Odor removal is one of the most difficult problems cleaning professionals face. Smells have a powerful and immediate impact on the way we perceive our environments.1 In commercial settings, a pleasant odor communicates quality and cleanliness to employees and visitors and can have a significant impact on a business’ bottom line.

So, what is bad odor, and where does it come from? Read on to learn a three-step process for winning at odor removal, and get tips on how to address the more problematic odors we hear about.

What Is Bad Odor and Where Does It Come From?

An odor is a distinctive smell, sometimes unpleasant, caused by volatile compounds that rise into the air and are detected by the human nose. What many people don’t realize is that odor comes from a source, and if you can remove (or seal off) the source you can effectively remove the bad odor.

What Are Common Sources of Bad Odor?

Bad odor sources include feces, urine, sweat, smoke particulates and rotten food. In many cases, odors come from bacteria and fungi in those sources. In fact, the smell we most often associate with dirt and feces is bacteria while musty smells are usually caused by fungi.

Odor sources can be present on hard surfaces, in carpets or fabrics, inside walls and/or HVAC systems, which means they can sometimes be hard to find.

Three Steps for Winning at Odor Removal in Buildings:

  1. Identify the odor source. This can be relatively easy or difficult to do, but either way it is the most important step to take. To help with sources that are not obvious, look for patterns for when and where the odor is present, the conditions in the room when the odor is smelled, and even the weather outside. Things like a dirty HVAC, an open window during rainy weather or even another person can be the source of the odor.
  2. Identify what type of odor source you have. Is the odor source temporary (e.g., a child has an accident in a classroom), repetitive (e.g., a busy lobby bathroom with continuous deposition of feces) or embedded (e.g., unsealed grout that has become saturated with urine)?
  3. Using the information gathered in steps one and two, create your plan of attack.
  • If temporary, removal and cleanup of a surface is usually sufficient. Don’t forget to clean and disinfect, though, especially if the odor source is a biohazard (feces, blood, vomit). 
  • If repetitive, frequent cleanup is important, but consider an ongoing odor eliminator product for times in between cleanups. After all, cleaning staff cannot clean 24/7.
  • For embedded odors, cleanup is also important but may not be able to completely remove the source. In these cases, consider using products that can deeply penetrate porous surfaces and can work without the need for physical removal of the odor source (oxidative chemistries like bleach or hydrogen peroxide can work well for this.) or consider sealing the surface so the odor cannot escape.

Tips for Particularly Problematic Odors:

  • For rooms with heavy smoke contamination, it’s important to clean walls, ceilings and carpets even if they don’t look dirty.
  • For musty odors, use a cleanerdisinfectant that is EPA-registered to kill mold and mildew (fungi). Ensure there is good ventilation in the room to keep the mold from coming back. Odor-causing bacteria and fungi thrive in moist environments. Indoor relative humidity should be kept below 60 percent — ideally between 30 percent and 50 percent, if possible.2
  • Odor neutralizer may be helpful when needing to quickly cover up an odor or in between cleanings. But be careful — not all sprays are created equal, and some products only coverup odors instead of eliminating them. Additionally, some people may find fragrances unpleasant, leading to concerns about their impact on human health.
  • Clean and disinfect spaces, areas and surfaces regularly, especially in heavily used areas such as bathrooms and breakrooms.
  • If odors persist, consider calling in an odor or mold remediation professional to help. Special equipment may be needed to get to the source of the odor, and it may also be necessary to replace some surfaces that cannot be cleaned. When replacing surfaces, consider the “cleanablility” of the new surface, and avoid porous or textured surfaces that cannot be easily cleaned.

Pleasant-smelling environments are good for everyone. No one wants to visit, work or do business in a smelly building. Odors in buildings can influence occupant satisfaction rates3 and impact employee and consumer behavior and the degree to which a service transaction is successfully concluded.4

Identifying the odor source and type of odor source can help you plan your odor removal attack and ultimately win the battle.

1. Herz RS. A Naturalistic Analysis of Autobiographical Memories Triggered by Olfactory Visual and Auditory Stimuli. Chemical Senses. 2004;29(3):217-224. doi:10.1093/chemse/bjh025.
2. Mold Course Chapter 2: Why and Where Mold Grows. https://www.epa.gov/mold/mold-course-chapter-2.
3. Cain WS, et al. Ventilation requirements in buildings 1: Control of occupancy odor and tobacco smoke odor. Atmospheric Environment.1983;17(6):1183-1197. doi:10.1016/0004-6981(83)90341-4.
4. Bitner MJ. Servicescapes: The Impact of Physical Surroundings on Customers and Employees. Journal of Marketing. 1992;56(2): 57-71. doi: 10.2307/1252042.