How to Choose a Smoke Odor Eliminator
Odor removal is one of the most common but least understood problems property owners face. Among the most offensive and hardest to remove odors is cigarette smoke odor. This odor is caused by the residue smoke leaves behind. It’s often referred to as thirdhand smoke, and exposure can pose a significant risk to your health.
Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, vaping, or other products leave sticky, greasy films and residues. Every time this residue is exposed to light, warmth, or a change in moisture, it oxidizes and degrades, and the smell just gets worse.
Most smoke removal products on the market today don’t live up to their claims, are temporary fixes, and usually mask the odor with synthetic fragrance.
To chemically alter an offensive-smelling compound or eliminate it, physical contact between the molecules of the cleaning molecules and the molecules causing the smell has to occur.
Understanding Thirdhand Cigarette Smoke
Tobacco smoke particles and compounds are tiny, stick to every surface they touch, and can penetrate just about anywhere, circulating in ventilation systems and up through floors in multi-unit residential and office structures. Compounds from cigarette smoke permeate both hard and soft surfaces like walls, fixtures, molding and furniture. They’re especially good at clinging to textiles like upholstered furniture, curtains, clothing, and worst of all, carpeting and rugs. Changes in temperature, light, and humidity bring out the smell and help recirculate these particles- even just switching on a lightbulb where there’s buildup brings the smell back with a vengeance.
- Cigarette smoke contains thousands of chemical compounds. Thirdhand smoke is the exposure inside buildings and vehicles to the residue from this smoke.
- The residue from cigarette smoke persists long after a smoker has vacated a room or property, many indefinitely, continuing to react to other chemicals in the air, and unless removed, constantly re-emits into the air.
- Gas-phase chemicals from air fresheners and cleaning products can actually react with nicotine to form ultrafine particles and recirculate toxins in an even more dangerous form.
- Many particles and compounds in cigarette smoke are too tiny to be trapped by a HEPA filter.
- Nicotine cannot be removed by most soaps, it requires an acidic cleaner such as vinegar to remove from hard surfaces.
- Children living in apartments show a higher level of exposure to chemicals from tobacco use even when not exposed to secondhand smoke.
Assessing The Problem
When assessing your cigarette odor problem, here are some considerations:
How old is the structure or home? How long has there been a smoker in the space?
Older homes that have had multiple residents are more likely to have a cigarette smoke odor problem. It is more likely that the particles will have accumulated on walls, fixtures, interior trim, and in the carpet over a long period of time. While newer homes are just as susceptible to build-up, they are less likely to have had decades of smokers living in them.
How many rooms are affected?
If there is just a single bedroom or a few rooms within a property, you can begin with those spaces. However, you may still need to consider mitigating the odor from the entire structure because of how easily cigarette smoke can travel, even between rooms and separate residential units.
What textiles are in the space that are affected?
Many items such as curtains, bedding, clothing, and some rugs can be successfully treated to remove cigarette residue.
Does the affected area have carpet? In most cases, cigarette smoke and residue cannot be completely removed from carpet. If the smoking issue has been going on for a while, you realistically may have to consider replacing the carpet. A property owner might opt for a less porous replacement, such as luxury vinyl plank flooring to upgrade the appearance of a residence while making it easier to clean.
Use the Right Tools for the Job
There are several strategies for removing cigarette odor for good. You may want to utilize some or all of these to take care of the problem.
- Acidic and enzymatic cleaning solutions
- Cleaning hard surfaces
- Painting/encapsulating nicotine stains and residue
Immediate Air Quality
- Ozone machines
- Foggers & fogging solution
- Exhausting the interior
- Professional duct cleaning
Ongoing Air Quality
- Air purifier with both HEPA and carbon filter
Depending on the severity of the problem, type of property, and other variables, the process can be different. However, after consulting with disaster and cleaning industry professionals, here are some general steps to take to remove cigarette odor.
- Remove the source of the odor.
- Treat with ozone. Air out the area, and then seal off, relocate any plants, pets, or residents, and utilize an ozone machine to begin removing the odors.
