How to Tackle Chemical Smells & Other Malodors that Invade Your Home

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In today’s chemical-filled world, unwanted toxins can fill your home in an instant and they can linger for ages. Sometimes the smell is strong and distinct, while other times it’s a faint trace that’s just enough to be irritating.

If you’re chemically sensitive, even the most common of these home-invading odors can induce debilitating fatigue, migraines, brain fog, skin rashes, wheezing, or worse. But to be fair, even folks who don’t think of themselves as chemically sensitive still experience headaches, dizziness, or other symptoms – temporary or mild as they may be – from everyday chemicals and fumes.

However your body reacts, it is warning you of danger and prompting you to take action.

We can pollute our homes without realizing it

It’s often the case that you can’t smell certain chemicals after a while, yet they are still present in your home. For example, it can take months, sometimes years, to offgas VOCs and other contaminants from new furniture, rugs and carpeting, fresh paint, vinyl shower curtains, and other common household items.

The synthetic fragrances in our hair and body care products are another example, as well as common household cleaners and those ‘great smelling’ fabric softeners we love so much. These products can all emit fumes and they can pollute your indoor air more than you’d think.

Individually, the chemicals in each of them may not seem like a big deal. But together, they can really add up. The resulting health issues may feel only mildly bothersome at first, but if the situation isn’t remedied, they can worsen over time.

Avoiding chemical odors

We can often avoid these types of chemical odors simply by being more selective about what we buy or allow into our home.

When you’re shopping for furniture or décor, for example, choose items made from natural materials, rather than buying pressed wood or other items made from, or treated with, chemicals. Alternatively, you can look for great vintage pieces that have off-gassed their chemicals years ago. (Just beware of any musty or moldy smells that may have accumulated in their place.)

You can also choose rugs made from natural materials and that are dyed with natural colorants. And when you want to paint a room, you can skip the VOC-free (yet still chemical-filled) paints, opting for a natural plant, milk, or clay-based paint instead. Cleaning your home with natural ingredients, in place of chemical sprays, is another biggie.

On the personal front, you can choose to avoid commercial body products, which are often filled with unwanted chemicals and synthetic fragrances. Instead, opt for fragrance-free (and otherwise chemical-free) body products made from plant and mineral ingredients. You can also ask guests to skip their usual fragrances, whenever they pop by for a visit. And you can ask them to leave if they choose not to heed your request.

Pollutants that waft into our homes… and can’t be avoided

Even temporary air pollutants that last from just a few moments to a few hours can still pack a powerful punch. For example, you can become suddenly overwhelmed by the smell of fabric softener blowing in from your building’s laundry room, gas fumes from the gardener’s leaf blower, cigarette smoke from your neighbor’s open window, or tar fumes from newly paved roads outside your door.

Shutting a window can help, but even with your doors and windows closed, somehow these outside vapors always seem to find their way in. A fan can often help if it’s a warm enough day to have the windows open and the fumes aren’t too heavy.

I know a lot of folks who use deodorizing plugins to prevent odors or commercial sprays, like Febreze or Lysol, to attack smells like this. But these kinds of products add even more chemicals to the room. Plus, they often smell worse than whatever odor you were trying to cover in the first place.

Here’s how the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database rates them, in case you’re curious:

Febreze scores a C

Lysol scores an F

To avoid adding to the chemical mess, you’ll want natural air purifying agents that actually remove the offending chemicals from your environment entirely.

Most commercial deodorizers mask odors with more chemicals. Instead, choose natural air purifying agents that remove the chemicals entirely.

Tackling toxic smells & other malodors

Whether we accidentally bring chemicals into our home through a new purchase or they float in on their own, these malodors are not only bothersome; they can also be dangerous. Health-seeking lifestylers often rely on baking soda, activated charcoal, and a volcanic mineral, called zeolite, to get rid of unpleasant chemicals and other smells in their home. And for good reason.

These natural alternatives don’t just cover odors as the chemical deodorizers do. Instead, they have tiny pores that attract and trap odor-causing bacteria, essentially ‘absorbing’ the offending particles and leaving you with truly cleaner indoor air.

While this is obviously fantastic news, there are a few downsides you need to know, as well as stronger alternatives to consider, when these natural solutions don’t do the trick.

The upside of baking soda

Baking soda (a.k.a. sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda) can be sourced naturally, though it is often synthesized in a lab (simply sodium + carbon) without the use of toxic chemicals. It’s great at absorbing most everyday odors in the fridge, diaper bin, kitty litter, and around the house. And once it has done its job, you can toss it down the sink, tub, or toilet to help keep the pipes clean and prevent future plumbing issues. Nice added bonus, right?

