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The Five Smells Americans Hate Most (and How to Get Rid of Them)

There are a lot of people getting skunked out there.

Popular Science

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a skunk in grass

“Oh, hi there! Want to be my friend?” Photo by Bryan Padron / Unsplash

Sometimes things just smell—it’s a fact of life. Maybe your mom stopped by your place with that friend who stinks like an ashtray, or your dog found something interesting to roll over on its way home. You probably have had to face a wide range of utterly insulting odors in your life, so before they make your house unlivable, you should learn how to eliminate them.

There are a lot of stinky offenders out there, but we decided to start with the top five smells Americans are trying to get rid of. Using Google Trends, we found the culprits of our nose’s worst nightmares. And even though searches differ depending on geographic location—not many people search how to de-skunk themselves in the coasts—apparently drenching our shoes with gasoline is a common mistake.

We consulted with experts to find homemade solutions for these stinkers, but you should keep in mind that there’s a limit to household products, and sometimes you just have to go for more concentrated, specialized solutions.

No. 1: Getting skunk smell out of your house

Skunk spray may be one of the most putrid scents you’ll ever be unlucky enough to experience, but if you think about it, it may be one of the most effective and perfectly designed weapons in nature.

The main components in skunk spray are thiols and thioacetates, natural chemicals that contain sulfur, which is the reason why they smell like rotting eggs. Thiols are also extremely stable, meaning they can bind easily and strongly to other molecules, making them very hard to eliminate. To make matters worse, this concoction from hell is released by two glands—one on each side of the skunk’s anus—that act as independent nozzles, allowing for direct and precise spraying. If you or your dog run into a skunk in the wild and you make the mistake of presenting yourselves as predators, chances are you’ll get thoroughly sprayed—perfume-seller style.

Before we go into how to get rid of this awful odor, let’s debunk a common myth: Tomato juice doesn’t work well against skunk spray. It might mask the smell for a while, but its ingredients won’t react to the mammal’s sulfuric compounds. (You can bathe yourself in Chanel Nº5 and get the exact same result.)

If you’ve been skunked, the first thing you need to do is stay outside. If you bring the spray indoors, it will bind to any porous surfaces, like wood, fabrics, and rugs. Use water and soap repeatedly to get as much of the smell as possible off your skin. Once it’s manageable, go inside and shower as many times as necessary. Because skunks have impeccable aim, there’s little you can do to salvage your clothes—so unless you have a strong stomach and a big, open space to work on them, don’t even try.

If you’ve already stepped into your home after being skunked, ventilate as much as possible by opening doors and windows. An air current, especially, will help some of the stench find its way out. To clean everything else, use a solution of one quart hydrogen peroxide, one teaspoon of degreasing dishwashing liquid, and 1/4 cup of baking soda. Don’t leave the mixture on for too long, though—hydrogen peroxide can have a bleaching effect on textiles and wooden surfaces. The Humane Society of the United States also recommends the same solution to de-skunk household animals; just make sure you bathe them with regular pet shampoo afterward and clean sensitive areas with cool running water.

Keep in mind that depending on how much you were skunked, from what distance, and when the last time the mustelid sprayed its load was (they can take up to two weeks to replenish it fully), it’s possible you’ll need to repeat the cleaning several times. If the stench lingers, you might want to try a product specifically designed to counteract skunk odors.

No. 2: Getting mildew smell out of clothes

a person reaching into a washing machine in a laundromat

It’s not necessary to literally dive into your machine to find mildew. Some bleach in your washing cycle will do. Photo by Gratisography / Pexels

This seems like an easy one, but searching the internet will render all sorts of recommendations, so we turned to the experts for the most straightforward answer.

The American Cleaning Institute (ACI) recommends that you do some detective work to first figure out the source of the smell. If you don’t see the classic black-and-blueish mildew stains on your clothes, your washing machine may be the culprit. Start by checking for residual water from previous wash cycles. Bacteria thrive in warm and moist environments, so if your machine has accumulated water over time, they might be the ones causing that musty smell.

Should your washing machine be the problem, run a cleaning cycle as directed by the manufacturer and, if possible, add bleach to it. The amount will depend on the care instructions for your particular machine, but it should be around half a cup. Do this weekly and then decrease the frequency over time as the mildew smell gradually fades. If this doesn’t do the trick, there might be some mildew around the seals of the door—the ACI recommends wiping them with a water-bleach solution with ¾ cup of bleach for every gallon of cool water.

Once you get the odor out, avoid a bacterial comeback by leaving the door of your washing machine open after every cycle to help it dry out.

If your machine proves innocent and the mildew is still visible on your clothes, ACI experts recommend using a product with sodium hypochlorite to treat fabrics. Check the labels on your clothes first, though—if it’s safe to use chlorine bleach on them, run a wash cycle with the solution as directed. If your garment is too delicate and you can’t use bleach, opt for a product containing oxygen-based bleach, which is milder but almost nearly as effective.

