Woman holding her nose due to bad odor

Here’s a question from our 5/11/2019 Today’s Homeowner Radio Show.

Linda from New York says, “My husband built our ranch 16 years ago. It’s not every day, but some days smells really bad when you walk in. The smell is also on clothing.

“My question is, what kind of a company could I contact to help me solve this problem — if it is solvable? My husband is at a loss as to what to do, and I’m tired of my daughter saying, ‘Your clothes stink, Mom!’

“Thank you for any direction you can steer me on this.”

We say make sure the relative humidity is low. Then ventilate the house by opening doors and windows. Linda can put vanilla extract on her filters to combat the smell.

Listen to the embedded audio clip for the complete segment. Read the blog from the 5/11 show and listen to the full broadcast here

Learn more about combatting musty smells below.

Where Musty Smells Come From

Before you choose your angle of attack on the odor, you need to track down the source. If you don’t eliminate the source of the odor, that mustiness will return.

The root cause of musty smells is mold and mildew. As these fungi digest the materials they live on, they release noxious waste gases. The gases circulate through the air and are absorbed into soft items such as carpets, curtains, and furniture. Over time, they can also permeate harder surfaces such as walls and wood flooring.

Different species of mold emit different odors. The particular musty odor you notice in your home probably won’t smell like the mold you find on bread, but it’s still a sign that mold is present.

Removing Mold and Mildew

You can often find mold growing in your home using just your eyes and nose. In the areas where the musty smell is the strongest, check for mold in locations prone to moisture accumulation. This includes:

  • Corners of your ceilings, especially in the kitchen and bathroom
  • On walls behind furniture
  • On the undersides of shelves
  • Under rugs

If you find three or fewer mold patches less than 10 square feet each, you can safely clean them yourself, provided you’re not allergic to mold.

Before you start, wear gloves, safety goggles, and a dust mask. If you find dry mold, remove as much as possible using a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter.

The remaining dry or wet mold can then be scrubbed off. To remove mold from a painted wall, mix up a cleaning solution by adding 1/4 cup white vinegar and 2 tablespoons borax to 2 cups of hot water. Spray the mixture onto the moldy surface, then scrub and wipe it clean. Spray a second time and let the solution soak in for 15 minutes. Scrub and wipe clean, then dry thoroughly.

For non-porous surfaces, such as tile or glass, you can use a solution of half a cup to one cup of bleach in one gallon of water. Because chlorine bleach doesn’t penetrate porous surfaces effectively, opt for oxygen chlorine bleach if you want to use bleach on such a surface. Avoid using bleach on furniture or carpeting because discoloration is likely.

Alternatively, pick up one of the commercial mold removers available at home improvement stores and apply the product as directed.

To remove minor mold growth from wood flooring and other wood surfaces, scrub the item gently with a wood cleaner designed to kill mold or with a mild detergent. If the mold doesn’t come off, you’ll likely have to sand it off and refinish the wood surface. Do this using a dust-free sander that will vacuum up debris as you work to avoid spreading mold spores.

Know When to Call a Pro

Extensive mold contamination poses a potential threat to your health and suggests there could be serious mold damage somewhere you can’t see.

For this reason, if you find more than just a few mold patches, contact a mold remediation specialist licensed by your state or who holds mold remediation certification.

Remember that mold can develop inside your walls, under your floorboards, and even inside your air ducts. You won’t see this mold, but you will smell it. If your home has ever had a water leak and you can’t seem to get rid of the musty smell, there’s a good chance mold is still growing somewhere. In this case, call in a professional.

Cleaning Up Your Clothes and Furniture

Killing the mold and mildew is only the first step in removing the musty smell. To remove lingering odors, you’ll need to clean the items that still carry those odors and freshen your air.

If your clothes, curtains or other washable fabrics have picked up a musty smell, you may be able to get it out in the laundry. Load your washing machine as normal, add 1 cup of white vinegar and let it soak for 30 minutes. Then run the washing machine as usual, adding a scented liquid fabric softener during the rinse. Alternatively, use baking soda instead of white vinegar.

When possible, hang the items out in the sunshine to dry. Exposure to the sun’s UV rays kills any lingering mold, while the fresh air helps blow lingering odors away.

To draw musty odors out of soft furniture, use activated carbon, which you can find at aquarium supply stores in mesh bags. Place several of these bags inside the smelly furniture and leave them for several days to absorb the odors. Used coffee grounds are a good substitute if you can’t find activated charcoal.

If this doesn’t eliminate the odor, commercial furniture cleaners can kill any remaining mildew without damaging the furniture. Leaving the furniture in the sunshine for a few hours can also help.

Your refrigerator can also take on a musty odor if old food is left inside or if it was left unused for a long period. To remove this odor, start by completely emptying the refrigerator. Add a tablespoon of baking soda to a quart of water and apply this solution to the interior. Fill the refrigerator with crumpled newspaper to absorb odor and moisture, then shut the door for 24 hours.

Freshening Up Your Air

When you’re done cleaning, eliminate any musty odor lingering in the air. Lemon, which neutralizes odors, works well for this. Place several lemon slices, a few rosemary sprigs, a teaspoon of vanilla, and two cups of water in a pan and let the mixture simmer on the stove.

Baking soda can also help by absorbing lingering odors. Pour some baking soda onto several small plates, place the plates in areas where you’ve noticed musty smells, and leave them for a day or two. This works especially well in small spaces such as closets.

Keeping the Smell Away Permanently

To permanently eliminate the musty smell, correct the conditions that allowed the mold and mildew to develop. That means improving your ventilation and getting your indoor humidity levels under control.

After cooking or showering, let the kitchen or bathroom exhaust fan run for around 10 minutes. Repair leaky faucets and pipes, which add moisture to the air. Ensure your appliances, such as your clothes dryer, vent to the outdoors and not into the attic or another indoor space. Keep your gutters and downspouts in good repair, so they don’t lead water onto your roof or walls.

You might benefit from a dehumidifier or additional ventilation if you still find signs of high humidity or insufficient airflow. Talk with a ventilation professional about installing this equipment.

Musty smells can be stubborn, and getting rid of them takes thorough cleaning, but with the right approach, it’s possible to get your home smelling fresh again.

Further Reading: 8 Home Smells That Could Be Signs of Danger

Editorial Contributors
Danny Lipford

Danny Lipford


Danny Lipford is a home improvement expert and television personality who started his remodeling business, Lipford Construction, at the age of 21 in Mobile, Alabama. He gained national recognition as the host of the nationally syndicated television show, Today's Homeowner with Danny Lipford, which started as a small cable show in Mobile. Danny's expertise in home improvement has also led him to be a contributor to popular magazines and websites and the go-to source for advice on everything related to the home. He has made over 200 national television appearances and served as the home improvement expert for CBS's The Early Show and The Weather Channel for over a decade. Danny is also the founder of 3 Echoes Content Studio, TodaysHomeowner.com, and Checking In With Chelsea, a décor and lifestyle blog.

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