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Did you know that recent research has shown that humans can distinguish more than 1 trillion smells? The findings show that our sense of smell is much more discriminating than we once thought, says the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Given our noses’ ability to detect so many scents, it is not surprising that we are more comfortable in environments with pleasant odors.

Considering that we spend about one-third of our time in our bedrooms, it is a great place to assess smell and indoor air quality. Here are ten easy steps you can take to make your room smell good (and improve your home’s air quality at the same time).

Are pleasant smells necessarily good for indoor air quality?

We often make assumptions about the quality of air based on how it smells. Yet, that may not be a reliable test for quality. Everywhere we go, there are advertisements for air fresheners, scented candles, and other products meant to make your home smell great. Febreze, one of the most popular air fresheners around, even has commercials that highlight just how stinky a home can get — and makes the promise that their product will eliminate bad odors. While air fresheners and the like can certainly help get rid of bad smells (at least temporarily), some may be sources of volatile organic compounds.

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemicals that become airborne and may pose a variety of health risks. Steinemann et al. (2011) investigated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from 25 everyday scented products—including air fresheners, personal care products, and cleaning supplies. The study found that the products emitted 133 VOCs, among which 24 are classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws.

Getting rid of bad smells around your home is important but, instead of covering up the scent with potentially harmful chemicals, you should start with understanding why your home smells the way it does. Once you know where the smell is coming from, you can take action to eliminate the source entirely.

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Why does my room smell bad?

Illustrated diagram of possible bad smells and their locations

Could your room smell bad because of these common culprits? See numbered descriptions below for clues.

Even when an odor is present in your room, the source of the smell may not be apparent. If your room smells musty, it could be caused by something called microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs). The Environmental Protection Agency says, “because mVOCs often have strong or unpleasant odors, they can be the source of the “moldy odor” or musty smell frequently associated with mold growth. A moldy odor suggests that mold is growing in the building and should be investigated.”

Mold can be found practically anywhere in your bedroom — hidden in your walls, on your windowsills, under your carpeting, or in the corner of your bedroom-adjacent bathroom. While some mold is purely a cosmetic inconvenience, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that if you can see or smell mold, a health risk may be present. Read our article to learn how to remove mold from carpets.

Though it is a common cause of foul smells, mold is not the only possible source stinking up your room. Other potential sources of stinky smells in your room include:

  1. Pet accidents — Sometimes even the most well-trained pets have accidents. Whether it’s a hidden accident or one that you clean up immediately, the smell can linger for weeks or even months. If left too long, pet urine can seep into the carpet padding and cause mildew or mold growth.
  2. Leftover food — Old food or drink containers may start to smell. Even if there is no obvious food or drink remaining in your room, old stains or spills could create an odor as well.
  3. Dirty laundry — Your laundry hamper is another breeding ground for bacteria. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Chromatography A found that “sweat from the underarm is odorless until it comes into contact with bacteria on the skin – Corynebacterium spp. and some Staphylococcus species.” The study went on to discuss six types of volatile organic compounds found on dirty laundry. If you’re smelling something strange, your dirty laundry may be to blame.
  4. Stagnant airStagnant air traps airborne particles like dust, mold spores, and even tobacco smoke from your clothes. This is especially true on hot humid days. If you don’t have proper ventilation in your room, the air holds on to these pollutants.
  5. Dust— Dust is made up of all kinds of gross things: dead skin, pollen, pet hair and dander, insects, insect droppings, and dirt. And that’s just the start. Not only does dust make your room look and feel dirty, it also affects the quality of your air and can cause a musty smell.

What are the dangers of gaseous pollutants?

Airborne chemicals, whether we can smell or see them, can affect the quality of our indoor air. They may also pose a health risk. In any given room of your home, there may be gaseous pollutants present:

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released from building materials and furniture, or from personal care and household cleaning products. VOCs may cause symptoms such as eye, throat, and nose irritation and headaches and nausea, according to the EPA.
  • mVOCs are emitted from mold growth. The EPA reports that the health effects of mVOCs are unknown, but exposure has been linked to symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and nausea.
  • Tobacco smoke brought indoors on your clothing and hair, which is called thirdhand smoke, has been found by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to cause genetic damage to human cells.
  • Smoke from your fireplace (wood smoke) may aggravate lung disease in the short term. In the long term, wood smoke exposure can cause reduced lung function, chronic bronchitis, and even premature death, according to the EPA.
  • Carbon monoxide from your gas stove, heater, or furnace can cause initial symptoms similar to the flu, like headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, and dizziness. Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide can lead to death. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends a carbon monoxide alarm in every home.

