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Secrets of people whose houses smell amazing

Experts give us easy ways to eliminate the funk and bring in the fresh. Now isn’t that better?

Smell is often called humans’ most powerful sense, and good (and bad) smells tell us a lot about the world: what we should eat, even whom we should kiss. When it comes to our homes, if a space smells fresh, that’s a great sign. If the smell is bad? We feel uneasy.

But the secret to a nose-friendly space isn’t to spray fragrance on top of yucky stuff: “A clean home should smell like nothing,” says Melissa Maker, the founder of the Clean My Space cleaning company, blog, and YouTube channel. For folks who get overwhelmed by too much fragrance (or who have allergies or asthma), the work may end at neutralizing bad odors. But for those who love a scent, we have ideas for you too.

Tackle the bad...

Deal with moisture. It’s the number one cause of household odors, says Rachel Hoffman, the author of a book about cleaning up your mess. Consider purchasing a hygrometer (like the digital thermo-hygrometer) and testing each room—if you discover a room with humidity above 60%, you may want to use a dehumidifier. If needed, you can run more than one dehumidifier, but note that they can use a lot of energy: Start with one and see how it goes.

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If you live in a humid climate, avoid wall-to-wall carpeting or rugs, which can trap moisture, especially in areas like the kitchen and bathroom, Hoffman says. Consider keeping moisture-absorbing crystals in smaller areas that get damp, such as bathrooms and some closets (like the crystals from Damp-Rid, $11; amazon.com). And keep an eye on more micro sources of moisture, such as sponges and towels: Replace sponges at least every one to two weeks, ensure clean towels are fully dry before folding and putting them away, and hang bath mats over the shower rod to help them dry.

Out with the obvious. Spots like litter boxes, garbage cans, pet beds, and diaper pails are all places that give off funky smells. Duh, you might say, but unfortunately, the more time we spend around these things, the less likely we are to realize that they stink. “It’s called sensory adaptation, and it’s common to all the senses,” says Leslie Stein, PhD, director of science communications at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. This “nose blindness” is actually adaptive, because when regular smells fade into the background and an unfamiliar scent pops up (like smoke), we notice it more. But it can also mean that your stuff smells and you don’t even know it. So it’s important to be proactive: Clean the inside of your garbage can (including the lid, if there is one) at least once a month, Hoffman suggests. Keep a bit of kitty litter at the bottom of the pail to absorb smells. Launder pet beds regularly, and scoop the litter box every day. And if you can, try to use small garbage pails in your home so you’re basically forced to take out the trash more regularly.

Open the fridge. The first course of action for a funky fridge should be pretty obvious: Toss anything that is past its prime. Hoffman says that some of the worst offenders are condiments—which people tend to think last forever—and leftovers. “They get pushed to the back and forgotten about,” she says. Do an inventory of your fridge at least every month to ensure the contents are fresh.

Then give the interior of your fridge a thorough scrubbing. If you have removable shelves and drawers, pull them out and soak them in hot, soapy water. Wipe down the inside of the structure with a 1-to-1 mixture of hot water and white vinegar with a tiny drop of dish soap. Use a damp cloth to rinse. “Remember to only use cleaners that are food-safe inside your fridge,” says Hoffman. Stay away from bleach, she advises, as it’s difficult to properly dilute and rinse.

Clean soft surfaces. Carpets, throw pillows, upholstery, bed linens, and window covers are magnets for smells. Once a spill dries or dirt gets wiped away, odor-causing bacteria can still stay behind. In carpets, a missed stain can lead to mold or mildew. Maker recommends having a professional steam-clean your upholstery and carpets once a year. If that’s not doable, try an at-home upholstery cleaner. For throw pillows, bed linens, and window covers, check the fabric care labels to see if they can be machine-washed. “But remember there are certain items best left to a pro to ensure the job gets done right,” she says.

