Have you identified a musty odor and are wondering how to get rid of mold smell? This unpleasant aroma doesn’t go away easily, and spraying air freshener will only help temporarily. Once you detect the odor, the key is to look for the mold colony.
Although spores aren’t causing the awful scent, they generally come as a package. Spores travel through the air and potentially into your lungs. Therefore, removing that mold smell isn’t only necessary for fragrance purposes, but also to keep you and your family in good health.
Clearing mold isn’t as simple as a regular cleaning session; some precautions are required. To make the removal task faster, we’ve outlined the best substances and techniques to eliminate mold smell.
What Does Mold Smell Like?
Many of us picture mold as a single type of fungus that grows on moist surfaces. In reality, however, over a thousand mold species have been identified in American homes alone (1).
Colonies can be found anywhere, both indoors and outdoors. Before you see and smell mold, it could have been thriving behind a wall or baseboard for months or years.
As mold can’t always be spotted immediately, the odor it produces is generally the first sign. Are you familiar with the smell of a wet swimming suit left in a bag? This is only one of the interesting scents mold can produce.
Each type of mold comes with various textures, colors and scents. Yet, they do have one commonality when it comes to odor: it isn’t pleasant, to say the least.
Typically, mold smells can be characterized as humid, sour, bitter and fusty. While some species emit natural scents, others can have a sweet, fermenting or alcohol-type aroma.
Let’s add a layer to it. Even within the same species, odors can differ depending on their life cycle. Reproduction, growth, or even digestion can produce various malodorous aromas.
Simply put, if your garbage is out, mold should be considered an option when a lingering foul smell sticks around. Let’s just hope it doesn’t become a smell you get used to (2).
What’s Causing the Mold Smell?
Spores are mold seeds, responsible for its expansion and reproduction. Although often accused of creating the repulsive odor, spores aren’t usually the source of the smell. Mold is.
Mold produces microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOC) which are the root cause of a smelly home. Various MVOC — and, therefore, odors — are released throughout the bacteria’s development, digestion and reproduction (3).
Is Mold Smell Harmful?
Mold spores are the ones guilty of causing us harm. These tiny particles range between 3 to 40 microns — a human hair isn’t thicker than 150 microns. They travel through the air and can be easily inhaled into our lungs, potentially causing allergies, asthma and other respiratory conditions (4).
The strength of the smell is often unrelated to how dangerous the colony can be for our health. For instance, during its reproductive cycle, mold creates an incredible amount of spores, but very few MVOCs. This means that the odor will be mild, but spores will be present and very active.
Can I Use Air Fresheners?
When exposed to unpleasant odors, our first reaction might be to cover them up. You may even think you’ve solved your stinking issue. But, in fact, the colony is still spreading, and the smell eventually comes back.
On another note, many air freshener manufacturers include chemicals detrimental to our well-being (5). So unless you’re using a natural product, you could be breathing more damaging compounds than with mold spores alone.
As a result, when it comes to fighting mold and its odor, air fresheners aren’t recommended. These chemicals only mask the contamination.
What’s your best bet then? Since MVOCs and the resulting smells are produced by mold, the only long-term solution is to kill the fungus colony itself.
Precautions to Take
When you begin to tackle the smell, there are a few precautions worth taking. These steps will help to protect your lungs and prevent further spore infestation:
- Wear a mask: To avoid breathing mold spores, we advise wearing a mouth mask.
- Protective glasses: The fungus can cause eye irritation and inflammation (6). What’s more, the combination of mold and cleaning products can create enough discomfort to stop a cleaning session. So it’s crucial to wear protective goggles.
- Gloves: Even natural ingredients such as borax can irritate the skin. Use rubber gloves to prevent direct dermal contact.
- Proper ventilation: Ensure the area is as well ventilated as possible — open doors and windows to help.
- Isolate the colony: While you clean, spores are bound to fly all over. So always scrub one room at a time. It also helps if you close the door to prevent the spores from reaching other living spaces.