So while you certainly want to take action to make your room smell great, it’s important that you consider that the source of the smell is the real problem to address, if you want to protect your health.

How do I make my room smell fresh?

Now that you know where a bad smell might be coming from, and that indoor air quality may be poor regardless if you can smell it or not, it is time to get to work making your room feel as fresh as a spring day (minus the pollen, please). Try these ten steps to bring a fresh, pleasant feel to your room as well as improve your room’s air quality.

1. Identify the odor

When you notice that your room smells unpleasant, you may be tempted to mask the odor with a candle or air freshener. However, that’s a short-term solution, and it won’t be effective for very long. It also may affect your health. In fact, when you use commercial air fresheners, you may release harmful VOCs into the air of your home.

At the end of the day, a bad smell will overpower any attempts at covering it up. The first step to making your room smell fresh is to identify the source of the odor and remove it.

Take some time to thoroughly inspect your room for any mold, mildew, water leaks, condensation, or moisture. You’ll want to take special care to look in dark, damp places for mold and mildew — this is where they thrive.

To get you started, here are some key places to check for mold and mildew in your room:

  • Air conditioning and heating vents
  • Laundry baskets
  • Any upholstery, including furniture and curtains
  • Potted plants
  • Windowsills
  • Carpeting
  • Behind and under any furniture that isn’t moved often, like dressers or your bed

If you have an adjacent bathroom, you’ll want to check for mold or mildew growth:

  • On, under, and around the sink and toilet
  • In the shower and bathtub
  • On the shower curtain and liner
  • On the walls and the floor

If you find any obvious sources of mold or mildew, you’ll want to clean those up right away. It’s also important to take note of — and repair — any water leaks or areas of your room where condensation or moisture is gathering. Even if there’s no mold or mildew yet, damp areas are the perfect host for them.

2. Dust your room from top to bottom

The next step in making your room smell fresh is dusting. Dust is a combination of both indoor and outdoor particles — from dead skin and pollen to pet dander and insect droppings. It can occur naturally inside your home and also be brought in from the outside. While dust itself may not seem like a big deal, the different components of dust may cause allergy symptoms.

Even if you’re not allergic, dusting should be a top priority. Not only will keeping your room free of dust help you breathe a little easier, but it will also help keep the particles found in dust from making your room smell musty.

You probably know to dust the obvious places like tables and shelves but don’t forget the blinds, ceiling fans, and light fixtures; the tops of doors and windows, and upholstery; and on and around electronics, baseboards, and carpeting. Some additional things to keep in mind as you dust your room (or anywhere else in your home) include:

  • Dust top to bottom — If you clean from the bottom up, dust will settle back onto surfaces you’ve already cleaned.
  • Use a damp cloth to dust hard surfaces — Doing this will help prevent the dust from being stirred up into the air.
  • Wear a face mask— All that dust is bound to end up in the air (if you don’t use a damp cloth, that is) and a face mask can offer some protection.

3. Clean your floors

Now that you’ve finished dusting, it’s time to move on to cleaning the floors. Floors are a catch-all for everything that happens in your room. They collect dust, spills, crumbs, and, if you have pets, their accidents.

For hardwood floors

If you have hardwood floors in your bedroom, clean up should be pretty easy. It’s best to use a damp mop for this. Sweeping or using a dry mop will just stir dust and other particles back up into the air, making it hard to get a deep clean.

