How to Make Your House Smell Good—Experts Share 8 Secrets
Smell is often called humans' most powerful sense, and scents tell us a lot about the world—from what we should eat to even whom we should kiss. When it comes to our homes, if a space smells fresh, that's a great sign. If the smell is bad? We feel uneasy.
Aim for Zero Odor
The secret to a nose-friendly space isn't to spray fragrance on top of yucky stuff: "A clean home should smell like nothing," says Melissa Maker, founder of the Clean My Space cleaning company, blog, and YouTube channel. For folks who get overwhelmed by too much fragrance (or who have allergies or asthma), the work may end at neutralizing bad odors. But for those who love a scent, we have ideas for you too.
Tackle the Bad
1. Deal With Moisture
It's the number one cause of household odors, says Rachel Hoffman, author of the (bluntly yet inspirationally named) book Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess ($16; bookshop.org). Consider using a hygrometer to test the humidity level in each room—if you discover a room with humidity above 60 percent, you may want to use a dehumidifier. If needed, you can run more than one dehumidifier, but note that they can use a lot of energy: Start with one and see how it goes.
If you live in a humid climate, avoid wall-to-wall carpeting or rugs (which can trap moisture), especially in areas like the kitchen and bathroom, Hoffman says. Consider keeping moisture-absorbing products in smaller areas that get damp, such as bathrooms and closets ($9; target.com). And keep an eye on micro sources of moisture, such as sponges and towels: Replace sponges at least every one to two weeks, ensure clean towels are fully dry before folding and putting them away, and hang bath mats over the shower rod to help them dry.
RELATED: How to Keep Towels Smelling Fresh
2. Out With the Obvious
Spots like litter boxes, garbage cans, pet beds, and diaper pails are all places that give off funky smells. Duh, you might say, but unfortunately, the more time we spend around these things, the less likely we are to realize they stink. "It's called sensory adaptation, and it's common to all the senses," says Leslie Stein, Ph.D., director of science communications at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. This "nose blindness" is adaptive; when regular smells fade into the background, then an unfamiliar scent pops up (like smoke), we notice it more. But it can also mean your stuff smells, and you don't even know it. So it's important to be proactive: Clean the inside of your garbage can (including the lid, if there is one) at least once a month, Hoffman suggests. Keep a bit of kitty litter at the bottom of the pail to absorb smells. Launder pet beds regularly, and scoop the litter box every day. And if you can, try to use small garbage pails in your home, so you're forced to take out the trash more regularly.
3. Open the Fridge
The first course of action for a funky fridge should be pretty obvious: Toss anything that is past its prime. Hoffman says that some of the worst offenders are condiments—which people tend to think last forever—and leftovers. "They get pushed to the back and forgotten," she adds. Do an inventory of your fridge at least every month to ensure the contents are fresh.
Then, give the interior of your fridge a thorough scrubbing. If you have removable shelves and drawers, pull them out and soak them in hot, soapy water. Wipe down the inside of the structure with a one-to-one mixture of hot water and white vinegar plus a tiny drop of dish soap. Use a damp cloth to rinse. "Remember to only use cleaners that are food-safe inside your fridge," notes Hoffman. Stay away from bleach, she advises, as it's difficult to properly dilute and rinse.
4. Clean Soft Surfaces
Carpets, throw pillows, upholstery, bed linens, and window covers are magnets for bad smells. Even after a spill dries or dirt gets wiped away, odor-causing bacteria can linger. In carpets, a missed stain can lead to mold or mildew. Maker recommends having a professional steam-clean your upholstery and carpets once a year. For throw pillows, bed linens, and window covers, check the fabric care labels to see if they can be machine-washed. "But remember, there are certain items best left to a pro to ensure the job gets done right," she adds.
The easiest way to avoid smells on a carpet is to quickly attack any spills. Biological stains—like an accident from a pet or child—should be treated with an enzyme cleaner, such as Seventh Generation Natural Stain Remover Spray ($4.50; target.com), which quickly breaks down bio messes. And while carpet shampooing is helpful, the easiest way to stay on top of carpet smells is good ol' regular maintenance. As you vacuum and spot-treat your carpets more often, the less likely they are to smell, Hoffman notes. "Try sprinkling the area with baking powder, let it sit for a few hours, and then vacuum," says Donna Smallin, a certified house-cleaning technician and author of Clear the Clutter, Find Happiness ($11; bookshop.org).
Bring in the Good
5. Open the Windows
It's the easiest way to bring freshness in, says Maker, especially if you have leftover cooking smells or lingering odors from home improvement projects, such as painting. Opening a window makes your entire space feel cleaner and helps lift the mood in your home. If possible, open windows on multiple sides of your home to get a cross breeze. Even if it's freezing outside, cracking a window for a short while can make a difference.
6. Try a Neutralizer
If you love the idea of a home that smells perfectly like nothing, then look for odor neutralizers that don't add a scent. Our experts are fans of activated charcoal filters that come in small bags you can hang in stink-prone rooms or stash in a gym bag. "They're good, especially in areas [with] diaper pails, garbages, and litter boxes," says Maker. In a pinch, fill your sink with hot water and a few drops of bleach, and drain it before company arrives. "Just the smell of cleaner will make people think your home is clean," explains Hoffman.
7. Find Subtle Ways to Scent
Diffusers aren't the only way to use essential oils. Try a few of these DIY ideas from Maker. First, consider a fabric refresher spray: Mix 1/2 cup of white vinegar, 1/2 cup of rubbing alcohol, 1 teaspoon of cornstarch, and 20 drops of your favorite oil in a small spray bottle. Shake well before each use and mist it over clothing or upholstery, ensuring that clothes completely dry before folding them.
Or try baking soda sachets, which absorb bad smells and add in good ones: Fill a coffee filter with baking soda, add about five drops of essential oil, and tie it off—then toss it in a drawer or anywhere that needs a refresh. Another pro tip: Next time you replace your furnace filter, add 10 to 20 drops of essential oil. The air will help disperse the scent throughout the space.
8. Avoid Strong Scents
It's a common misconception that for your home to smell "good," the smell has to envelop you the second you walk through the door. The opposite is true. You're after a general feeling of energy, relaxation, or whatever your intention is for the space. This also ensures you're considering any guests. Some may have allergies or sensitivities to strong smells, and you don't want to make them uncomfortable in your home.
Consider Your Guests
For that reason, it's a good idea to stay away from overly sweet, cloying smells when scenting your home. If you love your sugar apple cinnamon candle, Maker suggests saving that for times when you're home on your own. "I'm a fan of having a library of scents," she adds. Your sweet favorite can serve as your personal mood booster, which is exactly what a good fragrance should do.
When you're sharing your space, however, Maker suggests steering clear of sugary scents and sticking to more natural ones—like woods, florals, and citrus. "You can still get a similar feeling as you do with the sugary-smelling scents," she says. "But the result will be longer-lasting and more impactful." In other words, a home that smells as good as it looks.