- Seal HVAC systems: If you have a heating, A/C or ventilation system, turn them off. It’ll prevent the spores from escaping and finding refuge inside your HVAC system only to make their way back inside.
- Equipment disposal: When the cleaning is over, place all your tools inside a plastic bag and close it. Discard immediately.
The Best Mold-Removal Substances
Whether you’re cleaning the bathroom, kitchen, carpet or clothes, these products will efficiently remove mold from your home. We’ve also chosen several natural substances so you don’t have to suffer harsh chemical exposure while removing mold.
For a small infestation on carpets or clothes, using water hotter than 140-degrees Fahrenheit might be enough (7). While hot water will kill the fungus, a few drops of essential oils can increase efficiency and leave a fresh scent behind.
Hydrogen Peroxide and Baking Soda
Hydrogen peroxide can be found in many homes to clean wounds and cuts. But it also has other helpful uses, including mold-killing properties.
Hydrogen peroxide is an inexpensive, yet efficient method of getting rid of mold (8). It’s also easily found in pharmacies and stores, within the health department.
Acting as a bleaching agent, it’s specifically potent at cleaning permeable surfaces. Compared to chlorine, it carries the significant advantage that the ingredients — water and oxygen — aren’t harmful (9).
Although hydrogen peroxide can be used alone, it’s often combined with baking soda. Baking soda is generally known to remove bad odors and decrease moisture. This makes it a great ingredient to add to a natural mold-killing cleaning product (10).
Mold-Killing Cleaning Spray
- Mix: In a spray bottle, combine water and 3 percent hydrogen peroxide.
- Spray and wait: Mist the area and let it soak for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Wipe: Using a wet cloth, remove the mold.
- Dry: Swipe the spot with a dry towel to remove as much moisture as possible.
Washing Fabric With Hydrogen Peroxide
In a washing machine, add one cup to a load. If your machine opens from the top, wait until the water has poured. If it opens from the front, use the small receptacle dedicated to other cleaning products.
Vinegar and Baking Soda Mixture
Another popular and natural mold-killing cleaning agent is vinegar.
Containing 5 to 20 percent of acetic acid, vinegar is one of the most potent ingredients for eliminating fungus (12). Not only does it kill most germs, but it also removes odors (13). For stubborn smells, baking soda is often added to vinegar.
Mold-Killing Cleaning Spray
- Mix ingredients: In a spray bottle, add one teaspoon of baking soda with two tablespoons of vinegar. Pour in half a teaspoon of dish soap if desired.
- Wait: Shake the bottle and wait for a minute before continuing.
- Add water: Fill the bottle with warm water.
Washing With Vinegar and Baking Soda
- First washing cycle: Add one cup of white vinegar into your washing machine. Do not add detergent.
- Second washing cycle: Add half a cup of baking soda.
Borax is a white mineral that’s been used for thousands of years. It’s frequently used to remove mold, fungus and neutralize smells.
When mixed with water, borax changes water molecules into hydrogen peroxide, which we now know is a potent mold killer. Borax is versatile and can also be used as an insecticide and herbicide.
However, because borax is difficult to dissolve and mix, it needs more groundwork than other products.
Mold-Killing Cleaning Spray
- Water: In a large bowl, pour four or five cups of warm water.
- Borax: Add half a tablespoon of borax.
- Dissolve: Stir slowly until it’s fully dissolved.
This mixture can be used as it is for a hand wash, cleaning spray or poured into your washing machine.
Essential oils are concentrated plant chemicals found in compact bottles. They’re extremely versatile and can be used for many purposes. There are oils for managing stress, headaches, inflammation and more.
Out of over 90 different essential oils, a few have been studied for their anti-fungal properties. Besides, their volatile chemical compounds make many oils extremely aromatic, fighting mold’s MVOC odors.
Tea Tree Essential Oil
A study compared five cleaning agents — ethanol, vinegar and commercial products — to determine their efficiency at limiting fungi’s growth. Tea tree essential oil showed the best results when used both as a liquid and vapor (16).
