Traditional air fresheners are a simple way to cover up unpleasant household odors, but that’s also all they do—mask the problem. Some are a blend of 100+ chemicals, many of which are toxic to the human body. So, if you want something that absorbs bad smells naturally, what are your options?

Here’s the TL;DR:

Distilled white vinegar in a bowl is the best way to absorb bad smells in a room naturally. Vinegar’s acetic acid combines with airborne volatile compounds to neutralize odors. Other natural ways to absorb bad smells include baking soda, vanilla extract, coffee grounds, and activated charcoal.

The push for all-natural cleaning supplies continues to grow, with 47% of women and 29% of men admitting to using them in a 2021 survey. However, some of the best natural odor absorbers aren’t “cleaning products” at all. Read on to discover 9 of my all-time favorites!

Disclaimer: The effectiveness of these methods may vary depending on the source and severity of the smell. Some may be more effective than others.

Distilled White Vinegar

Vinegar is one of earth’s oldest and most versatile natural cleaning solutionstracing back to 3,000–5,000 B.C. Ancient Babylonia. Yet, the deodorizing “magic” behind Grandma’s favorite household cleaner actually makes up just 4–8% of its total volume.

It also lends to vinegar’s distinct pungent smell—acetic acid

distilled vinegar in measuring cup

Vinegar’s acetic acid binds to and neutralizes volatile compounds in the air. This acid specifically traps alkaline odors, like those bad smells that come from cooking.

The power of this popular odor eliminator makes it a go-to solution for absorbing scents like cat pee, cigarette smoke, and cooked fish. As the vinegar absorbs these odor molecules, the vinegar smell will gradually fade.

How To Use It

  • Fill a shallow bowl with half an inch of undiluted, distilled vinegar. Place the bowl in a room that needs air-freshening; replace the vinegar daily.
  • Dilute vinegar in water with a 1:1 ratio. Pour the mixture into a spray bottle; mist as needed to neutralize airborne stench.
  • Fill a medium pot or saucepan less than halfway with vinegar. Add water to the pot, leaving room between the pot’s lip and the water to prevent overspilling. Heat to low and simmer on the stove for 15–30 minutes to remove cooking odors.
  • Add ½–1 cup of vinegar to your washing machine during the rinse cycle to remove set-in odors from particularly dirty clothes.

Citrus Peels

citrus peels

Lemon and citrus are among the most popular scents for household cleaning supplies for their clean and “refreshing” scent. Lemon, in particular, is rich in a substance known as citric acid, which is powerful enough to neutralize fish odor. Fish leaves behind a chemical called “amines” that citric acid can convert to salts.

How To Use It

  • Toss orange and other peels into the bottom of your garbage bin to absorb rancid odors and release the fresh scent of citrus.
  • Put dried citrus peels in an old sock or muslin bag. Place it in an enclosed space with a musty, stale, or otherwise bad smell.
  • Throw citrus peels into a foul-smelling garbage disposal. Turn on the warm water while allowing your garbage disposal to run.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is insanely popular in the health world. Often dubbed a “superfood” for its rich antioxidant profile, it has a seemingly endless list of health benefits. A result of fermenting crushed apples, apple cider vinegar smells pungent (like vinegar) and fruity (like apples).

ACV is less popular than traditional white vinegar as an odor neutralizer for two reasons. First is its amber tint—which could stain. Second is its slightly lower acetic acid content.

However, as the ACV absorbs foul odors, it also makes a room smell like the faint and pleasant smell of apples.

How To Use It

  • Fill a small spray bottle with apple cider vinegar and water (1:1). Spray the problem surfaces with the mixture to neutralize odors and leave behind a vaguely appley scent. 
  • Place a shallow bowl of ACV in a stinky room to absorb stubborn smells in the air.


Oats are among the least conventional options on this list. However, if you’ve ever left an unsealed container of oatmeal in the cabinet for a few weeks, you likely noticed its impressive moisture and odor-absorbing capabilities yourself (albeit by accident!).

rolled oats in cup

A bowl of dried, flavorless oats on a shelf or in a refrigerator, drawer, or cabinet may be all you need to get rid of any stale or rank odors. Your mileage will absolutely vary on this one, as oats are a semi-unconventional choice for absorbing bad smells.

How To Use It

  • Open up a fresh container of plain (non-flavored) oats. Pour half a cup into a bowl (or stuff some in cheesecloth); place it in a room that needs some air-deodorizing.

