Noseblindness isn’t just a cleverly coined term-gone-mainstream (thanks, Febreze). After a few whiffs, your brain tunes out all non-threatening scents—like cigarette smoke. So, if you’re a smoker and well-past noseblind, what does your house really smell like to non-smoking guests?

Here’s the TL;DR:

A smoker’s house typically smells like stale cigarettes, also known as thirdhand smoke. Microscopic smoke particles (0.01–1 micron) can absorb into the tiny holes in a home’s walls, fabrics, carpets, furniture, HVAC systems, and even dust. This embedded stale odor can survive for months or years.

The answer is simple: smoke, which ranks as the #1 most off-putting odor to guests and is often a deterrent to potential homebuyers. Keep reading to learn what a house a smoker lives in smells like to its visitors!

Why a Smoker’s House Has a Distinct Smell

More often than not, the most obvious sign a house has been smoked in is a smoky smell, resulting from thirdhand smoke. Some describe this smell as woody, masculine, pungent, or foul. 

Thirdhand smoke is the residue left behind from smoking, while secondhand involves directly breathing in the smoke smell.

It’s worth mentioning that the smell of thirdhand smoke doesn’t always last forever. The smell may become so faint that the receptors in your nose and brain can no longer detect it.

Back on topic, there are quite a few reasons guests can detect smoke smells within seconds of walking through the front door:

Tobacco Smoke Particles Are Extremely Small

You often think of it as the grayish puff released after a drag. Yet, microscopic particles within cigarette smoke measure just 0.01 to 1.0 microns (0.3, on average). 

For some comparison, the diameter of a single human hair measures 70 microns, and the naked human eye can’t detect anything below 40–50 microns. Some sources say a lone smoke particle is about the size of 1/1000th the diameter of a strand of human hair.

But it’s what the size of these particles means for your house that causes that hallmark, strong smell of tobacco.

burnt cigarette butt

Many Parts of a House Absorb the Odor of Tobacco

Just about every household surface can absorb these particles. That’s especially true if you don’t have a rule against smoking inside and the smoke smell has the chance to linger.

The following household items can absorb this thirdhand smoke residue:

  • Carpet
  • Rugs
  • Ceilings
  • Curtains
  • Blinds
  • Drapes
  • Bedding
  • Upholstery
  • Furniture
  • Clothing

Carpet fibers, for example, are porous enough to hold onto cigarette smoke and its scent. Harder surfaces—like walls and ceilings—are also porous and allow particles like tar to cling to them. 

As City of Hope explains, the absorbed particles and residues evolve with age. This evolution causes changes to their chemical structures.

The nicotine and other chemicals in the particles mix with other pollutants in the house, returning the scent to the air and possibly creating new toxic odors. Additionally, the stale smell may eventually disappear, but the thirdhand smoke effects may remain.

Bad news: A fresh coat of paint doesn’t always get rid of the smell, and it could take several coats of paint and sealers to get rid of it fully.

Now, if you weren’t already horrified at smoke’s ability to infiltrate your house (and its general aroma) completely, get this:

  1. The Mayo Clinic reports that these particles can assume a “dust-like” form. This dust can coat floors, countertops, furniture, and other surfaces with an invisible residue layer.
  2. Beyond surfaces, dust and dirt can even absorb and hold onto the pungent smell.
  3. The main components of your HVAC system can also absorb the stench when sucking air in. This often requires a full professional cleaning to eliminate the odor. 

But (and I know what you’re thinking: please, no more) your house could also reek of stale cigarettes, even if nobody in your household smokes! That’s particularly true if you live in a multi-unit dwelling like an apartment.

If your neighbor smokes inside or on the balcony, the particles can squeeze through tiny cracks connecting your units. That includes the baseboards, HVAC, pipes, walls, ceilings, windows, doors, and floors.

Those Who Don’t Smoke Are More Sensitive to the Smell

Just about anyone who enters your home will detect the cigarette smell. However, those who don’t smoke are much more likely to notice the smell for several reasons.

First, most American adults (81%, to be exact) have a strict “no smoking” rule in their own homes, according to a 2009–10 survey. Add that to the fact that only 12.5% of U.S. adults smoked cigarettes in 2020. And one more tidbit: about twice that amount (1 in 4 Americans) experienced secondhand smoke exposure in 2013–14.

You can draw a few conclusions from these numbers.

For one, most of us aren’t exposed to the aroma of cigarette smoke daily. And if you are, more likely than not, it’s outside the home (i.e., at work, while traveling, at a bar, in the car).

cigarette embers

People who don’t smoke are also generally more likely to be sensitive to the scent of tobacco.

For example, research shows that even the faint smell of tobacco smoke (32 ppm) bothers 20% of non-smokers, while only 1% of smokers could say the same. In fact, researchers had to ramp the ppm up to 256 to get 20% of those who smoke to finally object. 

Essentially, those who do not smoke are more likely to dislike the smell of smoke, even in small amounts. That, plus the brain “resetting” its smell memory after time apart, is likely the reason the sudden aroma of smoke hits them like a ton of bricks. They’re simply “remembering” the smell.