This means that the oil can be sprayed over the moldy area. It can also be diffused in the air to kill spores and odor.
Other Antifungal Essential Oils
Mold-Killing Cleaning Spray
- Mix: In a spray bottle, pour one cup of warm water. Add one teaspoon of tea tree oil to it and shake to mix.
- Spray and wait: Spray and let the product soak for 20 minutes.
This mixture can also be poured directly into a hand wash container or inside a washing machine.
However, bleach isn’t suitable to remove fungi in porous materials, such as wood or drywall. If spores remain deep inside a fabric or matter, mold will eventually grow back.
Mold-Killing Commercial Products
If you’re looking for an easy cleaning solution, “off the shelf” commercial products are efficient. And most won’t require any preparation; they’re ready to be sprayed, added to your vacuum or used on carpet directly. Some of them contain ingredients we’ve previously mentioned, while others include chemical compounds.
Keep in mind, though, that these commercial cleaning agents generally don’t display 99.9 percent of the ingredients. You won’t know exactly what you’re buying all the time.
Their smell can also be extremely overpowering. So if you’re sensitive to chemical odors or molecules, make sure to wear a face mask.
How to Remove Mold Smell
Even with a wide array of mold cleaning substances at your disposal, your mold removal technique can make or break your efforts. Cleaning techniques vary based on the space or object you’re trying to clean.
Clearing Mold From Clothes
If you’ve spotted mold on your garments, you may dry clean, hand wash or use a washer. Although the drying process comes last, its role is critical.
Have you recently found mold on your clothes and are afraid to touch it? Place it in a sealed plastic bag and let your dry cleaner handle it.
If the moldy area isn’t that obvious, do tell your dry cleaner about the fungal growth. If you don’t, other people’s clothes could be contaminated.
This might be the most convenient method of removing the fungus. Only place infected clothes inside your washer — you don’t want to spread the spores onto clean clothes. Unless you’re cleaning delicate garments, select the hottest mode.
- Use detergent: Place your regular cleaning agent in the outside receptacle within the drawer or directly inside the machine.
- Fill with water: Let the machine fill up and the detergent will naturally mix with the water.
- Additional ingredients: Once your clothes are soaked, stop the washer and add borax, vinegar, essential oils or other substances, as mentioned above.
- Wash: Run your washer for two full cycles.
The hand washing technique can also be used before or after cleaning your clothes in the washer. If you only have one cloth or towel to clean, a bucket with hot water might suffice.
- Scrub: Using a brush with gentle bristles, try removing as much mold as possible.
- Prepare the container: Add hot water, detergent and any of the ingredients we’ve previously described.
- Scrub: Gently scrub the clothes to ensure the mixture penetrates deep inside the fabric. Don’t forget to wear gloves.
- Soak: Wait for at least 20 minutes or up to a few hours.
Dry your garments as soon as washing is over. Don’t leave them inside your washer or hand wash bucket overnight. Take them out immediately, and dry them using one of the following methods:
- Sun: Sunlight can kill fungi — mold included (source). Ideally, you’ll want to hang your clothes outdoors and under direct sunlight.
- Dryer: If outdoor drying isn’t feasible, place your clothes in a dryer.
- Hanging indoors: If none of the options above are available, hang your clothes in a well-ventilated area. A dehumidifier can be used to help the fabric dry faster.
Clearing Mold From Carpets
Carpet is a common place where mold finds refuge. Dropping liquids, or cleaning it without properly drying it, is enough to find bacteria growing inside the fibers.
To avoid discoloration, we recommend staying away from borax, bleach, or products containing chlorine.
- Brush with vinegar: Using a gentle brush, apply pure vinegar throughout the infected area. Ensure that the liquid reaches the deepest layers of the carpet.
- Sprinkle baking soda: To absorb moisture and remove smells, cover the carpeted area with a thin layer. Leave it for a few hours and vacuum the powder away.
Instead of vinegar, you can also use commercial products. Just ensure that you’re selecting one formulated explicitly for carpets.
