.
iv. TSP (Trisodium Phosphate)
TSP is a powerful cleaner and degreaser. It can also be used to get rid of fragrance residues.
It’s often used to help remove mold from fabrics as well.
It will damage some surfaces, so it’s only for certain applications and you must research how to use it safely.
Folks with chemical sensitivities generally do tolerate it. But you should be cautious with how you handle and dispose of it.
v. Orange Oil Soap
Orange oil is a natural degreaser, so it can help to remove oil-based chemicals like plug-in residue and cigarette smoke. You can use it on the floors and walls as well as most furniture.
Other citrus oils like lemon oil are also degreasers.
Of course, many people with chemical sensitivities do not do well with essential oils. If that is the case, don’t try this strategy.
If you are very sensitive to cleaning products you may prefer to mix this yourself to choose the base soap.
Dish soaps are particularly good soap degreasers.
If you cannot get smoke out of a surface any other way, you could wash the walls and ceiling with a mixture of 1/2 cup ammonia, 1/4 cup vinegar, and 1/2 cup baking soda in a gallon of hot water. Or just use ammonia and water 1:4.
This is of course not a non-toxic option and those who are chemically sensitive may not wish to risk this or may only use this strategy as a last resort before giving up on a building.
Do a sample outside first and see if and when the ammonia dissipates to your satisfaction.
2. Neutralize Odors with Enzyme Cleaners
Enzymes can break down chemicals and odors. They work best on organic odors but they can work on other chemicals.
Biokleen is a good cleaner to remove toxic cleaners, chemically sensitive folks have reported.
Another enzyme cleaner, Earthworm Spray works well at breaking down organic smells.
Liquid-Ate is a brand I have used (better priced in Canada than the other brands). This brand has an unscented version. Most enzyme sprays have a light essential oil fragrance, and the more conventional brands have chemical fragrance.
I tried Nature’s Miracle old formula. The new formula has a lot of complaints in the reviews and I’m not a fan of those additives and fragrance that are added.
These cleaners are best known for breaking down and safely eliminating urine and other organic odors without the use of harsh chemicals or masking agents, but they can work on other chemical compounds too.
They do damage some materials since they interact with and break down sealants. I have seen this damage on sealed concrete floors and wood floors.
3. Neutralize Odors with Natural Mineral Products
There are two main products that use mineral technology to neutralize fragrance as well as smoke and other chemical odors.
EnviroKlenz makes a mineral-based product to neutralize odors. They have different variations of the same formula that are slightly modified to suit different areas of the house/different materials.
Enviroklenz odor eliminators are all made with the same basic formula: magnesium hydroxide/magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide.
AFM Safecoat has a new product in 2020 called OdorOut. I tested this product in my experiment trying to remove Febreeze and smoke from drywall. More about that in the next section.
This performed surprisingly well. We don’t know the exact ingredients here though the vendor did say it’s a mineral-based product. Their website indicates it contains colloidal silica and “ions” (likely minerals). They describe a catalytic process that indicates it’s likely zeolite and possibly other minerals (possibly magnesium, zinc and/or titanium dioxide).
The product is fairly transparent in color (unlike EnviroKlenze which is white) and it’s definitely not an enzyme-based product. It has a light odor that is difficult to describe. Most people would tolerate this product.
4. Sealing in Odors on Surfaces
Water-based products (sealers and paints) do not seal in perfume, other fragrance, urine, or smoke very well. The odor mixes right into that water-based coating.
My Experiment Comparing Sealants
I did an experiment on painted drywall. Four pieces of drywall contained Febreeze sprayed evenly on the front (while the back was sealed with foil).
And another four were doused with cigarette smoke. The boards were sealed on the back with foil and put into bags with equal amounts of cigarette smoke blown in.
If you want to watch me go through the results on the board samples with Febreeze, here is a video.
Results of my Test
Water-based products did not help very much. I was not satisfied with ECOs Purifying Primer (which contains some zeolite) – on the Febreeze contaminated drywall – I would not even bother with this.
AFM HardSeal did help a little bit with the Febreeze odors. On Febreeze it was in second place (better than OdorOut). AFM did warn me that this would not work really well.
Shellac, a natural resin, is an alcohol-based sealant. It was by far the best seal on both chemicals from Febreeze and smoke odors. The downside of shellac is that this is a partial vapor barrier and should not be used on interior walls in all climates.
After using two coats of shellac, then you can go over with a water-based primer and paint, or even AFM HardSeal if you still need more sealing.
BullsEye is Zinnser’s waxed shellac – a great seal – but harder to paint over, Sealcoat Sanding Sealer is dewaxed and easier to paint over. BIN Shellac is their primer, which if you can tolerate that, is an easy one to paint over.
