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

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7 min read

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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 from everyday chemical fumes.

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

This article covers:

Common pollutants that compromise our indoor air quality

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 chemical contaminants from new furniture, rugs and carpeting, fresh paint, vinyl shower curtains, and other common household items. And whether you realize it or not, your family and pets are breathing these toxins every day.

Chemical smells in furniture and rugs

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.

Individually, the chemicals in each product may not seem like a big deal but, together, they really add up. The resulting health issues may feel only mildly bothersome at first, but they can worsen over time as the toxins accumulate in our body.

Also read: Quick tips for clean, healthy air in your home

Eliminating chemical odors

We can avoid these everyday chemical odors by becoming more selective about the products we buy and bring into our home.

When you’re shopping for furniture or décor, for example, choose items made from natural materials in place of 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. (We’ll talk about how to get rid of those musty smells in a moment.)

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 natural paints made from clay, plants, or milk instead.

Replace the chemical cleaners under your sink with vinegar and baking soda. Cleaning your home with natural ingredients is easier than you think. They’re just as effective as toxic bleach and ammonia-based disinfectants and more affordable than the chemical-filled sprays we grew up with.

On the personal hygiene 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.

Avoid commercial deodorizing sprays & plug-ins

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. These include baking soda, activated charcoal, and zeolite that all absorb odors, as well as advanced mineral technologies that actually remove the offending chemicals from your environment entirely.

Tackling toxic smells & other malodors naturally

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 benefits 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.

Clean with baking soda

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 benefits of charcoal and zeolite

Activated charcoal (aka activated carbon) and zeolite have a larger surface area to absorb odors than baking soda does. 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.

Re-activating charcoal bags in the sun

Re-activating charcoal bags in the sun

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 quality 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. I still use charcoal bags, but mostly I hang them in my closets, on top of my laundry basket, and near my cat’s litter box to keep things fresh.

Using mineral technology to neutralize serious fumes

Baking soda, activated charcoal, and zeolite are great for everyday bathroom and kitchen odors. But for things like cigarette smoke, paint vapors, chemical fumes, and other serious odors you’ll usually need something stronger.

One brand that is popular with folks who are acutely sensitive to chemicals is EnviroKlenz. That’s because their products are 100% non-toxic and odor-free. Using advanced mineral technology, they completely neutralize a wide array of chemicals and malodors on contact. If that sounds a bit salesy, I apologize. (I hate that tool) But I use their products all the time and it’s completely true.

As a big believer in “the simpler, the better”, I also appreciate that EnviroKlenz uses just a handful of mineral ingredients to do the trick:

  • magnesium oxide / magnesium hydroxide
  • zinc oxide
  • titanium dioxide
  • vermiculite (a mineral mined from volcanic glass)

Get rid of cigarette smoke smells in the home

How EnviroKlenz products work

The minerals in their products 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 actually neutralize the pollutants on contact.

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

Popular EnviroKlenz 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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