Baking Soda

spilled baking soda

Baking soda (or sodium bicarbonate) is what’s called a “chemical leavener.” Without getting too deep into the science, leaveners combine with an acid to create carbon dioxide. The resulting bubbles allow baked goods like cookies, cakes, breads, and muffins to rise and become fluffy.

Sometime around 1972, baking soda went mainstream as an odor deodorizer for refrigerators. Its ability to neutralize nasty food odors stems from the fact that baking soda is “amphoteric.” In other words, it’ll act as a base around acidic substances and vice versa.

This gives it the unique ability to neutralize lingering odors from seafood to garlic.

However, baking soda’s cleaning capabilities go far beyond its ability to remove odors in the fridge. This white powder is also incredibly useful for absorbing bad odors and moisture from unclean carpets.

How To Use It

  • Sprinkle baking soda in a thin, even layer on anything needing deodorizing (i.e., a garbage can, carpeting). Allow it to sit for 15+ minutes before vacuuming. 
  • Leave an opened box in the refrigerator to eliminate odors in the kitchen and refrigerator.
  • Fill a small bowl with a cup of baking soda and leave it in smelly areas of the house.
  • If you have cats with a bad-smelling litter box, add a very thin layer of baking soda and rake it into the litter. (Warning: Baking soda may make the litter dusty and can cause sneezing in cats with respiratory sensitivities.)

Cat Litter

cat litter

Clumping cat litter is fresh-scented and an extremely powerful moisture and odor absorber. But the “secret” to litter’s odor-trapping powers comes from a few key ingredients: activated charcoal and baking soda (which are also on this list). 

Cat litter is effective for absorbing small spills and stale and musty smells from enclosed spaces with poor airflow.

How To Use It

  • Pour a cup of unused cat litter in the bottom of diaper pails and trash cans to absorb the stench for up to a week.
  • Place some fresh cat litter in a bowl and leave it in a smelly problem area.

Activated Charcoal

activated charcoal granules

Activated charcoal is a trendy health fad. It’s also a common ingredient in whitening toothpastes and blemish-clearing skin products. This black and odorless powder traces back several centuries, used to treat overdoses and filter unclean water.

Activated charcoal is regular charcoal that has been treated with oxygen, creating pores. These small holes make activated charcoal extremely absorbent

You’ll find activated charcoal in air filters, as it can pull toxins (like VOCs) and foul odors from the air while absorbing excess moisture—or humidity. Tons of odor-neutralizing and dehumidifying products now contain activated charcoal for that reason.

How To Use It

  • Fill a cheesecloth with activated charcoal. Place it in discrete locations where your household odors emanate (i.e., garbage cans, drawers, closets).
  • Place charcoal-filled bowls in notoriously bad-smelling rooms to eliminate musty and persistent smells. 

Coffee Grounds

coffee grounds in spoon

The smell of fresh-brewed coffee ranked as the #1 favorite scent to wake up to in the cleverly named “P.U. poll” of 1,000 Americans. But coffee grounds do much more than leave behind a delicious, caramelized, and nutty aroma. They’re also a completely natural way to neutralize bad odors.

The odor-busting perks of coffee lie in its caffeine content, specifically the nitrogen within the caffeine. Nitrogen can get rid of and neutralize unpleasant smells. That includes sulfur, which emits the foul odor of rotting eggs, raw sewage, or farts. 

As a bonus, the house will also smell like fresh coffee around the clock!

How To Use It

  • Hang up a cheesecloth stuffed with dried coffee grounds in stinky closets and other enclosed spaces for a few weeks of odor relief.
  • Leave a small bowl of dried coffee grounds in the fridge to absorb foul food smells. 

Vanilla Extract

pouring vanilla extract into spoon

Vanilla extract packs a sweet and strong punch as a fragrance and doubles as a natural air freshener, and the pure vanilla scent it leaves behind is also a huge win with guests.

The vanillin in vanilla extract is the most-preferred scent across all demographics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the acid in sweaty feet and cheese ranks dead last on that list.

Unfortunately, there’s not much information about how vanilla extract neutralizes unpleasant odors. But I can tell you it’s a staple in the painting industry—a tablespoon per quart or gallon can dial down the fumes. Simmering it in a skillet is also an age-old whole-house deodorizer!

