How to Get Rid of Stale Smoke Smell?

Q.I bought a dresser from a smoker and I cannot get the stale smoke smell out do you have any ideas? There’s also an upholstered chair with it – any suggestions for removing the stench from the fabric too?

(S.R, 5 May 2009)


A.There can be nothing as irritating as the smell of stale smoke clinging to furniture and fabrics. Cigarette smoke is a notoriously persistent odour, remaining long after the initial smoker has left. Part of the reason for this is the leftover resins and tars from the smoke but also because the smoke from cigarettes is composed of about 4,000 different chemicals, some in particulate form and some in gaseous form, and these chemicals form bonds which cause the stench of smoke to adhere to clothes, hair, skin, furniture, upholstery – almost anything within exposure.

Unfortunately, commercial air fresheners usually only mask odours, rather than neutralise them, and so are not a long-term solution: as soon as you remove the source of the artificial scent, the cigarette smoke smell will return with a vengeance! It is therefore for more effective to look for ways to neutralise the cigarette smoke odour.

Interestingly, two common household products do a fantastic job of neutralising odours and deodorising the air. The first is vinegar, which being an acid, is very effective at cutting through resin and tar. Just placing saucers of white vinegar around the affected items and leaving them in a sealed room overnight or for several days, followed by ventilating with fresh air, can have a noticeable effect on reducing the smell. Naturally, vinegar itself has a pungent odour but this will evaporate and fade whereas cigarette smoke does not. Alternatively, baking soda can also be used to great effect. This is particularly suitable for fabrics – such as the upholstered chair mentioned. Simply sprinkle the baking soda across as much of the surface as possible and leave for several hours or even a day if possible, and then vacuum everything off. Repeat a few more times if necessary.

If the items are old and the odour has really sunk into the material, then you may need to actually wash the surfaces as thoroughly as you can. Use an upholstery shampoo for the chair but be careful not to over-wet the fabric and keep the room ventilated afterwards to speed up the drying process (you can also use a fan). For wooden furniture, scrub all surfaces with a stiff brush and a wood-cleaning solution (although be careful of varnished surfaces which may be scratched by abrasives). Let the furniture thoroughly air dry – perhaps with the aid of a fan – but avoid putting them in direct sunlight as this can warp the wood. Don’t forget to remove all drawers to allow them to air thoroughly. For other parts made of other materials, wipe down with a cleaner appropriate to the surface (e.g. plastic). One good solution for anything plastic is to cover it with cat litter which will help to absorb any unwanted odours.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of fresh air. Just leaving the items in a well-ventilated room (or even outdoors in a breezy place if possible) can help enormously in removing unwanted odours and deodorising things.

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