How to remove cigarette smells from apartments?
July 22, 2011 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Tiro and I just moved into a new apartment. We love it... except for the smell of cigarettes! How do we get rid of it? More info inside.

The smell is very faint, and I stop noticing it after I'm home for a few minutes - except when you walk into a closed room. Somehow if the air is still enough, you get a whiff again. Tiro complains that she can now smell cigarette smells in her clothes when she is at work.

When we moved in, the landlord told us that the apartment used to have a long term resident who trashed the place, so when they moved out two years ago, the apartment got all new wall paper, paint, and carpets. The person who rented it after that only stayed for one year, after which it was cleaned + shampooed etc.

I'm guessing the long-term resident was a smoker, and that the new carpet and wall paper is not enough to get rid of the smell of smoke.

Alternatively, the one-year resident could have been the smoker, and the place was not cleaned very well (this could be the case! we had to do quite a lot of spot cleaning as we were moving in).

Beyond just masking the scent, is there any way to remove it? If not, is there at least any way to protect our clothes? Finally, we do have a cat. Is there anything we should know about cats and cigarette smells / cigarette smell removers?
posted by rebent to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
We bought our house from a man who smoked here for 30+ years. The walls and ceiling were yellowed with nicotine stains. We ripped up all the carpets and refinished the hardwood floors. Then we primed all the walls with Killz and painted every single room. We've also, in the 12 years we've lived here: replaced the furnace, had some major remodels (bathrooms and kitchen), duct cleaning (after the remodels), and painted several rooms again.

That first round of cleaning/carpet removal/painting really did the trick though, as did replacing all of the light switch plates and electrical outlet plates (they were so gross). I'm not sure what else you can do, aside from cleaning the carpets again (maybe call in professionals?) and painting with Killz.
posted by cooker girl at 8:19 AM on July 22, 2011

The smell will have tainted all surfaces. See if you can find out which tenant was the smoker. Try washing all surfaces which were not painted, walls, ceiling, everything. For walls and ceiling use 1 gallon of warm water, 1/2 cup plain ammonia, 1/4 cup white vinegar, and 1/4 cup washing soda, change this solution frequently. If the furniture was there with the smoker then use a fabric shampoo, were the curtains laundered? Use your nose to sniff the fabrics in the apartment, if they smell they need cleaning.

Smoke gets everywhere, you have to wash everywhere. Meanwhile, leave windows open to air the rooms.

Another possibility is you may be getting smoke from someone/somewhere else in the building, that is a very different problem
posted by epo at 8:24 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to live in a former smoker's apartment, and years after the smell had left the rest of the place, I could still smell it in my clothes. I finally realized that when the landlords repainted the apartment between tenants, they didn't paint the insides of the closets. It's a hassle, but repaint (with Kilz) the closets.
posted by donajo at 8:28 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

You say they replaced the carpets - what about curtains/blinds? Any unpainted wood in the place? 2nding checking the inside of your closets too
posted by missmagenta at 8:38 AM on July 22, 2011

I've had pretty great luck with the Arm-n-Hammer pet products for smoke smell. They make both powdered shakey product and spray product. If you can find the carpet spray that foams, I find that works the best.

So if I was decontaminating a whole house I would buy several boxes of plain baking soda, 2-3 boxes of the arm in hammer carpet powder, and two cans (or bottles if you only can find the spray) and then a liter of vinegar. You will also need rags, a bucket, and a vacuum. Once you have gathered all your stuff, the first order of business to do a regular good cleaning of the place, sweep, vacuum, dust, whatever, this is scorched earth. If its possibly been touched by a previous tenant, it should be cleaned.

Go ahead and start washing your curtains and clothes now too because once you de-stink, you will REALLY be able to smell those textiles. In addition, I would keep them in a plastic bag after laundered if they get done before you,textiles are evil smell soaking up demons. That is my mantra anyway.

