Do you smell like your apartment?

By Kelly Kreth  |
November 23, 2010 - 6:27AM

New York City apartments tend to be small and poorly ventilated, which means strong odors can stick around for a long time...and we New Yorkers are particularly prone to smelling like last night’s latkes or the everyday olfactory signature of our own apartments.

Foodwise, some of worst offenders include sulfur-rich vegetables like garlic, onions, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and asparagus, as well as cooked fish.  These aromas plus a host of others, from incense to plain old mustiness, can be held by fabric for a long time and are slowly released like a time-released capsule, causing you to smell like your apartment, explains Dr. Andrew Kielbania, chief scientist of chemical technology company BioNeutral Group in Newark. N.J.

But what about your apartment’s everyday scent?  Do you even know what your apartment smells like?

Probably not. Like any situation you are close to, it is hard to be objective about what your apartment smells like. Leave for vacation for a few weeks and return, and as soon as you open the door, you will be more likely to smell what visitors do upon entering.

“Adaptation occurs after you’ve been away for a week or two and certainly having the apartment closed up for a period of time will concentrate odors, but even if you had normal circulation, you’d smell the apartment as being different from when you left,” says Pamela Dalton, a research scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Penn. “We tend to adapt to scents and do not notice those we’ve become accustomed to unless we stop smelling them for at least a few weeks.”

So what can you do if your apartment stinks? Try to identify the main culprit(s) and work from there.  Some suggestions:

  • Fried foods: Consider another food prep method (instead of sautéing salmon, roast it inside the oven). Alternatively, top your frying pan with an odor-absorbing splatter screen containing a layer of carbon fabric sandwiched between two metal mesh screens. Or if you don’t have an outside-vented exhaust fan (such fans are only partially effective anyway, since smelly oil deposits tend to build up around the filter), buy activated charcoal sheets from Home Depot or your hardware store, then tape or clip them to a tabletop fan set on reverse.  “It will trap a good percentage of odors,” Dalton told us last year when we asked her how not to smell like a latke.
  • Cigarette smoke: Quit smoking. It's bad for you, your neighbors hate it, and if you own your apartment, it's killing your property values too.
  • Pet odors:  Vigilantly change wee wee pads and litter boxes, and get rid of rugs or furniture that has been over-fertilized.   (FYI, cat urine is more offensive to the human nose than dog urine because it contains a great amount of sulfur and the molecules are easily airbound.)
  • Humidity Humidity can make our surroundings smell even more intensely because odor molecules are made airborne again, which is why everything smells worse in the summer. Buy a dehumidifier.
  • Poor ventilation: If it’s not too cold, open some windows.  To cross-ventilate, lower the top of a double-hung window in one part of your apartment and the bottom of another in an opposite area, creating a draft and speeding air replacement.

Sprays like Oust or Febreze may bring temporary relief by coating the odor molecules so that they are heavier than air and unable to travel as readily into your nose.  But eventually the coating will wear off and at least some of the aroma will return, according Dalton.  BioNeutral Group, the chemical technology company mentioned above, says it is working on a household deodorizer designed to eliminate odor molecules rather than simply mask them.

    Be wary of negative ion generators, which Dalton has previously advised us against: “They produce ozone which will break down certain organic molecules into other compounds that sometimes don’t smell, but they generate really unacceptable levels of ozone in an indoor environment that can cause problems even for healthy people.”

    Related posts:

    Out, damned latke!

    Why your high-efficiency washing machine smells like cat pee: The official story

    Is NYC's garbage about to smell a lot nicer?


    Kelly Kreth

    Contributing writer

    Contributing writer Kelly Kreth has been a freelance journalist, essayist, and columnist for more than two decades. Her real estate articles have appeared in The Real Deal, Luxury Listings, Our Town, and amNewYork. A long-time New York City renter who loves a good deal, Kreth currently lives in a coveted rent-stabilized apartment in a luxury building on the Upper East Side.

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