Drying the Area
When possible, hang your carpet outside, under the sun. If it’s attached to the floor, drying it will play an important role in getting rid of the mold and its smell. Here are some tips:
- Towel or cloth: Using a dry towel or cloth, remove as much moisture as possible.
- Ventilation: Maintain good airflow in the room. Use fans and open the windows until the carpet is fully dry.
- Humidifier: If you own one, place it closeby. It’ll absorb some of the moisture.
- Hair dryer: Use the hot air of a hair dryer to make the drying process faster.
Using a Steamer
You may have heard that you shouldn’t eat the clear part of moldy bread as the entire loaf is likely to be infected. Similarly, seeing mold on some areas of the carpet means that the spores are probably present throughout.
For that reason, the entire carpet needs to be treated. Depending on the surface, it may take longer and more elbow grease than you originally planned.
For large areas, vacuum steamers are ideal tools to fight mold. Steamers generally heat water between 150 degrees and 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The higher the temperature, the more efficient the device will be at killing the fungus.
To increase your vacuum’s efficiency, two cups of vinegar or a regular carpet mold-killing product can be added to the clean water compartment.
In addition, the best steamers will only leave very little moisture behind. So you won’t have to manually dry the carpet. This, of course, saves you time and prevents the bacteria from growing back.
Clearing Mold From Kitchens and Bathrooms
In these spaces, mold removal mainly consists of scrubbing. You may scrub with a sponge, scrubbing tool, or a toothbrush for more delicate surfaces.
Bleach is also typically used in bathrooms and kitchens, as these rooms don’t typically contain porous material. Sprays are easier to use and will reach tiny spaces and cracks, where mold may have settled in.
What About Books?
Have you ever found an old novel with a musty smell and some dark or white spots? Does the pungent smell prevent you from reading it?
When we mentioned that mold can grow on any surface, that includes paper. If you’re a book lover, cleaning one to clear the odor without causing damage requires extra care.
1. Remove Visible Mold
To start, you want to remove visible mold. Use a toothbrush or soft brush and gently sweep over the cover and infected areas.
2. Dry the Book
Before completely clearing the book of mold, it first needs to be dried. Remove any moisture, both inside and outside the book. Here are a few ways of doing so:
- Wax paper: Place a sheet between each page, or the ones retaining the most moisture.
- Ventilation: Leave your book in a well-ventilated room. Keep it standing, half-open, with infected sheets separated. This will allow more air to flow between the pages.
- Dehumidifier or fan: Place either of these devices near your book to accelerate the drying process.
3. Treat Against Mold
Once your book has dried, it’s time to remove the mold and its smell:
- Essential oil: Place a few drops of tea tree oil on a cloth and wipe the book cover as well as all the outer edges. Open the book and wipe the inner back and front covers.
- Denatured alcohol: Proceed the same way as with the essential oil.
There is no recipe for how much essential oil and alcohol should be used. The key is to avoid leaving any liquid or moisture after wiping the book with the substance.
When to Hire a Professional
Mold smells can be more challenging to remove than we may think. When done improperly, one can spread the colonies instead of eradicating them. Here are a few situations when it’s best to call a professional to help:
- No visual: If you can smell the mold but can’t find the source.
- Medium molded area: If mold has expanded over 10 to 30 square feet, a professional should assess the situation and make recommendations.
- Large molded area: If mold covers over 30 square feet, a qualified person should tackle the task. You may also want to address the insulation issue (20).
- Mold keeps growing back: There may be hidden spores that keep reviving the colony.
Taking a Deep Breath
Mold smell is strong, rancid and can appear unexpectedly anywhere inside and outside the home. Although it’s unpleasant, the odor itself isn’t harmful — the spores are.
Getting rid of mold smell means eradicating the colony, and air fresheners will only be a temporary solution.
Luckily, many substances are available to help you “fight the fight.” From hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, baking soda, borax, bleach, and essential oils to commercial products, options are plentiful.
It may require some precautions, time and sweat, but your home should soon smell like spring again.