The easiest way to avoid smells in a carpet is to quickly attack any spill. Biological stains, like an accident from a pet or a child, should be treated with an enzyme cleaner, which breaks down bio messes more quickly. And while carpet shampooing is helpful, the easiest way to stay on top of carpet smells is good ol’ regular maintenance. As you vacuum and spot-treat your carpets more, the less likely they are to smell, Hoffman notes. “Try sprinkling the area with baking powder, let it sit for a few hours, and then vacuum,” says Donna Smallin Kuper, a certified house-cleaning technician and author.

Bring in the good...

Open the window. It’s the easiest way to bring freshness in, says Maker, especially if you have leftover cooking smells or lingering odors from home improvement projects such as painting. Opening a window makes your entire space feel cleaner and helps lift the mood in your home. If possible, open windows on multiple sides of your home to get a cross breeze. Even if it’s freezing outside, cracking a window for a short while can make a difference.

Try a neutralizer. If you love the idea of a home that smells perfectly like nothing, then look for odor neutralizers that don’t add a scent. Our experts are fans of activated charcoal filters that come in small bags you can hang in stink-prone rooms or stash in a gym bag. “They’re good especially in areas like diaper pails, garbages, and litter boxes,” says Maker. In a pinch, fill your sink with hot water and a few drops of bleach, and drain it before company arrives. “Just the smell of cleaner will make people think your home is clean,” says Hoffman.

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Think beyond the candle. Scented candles are likely the most popular way to add fragrance to a home, and if you love them, stick with what you know—just use one or two at a time to avoid going overboard. But know that many experts prefer essential oil diffusers: They’re a cleaner way to scent your home than candles because they don’t give off soot or ash. Maker also prefers diffusers over plug-ins because they provide more natural smells. “A plug-in or spray says, ‘I’m covering something up,’” she says. “Essential oils are a more mild way to scent your home. It’s not overpowering or bombarding.” Diffusers are also easily customizable in a way candles aren’t, since you can combine your favorite essential oils to create a scent that’s perfectly you.

Find subtle ways to scent. Diffusers aren’t the only way to use essential oils. A few other DIY ideas from Maker: First, consider a fabric refresher spray. Mix half a cup of white vinegar, half a cup of rubbing alcohol, 1 teaspoon of cornstarch, and 20 drops of your favorite oil in a small spray bottle. Shake well before each use, and mist it over clothing or upholstery, ensuring that clothes dry completely before you fold them. Or try baking soda sachets, which absorb bad smells and add in good ones: Fill a coffee filter with baking soda, add about five drops of essential oil, and tie it off—then toss it in a drawer or anywhere that needs a refresh. Another pro tip: Next time you replace your furnace filter, add 10 to 20 drops of essential oil. The air will help disperse the scent throughout the space.

Strong scents aren’t always best. It’s a common misconception that in order for your home to smell “good,” the smell has to envelop you the second you walk through the door. The opposite is actually true, according to Lara Nixon, a partnership manager for Air Aroma, a company that helps brands and individuals scent their spaces. “More subtle smells are the ones that stick with people for longer,” she explains. So instead of walking into a spot and saying, “I smell peppermint,” you want to walk in and say, “That smells nice.” You’re after a general feeling of energy, relaxation, or whatever your intention for the space is. This also ensures you’re taking your guests into consideration. Some may have allergies or sensitivities to strong smells, and you don’t want to make them uncomfortable in your home.

For that reason, Nixon says it’s a good idea to stay away from overly sweet, cloying smells when scenting your home. If you love your sugar apple cinnamon candle, Maker suggests saving that for times when you’re home on your own. “I’m a fan of having a library of scents,” she says. Your sweet favorite can serve as your personal mood booster, which is exactly what a good smell should do.

For times when you’re sharing your space, however, Maker suggests steering clear of sugary scents and sticking to more natural ones, like woods, florals, and citrus. “You can still get a similar feeling as you do with the sugary-smelling scents,” she says. “But the result will be longer lasting and more impactful.” In other words, a home that smells as good as it looks.

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