For a carpeted bedroom

If your room is carpeted, you may have a bit more work to do but, rest assured, your room will smell better when you’re done. To get a deep clean on your carpeted floors:

  • Locate any spots that smell particularly bad. Maybe your pet had an accident that soaked into the carpeting, or a water spill made the carpet damp and caused mildew.
  • Sprinkle baking soda across the affected spot on the carpet. If possible, let sit overnight or, better yet, for two days. This will allow the baking soda to absorb the odor.
  • Vacuum the baking soda out of the carpet. That should get rid of any mild odors. If that doesn't work, treat the area with a mixture of white vinegar and water — the acid in the vinegar will break through bacteria in the carpet.
  • Thoroughly vacuum the entire carpet. You can sprinkle baking soda on your entire carpet before you vacuum, as an extra measure.

No matter which type of flooring you have in your bedroom, don’t forget to clean those hard-to-reach areas like underneath large furniture or in the back of your closet.

4. Open your windows

Inside your home, there is a plethora of pollutants, all confined in a relatively small area. Despite what many people think, the air from outside can be a lot healthier than the air inside your home — even when you consider outdoor pollutants like pollen and smog.

Opening your windows allows fresh air to break up any stagnant air that’s trapping unpleasant odors in your bedroom. If you’re allergic to pollen or live in an area with high levels of smog, you’ll want to check the day’s air quality report before you open your windows to let the breeze in.

5. Bathe your pets

If you have furry friends at home, you understand the woes of pet hair everywhere. To keep your pets from contributing (even more) to the smell of your room, bathe them regularly.

6. Wash your sheets and laundry

You spend a lot of time on your bedsheets, and it is always a good idea to wash your sheets at least once a week.

While you are at it, make sure you are emptying your laundry hamper regularly. The gases released by bacteria break down the oil and sweat left behind on your clothes, causing them to emit unpleasant odors. To keep this problem at bay, never put excessively sweaty clothes in your laundry basket. Instead, wash them right away.

7. Clean all upholstery

Just like your sheets and your dirty laundry, any kind of upholstery is a magnet for dust, dust mites, and other indoor pollutants. Here are some good tips for keeping the fabric in your room clean and smell-free:

  • Wash your curtains
  • Use a white vinegar and water treatment to remove any spot smells on couches or other upholstered furniture
  • Vacuum upholstered furniture to remove any built-up dust and dirt
  • For specialty or antique items, consider hiring a specialist to clean them

You don’t need to clean them every week; a good deep clean once a month should be just fine.

8. Turn on a dehumidifier

As we talked about earlier, moisture can be a big problem when you’re trying to get your room to smell great. Moist air and damp surfaces are prime territories for mold and mildew. Depending on the climate in your region, you may have trouble keeping your home from getting too humid. Because humid air can trap pollutants and foul odors, consider investing in a dehumidifier.

This will help pull the moisture out of the air in your room, making it less hospitable to mold and mildew. You’ll also notice that your room feels less stuffy — an important part of making your room smell great.

9. Use an indoor air purifier

Indoor air purifiers work to trap and destroy pollutants found around your home. By eliminating indoor air pollutants, you are effectively removing some of the sources of foul smells. When looking for an indoor air purifier, it is smart to choose one that breaks down allergens and pollutants like mold spores and airborne chemicals. Those that simply trap them can then release them right back out into the air of your room.

10. Use an odor absorber

Last but certainly not least, use a natural odor absorber like baking soda to trap any lingering odors in your room. Since odor absorbers are soaking up the air particles that cause bad smells, you will need to replace them often.

How can I add fresh, natural scents (instead of air fresheners) to my room?

The above ten steps will significantly help freshen the air in your room, but if you would like to go further and add natural scents to the room, here are a few suggestions.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health recommends using fragrant plants like jasmine, lilies, or roses to make a room smell good naturally. Or, you can make potpourri or herbal sachets from natural ingredients like rose petals or lavender. Another recommendation is to use organic or natural essential oils like peppermint or orange. To make your own air freshener, you can add 8-10 drops of true essential oils to a spray bottle filled with 1 cup of water.

Can making my room smell fresh be this easy?

Unpleasant odors can be frustrating, yet fortunately there are steps like the ones listed above that should help. While making your room smell good may be subjective at heart, we believe these steps will improve the air quality in your room by reducing the levels of air pollutants, which can be potentially harmful to your health. Following the easy steps laid out above will take an initial time investment up front, but once you do them, you will only need to keep up with regular cleaning and make sure your room stays well-ventilated. Your nose will be happier, and you will be healthier!

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