No. 3: Getting cigarette smell out of clothes

a person lighting a cigarette

Keeping all smoking outside will help your home stay free of cigarette stench. Photo by fotografierende / Pexel

The smell of cigarette smoke can stick to your breath, your hair, your clothes, and even the tips of your fingers. Usually, a regular cycle in the washing machine can eliminate the overwhelming odor from your garments—but if that doesn’t cut it, you might have to step up your attack.

First, leave your clothes to air dry outdoors so that the sun-ventilation combo can kill some of the odor. After that, try a regular washing cycle, this time adding ½ cup of baking soda. If the smell persists, or if your garment is too delicate to go in the washing machine or be exposed to sunlight for a prolonged period of time, then you’ll need the help of the dry cleaners.

Bonus tip: If people are smoking in your home, you might want to clean your light bulbs. The ACI explains that these gadgets can accumulate smoke particles and then release the smell of it back into the air every time they’re turned on and get hot. (It’s the same kind of physics behind your favorite aroma diffuser.) To prevent this, wait for your light bulbs to cool and then use a cleaning wipe on them. Finish up by opening windows for a fresh breeze or two. An easier, long term solution is upgrading to more energy-efficient LEDs—even if smoke particles get stuck in there, the bulbs will never get as hot as regular ones, so they won’t release any aromas back into the air.

No. 4: Getting gasoline smell out of your shoes

person standing at a gas station, refueling their car

Little did she know that five seconds later her shoes would be absolutely ruined. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

According to Google, there are a lot of clumsy fire enthusiasts out there, or at least a lot of people who are messy at the pump. Regardless of whether you identify more with the first than the second, ruining your shoes by spilling gasoline on them happens to a lot of people.

As with most odors or stains of oily origin, getting the smell of gas out of textiles requires a lot of work and patience—and it may not even work. If your shoes or clothes reek of petrol, it means there’s still residual fuel embedded in the fabric. That’s a big warning sign to not put them in the washing machine or dryer, as it can result in a fire or explosion.

If you don’t have any emotional attachment to your gasoline-smelling garments, the best solution is to just throw them away. If, on the other hand, you cannot picture your life without those old Chuck Taylors, roll up your sleeves and take a giant breath. This is going to take a while.

With gasoline, you have to go straight for the big guns. The ACI recommends soaking your garments in a strong degreasing product, like a powerful, industrial dish soap, and leaving them in a tub outside. If you’re dealing with a fancy pair of shoes, check the fabric care labels and try a patch test on the inside to make sure you won’t melt them. Once it’s safe, soak them overnight in the degreaser and rinse with water in the morning. If the smell persists—which is likely—repeat.

No. 5: Getting dog pee smell out of the carpet

a cute pup looking up at the camera

“What do you mean that’s not my potty-spot?” Photo by Kareli Lizcano / Unsplash

Dogs are cute—until they pee on your carpet. If you look online, as many people across America have, you’ll find a lot of different methods to zap the lingering smell, with many involving some combination of water, baking soda, and vinegar. These ingredients might help at first, but as any dog owner knows, the smell of pee always comes back… Terminator style.

The main source of the pungent smell in your pet’s pee is uric acid, which isn’t just insoluble in water, but also tends to stick to porous surfaces like the fibers in your carpet. When using regular detergent or any combination of baking soda and vinegar, you’re fighting off the water-soluble components in urine. But humidity from the air and the cleaning solution crystallizes the uric acid, letting it live to fight another stinky battle.

Acting fast will give you the best shot at getting rid of eau de dog pee for good, but you’ll also need a strong chemical. The AIC suggests a product specially formulated to fight off pet pee stains, but you can also try an enzymatic detergent. These solutions use proteins to break down different components—uric acid among them—so it’s good to have it on hand if you happen to face an ugly stain or an offensive smell in the future. Before you use it, though, make sure you read the instructions of the product of your choice carefully, and test it on an inconspicuous spot of your carpet.

If you’re wondering whether enzymatic detergents will do the trick against cat pee, the answer is yes. But there’s one main difference. Even though cat and dog urine share the same stinky component (uric acid), it’s much more concentrated in felines, making their messes smell more like ammonia. Just as with dog pee, try a specialized product or go straight for the enzymatic cleaner. Chances are you’ll need to repeat the process a couple of times before your carpet stops smelling of kitty juice.

Sandra Gutierrez G. is a Chilean journalist and the assistant DIY editor at PopSci. She has previously worked as an editor for MSN.cl, and a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. When she's not putting baking soda on things, she's walking her 10-year-old beagle, Lucas. Contact the author here.

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This post originally appeared on Popular Science and was published September 6, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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