How To Use It

  • Dip a sponge in vanilla extract. Wipe down odor-absorbed surfaces (i.e., ovens, microwaves, sinks) with the sponge to absorb odors and leave behind a trace of vanilla!
  • Fill a bowl with 1–2 tablespoons of vanilla extract. Dip a cotton ball in the extract to absorb the scent; place the cotton ball (in the bowl) in an area needing deodorizing.

Other Ways To Overpower Bad Smells

Each item in this list absorbs bad smells to some degree. But the best way to eliminate odors is to neutralize them at their source. For example, rather than tossing a vanilla-soaked cotton ball into the trash can, you should actually scrub the bin with soapy, hot water. 

Of course, once you remove the smell, you’ll also want to keep it out! So, let’s review some ways to keep your house smellin’ good.

Use Essential Oils

Essential oils are plant extracts known for their highly concentrated scents and possible therapeutic benefits. Though more research is necessary, studies suggest that some essential oils carry odor-neutralizing properties. 

Examples include tea tree essential oil—which has reported antimicrobial traits—and cinnamon oil—known for its antibacterial properties. If the source of the odor is bacteria, and these oils can kill bacteria, they may be able to actually eliminate the odor.

essential oil collection

However, more often than not, essential oils will be a scent-booster or merely mask odors. 

Diffusers are the simplest way to fill your home with their aroma. Fill the tank with distilled water (avoid tap water if possible) and add a few drops of your favorite essential oil. About 3–5 drops per 100 mL of water is the ideal range.

If you don’t have a diffuser, you can make a DIY room spray. Just fill a spray bottle with 4–8 ounces of distilled water and add 10–20 drops of your favorite essential oil. To help the oil and water blend, add 1–2 tablespoons of witch hazel.

Spritz as needed to refresh the air!

Maintain Good Cleaning Habits

Just because a house is “clean,” that doesn’t mean it smells good. However, following a cleaning schedule helps address the most common sources of strong odors—such as dirt, pet dander, and spills. 

Here are a few cleaning tips to keep your house smelling fresh:

Limit Use of Commercial Air Fresheners

Though often seen as a “quick fix,” most commercial air fresheners merely mask bad smells with more pleasing ones. Their fragrances can also quickly become overwhelming or leave behind a vaguely chemical smell.

Keep Up on Your Laundry

Dirty laundry—especially sweaty clothes—has absorbed body oils, sweat, and skin cells, which produce not-so-great smells. Dampness from sweat or wet towels can further exacerbate the smell as it sits in your laundry basket.

Maintain Your Kitchen’s Cleanliness

Food and cooking create their own assortment of unique smells. Throw all food scraps and debris into your trash can and seal it with a lid to contain the smell. Remember to empty it regularly to avoid a bad smell buildup!

Dust + Vacuum Regularly

As dirt and dust accumulates, it creates a distinct stale and musty odor. Keep this odor to a minimum by dusting at least every few weeks and vacuuming at least once weekly.

Ensure Proper Ventilation

Adequate ventilation in this context involves two key components. 

First is encouraging airflow within a space. This may include setting up fans and opening interior doors to allow a natural flow of air.

There’s also the exchange of outdoor air (fresh air) with indoor air (stale air). By opening exterior windows and doors, you can help dilute air pollutants, improve indoor air quality, and essentially “water down” lingering smells.

Regularly changing your HVAC system’s air filter can also keep the circulating air clean. A fresh filter will let your system continue pulling odorous pollutants from the air.

You should also try to reduce indoor moisture and humidity. Use vent fans during and after showers and, if your humidity is naturally 50% or higher, consider a dehumidifier. High moisture can encourage mold and mildew growth—which release a distinct musty smell.

Clean Up After Pets + Kids

If you have pets or children (or fur babies or skin dogs), expect to spend more time cleaning up after them to avoid funky smells. 

Common smells include:

  • Pet urine, which may seep into carpets and floorboards and require an enzymatic cleaner to break down and get rid of the odor-causing compounds in the urine
  • Pet hair and dander, the latter of which may smell like your pet’s natural body odor
  • Spoiled food accidentally forgotten by young children
  • Litter box odors, especially if it’s not cleaned regularly
  • Diapers, with smells emanating from the diaper pail and lingering in the air after diaper changes
  • Outdoor smells tracked in by either cats or kids

Final Thoughts

Remember that these are just nine of the best natural ways to get rid of unwanted smells around the home. Many experts even recommend combining some items from this list for advanced odor-busting!