16 Surfaces That Are Trapping Bad Odors in Your Home—And How to Fix Them

Every home has a smell that greets you at the door. It can be as pleasant as the scent of an apple pie warm from the oven or it may be an unpleasant odor that wrinkles your nose. If you still get a whiff of stench after your regular cleaning, it is usually coming from surfaces, visible or hidden, that trap odor. It's time to be an odor detective to find the source of bad smells and get rid of them. Here are 16 places to investigate.


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Soft-Surface Odors in Every Room

Soft surfaces trap more than dirt—they can trap odor-causing bacteria. Machine-washable items like towels, bathmats, shower curtains, and slipcovers can be cleaned with a heavy-duty, enzyme-based detergent to remove odor-causing soil. But what about things that can't go in the washer? There are still ways to clean and freshen them:

1. Carpet

Treat stains immediately and vacuum your carpet at least weekly. Between thorough steam cleanings, sprinkle the carpet with a thick layer of dry baking soda and use a soft-bristled brush to work it down into the fibers. Allow the baking soda to sit on the carpet for several hours—overnight is best—and then vacuum it and odors away.

2. Drapes

Vacuum heavy drapes monthly to remove dust, then go over the surface with a steam cleaner to kill odor-causing bacteria. Take them down seasonally, toss them in the dryer with a dryer sheet and tumble on the air-only cycle to remove dust and freshen them, or take them to a professional dry cleaner.

3. Upholstery and Mattresses

As with carpet, treat stains immediately and vacuum the surfaces at least monthly. Use the baking soda method to absorb odors and vacuum them away.

Kitchen Odors

All of the spoiled food is out of the refrigerator, the counters have been thoroughly cleaned, and the trash is taken out. So why is there still a bad odor in the kitchen? Check these areas:

4. Dishwasher

Foul odors after washing a load of dishes are due to food trapped in the dishwasher filter. Remove the bottom rack and follow your nose to find the stinky filter. Most filters are located under the spray arm at the bottom of the dishwasher. (Check your manual or look online at the manufacturer's website.) Remove the filter and wash in hot, soapy water. Replace it and run a cleaning cycle with a commercial dishwasher cleaner or a bowl of distilled white vinegar placed in the top rack. No more odor!

5. Disposal

A disposal can cause lingering odors because bits of food get stuck in the blades or under the rubber baffle. Follow the directions for cleaning a commercial disposal cleaner or do it yourself with some vinegar and baking soda. Always unplug the disposal under the sink or turn off the breaker before scrubbing the inside with an abrasive sponge and hot, soapy water. Add one-half cup of baking soda and one-half cup of vinegar to the disposal (there will be foaming!). When the foaming stops, turn the disposal back on and flush it with hot running water for several minutes.

6. Refrigerator

Odors are common in refrigerators. However, if they remain after you've disposed of spoiled food and wiped down the inside with a solution of hot water and baking soda, check the drip pan. The drip pan catches moisture that usually evaporates quickly as the freezer defrosts. However, if the refrigerator isn't functioning correctly, the water can build up, encouraging mold growth.

To fix it, consult your manual and locate the drip pan at the bottom of the fridge. Pull it out, empty the water, wash the pan in hot, soapy water, and give it a spray with a 50:50 solution of chlorine bleach and water. Dry it thoroughly and reinsert it into the fridge. Keep an eye on it and make any necessary repairs to the refrigerator.

7. Sponge

If your sponge smells, throw it away! That's bacteria deep in the pores causing the odor. Even if you are diligent about rinsing and cleaning a sponge, it should be tossed after two or three weeks.

Laundry Room Odors

We're not talking about dirty laundry odors; you know about those. This stench may be coming from your washer or dryer.

8. Washing Machine

While front-loading washers get the most blame, every washer can have lingering odors if it is not cleaned regularly. Every month, run a cleaning cycle without laundry using a commercial washing machine cleaner or one cup of chlorine bleach. After the cycle, wipe down the inside with a microfiber cloth paying extra attention under rubber door baffles and around the automatic dispensers to remove mildew or product buildup.

9. Dryer

If you notice a musty odor, check and clean the dryer vent system. Lint can become trapped between the dryer and the outside exhaust opening; add some moisture and mold begins to grow on the lint and cause odors. By cleaning the vent, you get rid of the odor and reap the extra safety benefit of preventing a potential dryer fire.

Bathroom Odors

Even a seldom-used guest bathroom can develop odors. Learn how to get rid of lingering bathroom odors:

10. Sink and Tub Drains

The pipes under a sink or shower drain contain a moist p-trap that can develop a musty odor from lack of use. Luckily, this is an easy fix. Pour a half-cup of baking soda into the drain and follow it up with a half-cup of distilled vinegar. Cover the drain with a stopper to trap the foam as the vinegar and baking soda react. After the foaming stops, flush the drain with hot water.

11. Clogged Pipes and Vent Lines

When drains become clogged with hair and soap scum, bacteria can quickly set up shop. Use a drain snake, drain cleaner, or hire a professional to clear the pipes. A clogged vent line can cause sewage gases to escape into the air and usually requires a plumber to resolve.

12. Leaky Pipes

Leaky pipes in the bathroom, kitchen, or laundry room can leave walls, ceilings, or cabinetry damp enough to encourage mold growth. Repair the leaks, clean up any mold growth, and allow the area to dry out.

Closet and Mudroom Odors

Don't forget about small spaces that can hide some air-fouling secrets:

13. Shoes

A closet or mudroom filled with smelly sneakers can leave an entire home smelling bad. Wash your shoes or insert bags of baking soda into the shoes to absorb odors. Allow shoes to air and dry completely before storing them.

14. Gym bags

Sports equipment and workout clothes left in a gym bag can leave a terrible odor behind. Wash or clean everything before storing it.

15. Pets

Pet bedding, food bowls, litter boxes, and even chew toys should be cleaned to keep the air smelling fresh. Of course, any urine or feces accidents should be removed immediately, and don't forget to clean deeper than just the surface of the carpet or upholstery.

16. Lunchboxes and Bookbags

Leftover food and collected treasures can turn pretty smelly in just a short time. Clean out lunchboxes daily and bookbags at least weekly.

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