- Air it out. After a period of time, thoroughly exhaust the interior air to get rid of any remaining ozone. For light contamination (like a party or overnight stay where people smoked in your home) some cleaning professionals recommend boiling vinegar and setting out bowls of it to attract particles in the air. Charcoal bags and baking soda placed out strategically can help too. Note: this will not engage the particles that may have adhered to hard surfaces.
- Treat hard surfaces. You have to physically remove the smoke particles. They will settle everywhere: walls, furniture, molding, glass windows, light fixtures, doors, basically anywhere that isn’t sealed. Removing nicotine residue is tricky, and you need acidic or enzymatic cleaners to really get rid of it. Scrubbing and washing down hard surfaces with vinegar can get rid of a lot of the surface contamination but textiles and porous surfaces are going to be more difficult.
- Remove contaminated textiles. Carpets should at best be professionally cleaned but may have to be replaced, as most will act like a sponge absorbing all the tiny little particles from smoke. Items like mattresses and sofas may be impossible to fully remove the smell from and reintroducing them without being professionally cleaned will reintroduce smoke particles.
- Utilizing a fogger with a cleaner such as Odorcide coupled with the central heating/air conditioning system can help distribute the product into smaller crevices and spaces in the interior you may not easily be able to reach by hand. All pets and people should be evacuated when fogging.
- Encapsulate contamination. More severe measures may require use of encapsulating sealer/primer/paint on hard surfaces. If you are dealing with a wall that is visibly discolored from the nicotine residue, it should be painted.
- Clean HVAC system. Ducts should be professionally cleaned and sealed.
- Maintain air quality. For allergy sufferers or those sensitive to smoke, the ongoing use of a high-quality air purifier that combines both HEPA filtration and the appropriate size of activated charcoal adsorbent filtration. A good true HEPA filter will do an outstanding job removing most of the larger particles. The charcoal adsorbent filter is needed because most tiny particles and VOCs that are contained in cigarette smoke will pass right through a HEPA filter.
What to Avoid:
Especially if you are a landlord, masking the smell is the worst thing you can do. To chemically alter an offensive-smelling compound or eliminate it, physical contact between the molecules of the cleaning molecules and the molecules causing the smell has to occur. This can occur in many ways, but here are some ways it does not happen:
Many people equate fragrance with cleanliness, as evidenced by the billion-dollar market of heavily scented “eliminating” candles, sprays, fresheners, powders, etc. These products tend to mask the smell or overwhelm your olfactory glands to the point where you can’t smell anything else. Over-use of aerosol and airborne air fresheners can actually make the problem worse and harder to address.
Gas-phase chemicals from air fresheners and cleaning products can actually react with nicotine to form ultrafine particles, and recirculate toxins in an even more dangerous form.
“Enzymatic” or “Smoker” Candles:
Candles will mask the cigarette smell for as long as they burn and maybe a little afterwards.
Any benefit from candles likely results from the release of aromatic compounds that mask odors and/or the burning up of vaporized oily materials in the surrounding air that happen to come in contact with the heat and flame. A candle cannot effectively dissipate enzymes through the air to break down resin, tar, oil, and odiferous substances.
- Enzymes are large three-dimensional proteins and protein complexes that would not readily vaporize. How effective they are is dependent on their three-dimensional structure and their direct physical contact on a molecular level with the offending molecule. Enzymes work best in a liquid solution.
- Enzymes work like a lock and key, with the offending molecule “fitting” the enzyme, allowing the chemical reaction to occur such as binding, changing its shape, etc.
- At high heat (like the heat of a burning candle), proteins denature, or lose their three-dimensional shape and hence the means of their biochemical activity, and may even burn up.
- Assuming the enzyme was somehow not damaged, denatured, or otherwise altered by heat, the likelihood of their contact with the offending molecules in the air is greatly reduced by how far apart airborne particles are vs. when they are in liquid form.
Burning candles can in theory speed up the oxidation process of odor-causing compounds like the tar from cigarettes. Unless somebody had only smoked in the room once, and only while the candle was burning, there is no way a candle could remove every trace of the odor. Physical contact must occur between the offending and the deodorizing molecules in order for the chemical structure (and odor-causing qualities) to change.