OdorOut came in second place on smoke (better than HardSeal). I was definitely impressed since this product did not look like it could tackle this. It did surprisingly well. It had to be reapplied multiple times as the odor partially returned after 24 hours or so. EnviroKlenz appears to be similar but is not the exact same formula.
On the Febreeze boards, it was not as good as HardSeal but it did help, and was better than just regular primer.
Wash the Walls first
In this experiment, I did not wash or scrub down the walls like I recommend in the first section. This would have helped. You may also want to apply some ozone or steam it first (and make sure it’s dry) before continuing on to seal it.
5. Steam Clean
Steam cleaning can be 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”, says Bob Vila.
Many home improvement centers rent these machines.
Bob Vila advises misting the surface lightly with the vapor from the steam cleaner. Don’t linger in one area and saturate it which can damage some fabrics such as silk and even destroy drywall.
6. Using Ozone to Break Down Fragrance & Smoke
There are a few things I would still use ozone for. Ozone can be used successfully on fragrance odors, not in shock treatment doses, but in lower doses. Lower doses are less risky.
The biggest risk with ozone (apart from the fact that people, pets and plants can be harmed by exposure to ozone) is that it oxidizes materials and can leave behind a persistent odor that can be even worse than the original one.
If your house has new home offgassing from building materials – I would not use it in that setting. I would personally not use ozone to remove fragrance in a house with high offgassing. There are too many possible chemical reactions that could go wrong and make things worse.
For fragrance and smoke, start with low doses for short amounts of time and stop if you are just starting to produce byproducts. Read my full post on ozone for precautions and airing out.
This doesn’t always work, especially on porous engineered wood or drywall where the fragrance or smoke is deeply embedded.
But it certainly can work on light fragrance and smoke and is something I would try after washing the walls and before sealing them. Or even before washing the walls if you like. Just be sure to start with low doses so you can check for interactions with building materials.
You don’t need a super powerful ozone machine for low doses and short times, a simple one like this will do. But you do have to take the same precautions as you would with higher doses.
You can use ozone on objects and some furniture as long as you know what it negatively reacts with (and know what it can degrade), or, are willing to experiment.
Ozone is a DEADLY gas, be sure to fully read the precautions and use at your own risk. I recommend a much longer air out process than ozone machine vendors recommend.
7. Remove Materials if Neccesary
When you have major contamination of fragrance chemicals or smoke and or you are extremely sensitive you may have to remove some materials.
Porous materials can become very saturated with smoke, fragrance, plug-in residue, aerosol residue, and other air freshener chemicals.
Drywall is very porous, and areas where the walls have been directly sprayed with aerosols, or right above where the plug-in was, might not be saveable.
Buildings where someone smoked inside for long periods of time will have very saturated materials as well.
Pressed Wood Removal
Pressed wood products are also very porous. If fragrance chemicals were stored under kitchen or bathroom cabinets or sprayed on them, those materials might not be able to be saved.
Though those are also areas where shellac will work well.
Carpet is another porous material that might not be able to be cleaned. You can try extraction, and you can try sprinkling down baking soda or zeolite and vacuuming it up later, but you might not be able to save it.
Removing third-hand smoke from carpet may be impossible.
When removing carpet take the same level of precaution you would take in remediation, since many chemicals (flame retardant, pesticides, mold spores) will become volatile during the removal of carpet.
8. Should you use an Air Purifier?
An air purifier will not stop the offgassing of fragrance, cleaning product reside, or smoke from the substrate, but it can help deal with the VOCs that are being emitted and are now circulating,
This is usually the step to try after trying to remove the source of the problem by cleaning, sealing etc. However, there is no harm in bringing this in to help right away. It just might not do as much as people hoped.
This usually isn’t enough to help someone that is severely reacting and unable to remove the chemical odor from the materials in the home.
But for some people, it does make all the difference. If you are less sensitive or the problem odor is not severe, this is a much easier solution than the others.
I have a list of top air purifiers to mitigate VOCs. These are the ones with lots of sorbent material in them. They are also units that are well tolerated by folks with MCS.
9. Using Other Sorbent Materials
Not as powerful as air purifiers that move air through sorbent materials, the same materials can be set out around the house to passively absorb odors.
A product that many chemically sensitive people have said works well is the Deoderoc mineral blocks. This might be zeolite, it’s not clear.
10. Don’t forget the Central HVAC
When you are moving into a house that had pervasive smoke, mold or other contaminants, you should replace the furnace filter and have the ducts cleaned.
- How to remediate VOCs in new homes (including how to seal in formaldehyde)
- The best air purifiers for high offgassing
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 7 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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