If it’s your house and you’re a smoker, you’ve most likely become noseblind to the smell.

Thirdhand Smoke Is a Common Irritant

The lack of regular exposure to the smoke could also intensify the effects of secondhand and thirdhand smoke. These symptoms could include eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, and nausea.

Those who don’t smoke may actually experience a physical reaction to being in a smoker’s home—even if there isn’t an actively lit cigarette. Breathing in smoke secondhand can trigger an asthma attack due to the airway irritation it causes.

The lingering residues on walls, surfaces, fabrics, and upholstered furniture can reduce air quality. When thirdhand smoke reacts with other pollutants, it can create new and potentially more dangerous pollutants that include carcinogens (or cancer-causing molecules).

This residue can last for years and brings its own set of health risks, like damage to DNA, asthma, and cancer. A study exposing mice to third hand smoke also showed impacts on liver and lung functioning and behavioral issues.

Other Ways To Tell if a House Has Been Smoked In

Of course, a smoker’s house may not always smell like a cloud of tobacco at first whiff. After all, most who smoke don’t smoke in their own homes. It’s also possible that a person has quit smoking, only smokes recreationally, or changes their clothes immediately after.

That said, there are a few other telltale signs within the house that are distinct to those who smoke (or those who’ve quit), such as:

  • The overwhelming scent of air fresheners, candles, and other fragrances (This is often an attempt to mask cigarette odors temporarily)
  • Yellowing or browning of walls, ceilings, and fabrics
  • Visible smoke damage, such as burns on fabrics or furniture from accidentally dropped embers
  • Faint smoke smells, particularly on bedding, couches, and carpets

So even if you quit smoking months ago or are hiding the habit, it’s possible that others can still tell you smoke by how your house smells/looks.

Will the Smoke Smell in a House Eventually Go Away?

The smoke odor in a house will typically go away after many weeks or months. However, you must stop smoking indoors and avoid smoking outside with the windows open. Deep clean your house with vinegar to eliminate remaining particles and residue. Be sure to clean surfaces, furniture, floors, and HVAC systems.

The process of removing the smoke smell is extremely time-consuming. In severe cases, it could take years or even require you to replace carpets and wash walls repeatedly. 

Getting rid of the smoke smell generally involves two key components: removing the stuck-on residue from surfaces and fabrics and purifying the air of pollutants.

Here’s a quick overview of each:

Clean All Surfaces/Fabrics

baking soda sprinkled on carpet

Since thirdhand smoke latches onto surfaces and fabrics well, you’ll need to proactively remove any residue any embedded odors. That can mean physically pulling up trapped particles with a vacuum, but it may also involve breaking the odors down at the chemical level.

Once you remove the particles causing the smell, they can no longer emit the smoky odor.

Here are some common strategies for removing the odor from surfaces and fabrics:

  • Sprinkle baking soda on smelly carpets to neutralize embedded odors. Let it sit for several hours before you vacuum it up.
  • Vacuum all upholstery and fabrics. Clean yellow or brown stains with an upholstery cleaner, and consider a steam clean to break down the remaining molecules.
  • Wash walls with a 1:1 mixture of vinegar and water. Avoid over-soaking your cloth, and use gentle circular motions, starting at the top and working your way down. Go over the area again with clean water before dabbing it dry with a towel.
  • Vacuum all hard flooring. For added cleaning power, mop tile, linoleum, and vinyl with 1 cup of vinegar per gallon of warm water. Do not use this method on wood floor, as vinegar can strip the finish!
  • Change your light bulbs and thoroughly clean all light fixtures. The heat generated by light bulbs can intensify the odor.

Clean the Air

indoor fan

The goal of cleaning the air is two-fold. For one, it’ll remove any tiny particles—called particulate matter (PM)—still suspended in the air, which allow the stench to linger. Since surface residues will continue re-emitting the smell, it’ll also help control the intensity until the residue is completely removed.

There are several ways to purify your home’s air of the odor:

  • Control indoor humidity with a dehumidifier. High humidity will intensify the already fragrant odor, and this device will keep it within the ideal 30–50% range.
  • Dilute the odor’s intensity by improving cross ventilation. This means letting fresh outdoor in and bad odors out via open windows and doors. Opening interior doors and setting up fans can further improve the airflow and smell’s dissipation.
  • Use an air purifier equipped with a HEPA filter. Often made of activated charcoal or carbon, these air filters can remove 99.97% of pollutants measuring 0.3 microns. Place the purifier in a room with lingering odors.
  • Get your home’s ventilation systems cleaned professionally. This includes cleaning air ducts and replacing the air filter.
  • Fill bowls with vinegar or baking soda to naturally adsorb and neutralize the smoke smell.

Keep in mind that not all methods described will work, and many will require repeated attempts to fully neutralize the smell.

Final Thoughts

I won’t lecture you about the negatives of smoking cigarettes. If nothing else, I hope this article showed you that smoking (indoors or not) could bring the stench into your home for guests to smell.