Beyond deodorizing, I personally use baking soda just about every day to scrub my pots and pans, clean the sinks and tubs, lift spills from the carpet, and boost the cleaning power of the soaps I use in both the washing machine and the dishwasher.

Because I use it so liberally, I skip the small baking-sized boxes and buy it in bulk. I’ll then portion it out into empty pasta sauce or olive jars, keeping one at the kitchen sink and one under the bathroom sink for easy access.

The limitations of baking soda

While baking soda is highly recommended as a no-scratch cleaner and can reduce so many common odors, it often isn’t powerful enough to remove the heavier chemicals and other strong odors that can pollute your indoor air and leave you with a headache, or worse.

This is because baking soda doesn’t react with all chemicals and, therefore, doesn’t attract and absorb every type of odor. The granules also have a small surface area, which limits their ability to react with a high volume of particles.

As a result, you may find that you need to couple baking soda with another odor-fighter to fully accomplish the task. Or just use a stronger alternative altogether.

The upside of charcoal and zeolite

Activated charcoal (aka activated carbon) and zeolite have a larger surface area to absorb odors than baking soda. They are also able to attract and absorb a wider array of chemical-causing odors.

Unlike baking soda, which needs to be discarded after its job is done, activated charcoal and zeolite can be ‘recharged’ and reused over and over. Once their pores are full, simply place the bags containing the activated charcoal or zeolite outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine. The sun’s heat will release the trapped chemicals, freeing the charcoal or zeolite for reuse.

The limitations of charcoal and zeolite

While activated charcoal and zeolite trap chemicals on their surface, they don’t actually neutralize them. This isn’t a big deal for your indoor air if you regularly recharge them in the sun to release the odor-causing molecules outdoors.

But if their surface fills up before you realize it (and there is no real way of knowing when that happens), the trapped molecules can start to release back into the air and trigger a sensitivity. This is obviously an issue.

Mineral technology to neutralize stronger fumes

While baking soda, activated charcoal, and zeolite are great for everyday bathroom and kitchen odors, you’ll likely find that you need something stronger to tackle the more serious fumes and odors. One brand that is popular with the chemically sensitive is EnviroKlenz, which uses a highly effective mineral technology to completely neutralize a wide array of chemicals and malodors on contact. Plus, all their products have been specifically formulated for the chemically sensitive.

As a big believer in “the simpler, the better”, I love that EnviroKlenz uses just a handful of mineral ingredients such as magnesium hydroxide/magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and vermiculite (a mineral mined from volcanic glass).

These minerals attach to both chemical and biological malodors from surfaces, indoor air spaces, and laundry. They don’t mask odors, as chemical deodorizers do. Nor do they just trap them as baking soda or activated charcoal would. Instead, the minerals create small, but entirely safe chemical reactions that neutralize the pollutants on contact.

Their ingredients are also biodegradable, completely non-toxic, and safe for use around children, pets, extreme allergy sufferers, and those with acute chemical sensitivities. They are also non-bleaching and non-staining for clothing, rugs, and other textiles (except leather).

Popular products include:

  • Everyday Odor Eliminator: Eradicates smells from new purchases, such as unwrapping a rug or mattress, or from installing new flooring or building materials. It’s also great for everyday use to safely wipe down the kitchen, bathroom, pet area, baby nursery, and more.(BUY)
  • Absorbent Odor Neutralizing Granules: Neutralizes the smell of pet urine, vomit, soured milk, or other strong odors on carpets, rugs, drapes, upholstery, and furniture.(BUY)
  • Laundry Enhancer: Great for stubborn laundry odors from new clothing that’s been preserved in formaldehyde and thrift store clothing that is either musty and moldy or has scents left behind by the previous owner. It also helps to prevent cross-contamination at the laundromat from chemical-based detergents, bleaches, softeners, or fragrances lingering in the machine from previous users.(BUY)
  • Odor Eliminating Pads: Get rid of chemical or musty smells from small, enclosed spaces such as dresser drawers, closets, gym lockers, kitchen cabinets, and old boxes that have been stored in the garage or attic.(BUY)
  • HEPA Air Purifier: Removes and neutralizes airborne dust, dander, pollen, odors, mold spores, gases, vapors, fragrance, VOCs, bacteria, and other airborne particulates.(BUY)

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Laundry Enhancer Powder

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