How to Live With a Smoker Without Smelling Like One

By Andrew Tarantola on at

Stale tobacco smell. It clings to clothing, permeates wall paint, and saturates upholstery, and brands everything it touches with that unmistakable scent. Here's how to keep from smelling like an ashtray just because your roommate won't show the common courtesy of cracking a window.

There are two general schools of thought when it comes to combating cigarette stench—those that utilize chemical agents to neutralize or absorb the offending odors, and those that leverage mechanical methods for extracting smoke particulate from the air itself.

When it comes to chemical odor control methods, solutions are a dime a dozen—each spray, mister, fogger, or handi-wipe touted as the next big thing in air freshening. Seriously, search "odor control spray" and be amazed by the incredible breadth and scope of snake oil available for purchase from today's Interweb. So, rather than wade through an (albeit pleasant-smelling) cesspool of reputed wunderproducts, let's instead take a look at a few household materials you can use to do the exact same thing for a hell of a lot cheaper.

The Chemical Method

White Vinegar, also known as distilled vinegar, is made from the fermentation of distilled alcohol diluted down to about five to eight percent by volume. This slightly acidic liquid breaks down a variety of malodors at the molecular level and is especially effective against tobacco smoke. To remove the scent from open air, simply set out a few dishes of white vinegar and allow them to slowly evaporate. If possible, keep the room closed off from the rest of the home to minimize air movement. To speed up the process, you can also dampen a cloth with the stuff and wipe down walls. It can even be added to a laundry cycle to help eliminate stubborn smoke odors in clothing.

If the smell has penetrated a room's walls and ceiling, mix a gallon of warm water, a 1/2 cup ammonia, 1/4 cup white vinegar, and a 1/4 cup of washing soda (sodium carbonate). Use this solution with sponges to wipe down all painted surfaces and extract the tobacco scent, but be sure to wear both gloves and eye protection because this stuff burns. Also take care to thoroughly air the room out after you've finished to help dissipate the vinegar aroma, or add a touch of lavender extract to the solution to help mask it.

Baking Soda, or sodium bicarbonate, has long been used to control refrigerator odors—just crack open a box and leave it on a shelf to slowly absorb the smell of your expired meat and dairy products. It does the same for exhaled cigarette fumes. If you can't set out dishes of vinegar—you've got asshole cats, overly inquisitive children, whatever—bowls of baking soda can be used instead and are much easier to clean up if overturned. To absorb tobacco odor in furniture and rugs, simply sprinkle some baking soda on, let it sit overnight, and then vacuum it off.

Activated charcoal is a potent organic odor absorber in that it can easily trap carbon-based impurities but not so much with inorganic compounds. Commonly found in HEPA pre-filters, activated charcoal is produced by blasting charcoal with streams of oxygen to create microscopic pores in the powdered material which vastly increase its surface area—as much as two meters per gram. While you shouldn't wipe down your couch or walls with it, leaving a bowl of activated charcoal will quickly absorb even the worst stench.

Air Purifiers

Instead of absorbing or breaking down odor-causing molecules, air purifiers either physically trap them in filters or knock them out of the air with static electricity. There are three standard varieties:

Electronic air cleaners are available as either stand-alone models or add-on units to a home's central air system. They work by generating an electric fields. As airborne particles flow through this field, they pick up an ionizing charge and are consequently attracted to a grounded or inversely charged collection plate.

Ionizers work much the same way as electrostatic air cleaners do—just without the collection plate. Instead, these devices spew negatively charged ions into the air which couple with dust, allergens, and other organic particles and cause them to drop out to the ground for easy vacuuming.

Mechanical air filters are the elder statesmen of air purification, capturing pollutants in one or more finely woven filters. HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters suck down as much as 99.7 percent of all the organic matter and allergens they encounter and are often paired with carbon or activated charcoal pre-filters. These generally will suffice for getting rid of tobacco smells. However, if you want to be really paranoid about it, ULPA (Ultra Low Penetration Air) filters are also available and can capture minuscule particles like mold spores and bacteria as well.

Regardless of which filtering method you choose, you should compare two metrics before you purchase an air filter: Efficiency Rate and Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR). The Efficiency Rate measures roughly how many times an hour the unit can fully cycle a specific-sized room's air capacity. Your unit should be able to clean the room it will be used in at least six times an hour for maximum efficiency. A unit's CADR, on the other hand, determines the volume of air the cleaner is able effectively filter (essentially how fast it does its job)—the higher the CADR rating, the faster it cleans the air. Your unit should be rated to at least two-thirds that of the room's square footage. So, for example, if you plan to cleanse an 8 x 10 room (80 square feet), you'll want a filter with a CADR rating of at least 53.

Ozone Generators, however, are one class of air cleaning device you should avoid at all costs. They reputedly operate by generating and expelling ozone, a molecule comprised of three oxygen atoms, one of which breaks off and reattaches to pollutants.

However, the EPA has found that these devices, when working as advertised, do very little but expend electricity. According to the EPA website, "Available scientific evidence shows that at concentrations that do not exceed public health standards, ozone has little potential to remove indoor air contaminants." What's more, the high concentrations of ozone needed to operate efficiently are the same concentrations that are harmful to humans. Per the EPA:

The same chemical properties that allow high concentrations of ozone to react with organic material outside the body give it the ability to react with similar organic material that makes up the body, and potentially cause harmful health consequences. When inhaled, ozone can damage the lungs. Relatively low amounts can cause chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath, and, throat irritation. Ozone may also worsen chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and compromise the ability of the body to fight respiratory infections.

So there you have it. Just because you live with a smoker doesn't mean you have to live with his or her stench. You're just a few bucks and some elbow grease away from fresh air forever. Or, you know, just get 'em to quit. [EPA - How to Clean Stuff - How Stuff Works - BB&B - Top Ten Reviews - Image: maga / Shutterstock]