Ok, now you should be working with all relatively pristine canvas. I like to start with the shakey product, everything that is woven, carpet, furniture, whatever gets a good layer. Then I go back and put a ton of baking soda on because its cheap. I am silly, so I like to kinda rub it in to make sure it penetrates. Leave this as long as you can stand it. I've been known to leave it all day while I was at work, the baking soda magically absorbs odor. Then vacuum really well. Vacuum again, you want to pull up all the powder as well as all the stank ass dirt in there.

After that is done its time for the magic foam. Its made for spots, to destain and destink, but I encourage covering just fucking everything again. Let it sit. If you have enough, let it sit then spray some more. If your carpet is low pile, after the foam has sat for a while brush vigourously to release as much stank dirt as you can. Then vacuum really well again.

Now, I know vinegar has its own special stank smell, but at least it kinda smells clean and tends to eleminate other odors. Mix warm soapy water and vinegar in your bucket and scrub those walls! Scrub the baseboards! Scrub the ceiling if you can! I know it sounds stupid, but think of all that smoke! gathering on your ceiling! for years! (If you are serious about this, I would also re-prime the ceiling and possibly the walls with one of those heavy duty barrier primers).

Its time now to open some windows, turn on fans, whatever. Get some air moving and everything drying. If you are feeling industrious, you can also rent a steam cleaner, that is a lot of fun and you'll want to puke at all the nasty dirty water that it generates. For a fun trick, try running it till the water is clear. You can leave little bowls of baking soda or vinegar in those places that get the awful still air. You can also now use any of the other perfumey deodorizing stuff if you like, and hand your drapes and clothes now that you know the place is as clean as you can reasonably clean it.

posted by stormygrey at 8:39 AM on July 22, 2011

If you can get away for a day or so... you might be able to seal the place the best you can and use an ozone generator. These can be used to get rid of smoke smells after fires, so this may work nicely for the lesser "cigarette smoke" smell. It is hazardous to pretty much anything living until the molecules revert back to standard oxygen... so keep that in mind. I know someone who successfully got rid of a stubborn gasoline smell on a boat after a pretty bad spill using one of these. YMMV.
posted by Debaser626 at 8:41 AM on July 22, 2011

Like people have said above, stain blocking primer is the way to go. Kilz is good stuff, but I think Zinsser is better. Either way you go, I recommend going with the shellac-based version. It's a bit more hassle, and a little more pungent, but it will definitely block smoke smells.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:43 AM on July 22, 2011

Response by poster: I don't think we can repaint - the walls are papered, and the ceiling has this weird speckled texture.

Will the vinegar + etc scrubbing solution be bad for wallpaper / stained wood?

Is it reasonable to expect the landlord to do all this work, or should we do it ourselves?
posted by rebent at 8:48 AM on July 22, 2011

posted by rmmcclay at 8:49 AM on July 22, 2011

I don't think we can repaint - the walls are papered, and the ceiling has this weird speckled texture.

The texture ceiling is no biggie, you paint it like any other wall.

If the previous tenant(s) were heavy smokers, I'd bet my last dollar the smoke smell is in the wallboard. If the landlord just papered and painted without priming properly, the smell isn't gonna go away.

If you can't do anything else, I'd at least prime/repaint the areas you can. Every little bit helps.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:55 AM on July 22, 2011

Coming in to recommend the Zinsser primer as well, specifically the B-I-N shellac-based primer i.e. this stuff. We had a situation with cigar smoke entering our place from the apartment next door, including through the shared wall of one closet that had thinner-than-normal drywall. This primer plus a couple layers of paint on top was enough to cover the existing smell and stop new smoke from coming in.

On preview, I guess this isn't much of a solution for wallpapered or paneled walls, but it might help if you or the landlord does a major renovation.
posted by Jemstar at 9:00 AM on July 22, 2011

Yep, ozone shock treatment.
posted by trevyn at 11:22 AM on July 22, 2011

« Older Help me be an effective tutor!   |   What to do in Fort Walton Beach Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.