Ask LH: How Do I Keep My Apartment From Smelling Like Smoke?

Dear Lifehacker, I just signed a lease on a new apartment, and it turns out my downstairs neighbours are multi-pack-a-day smokers. This means the smell wafts up through the floor almost all the time. I've cleaned the place from top-to-bottom and tried to seal off any drafts from below, but it's still awful. What else can I do? Thanks, Sad with Smoke

Photo by feifeilee.

Dear Sad with Smoke,

We feel your pain. It's really annoying when you're a non-smoker or a light smoker and your neighbour downstairs in an old or drafty apartment building won't hesitate to burn through several packs every day. Luckily, you have options.

Deodorise The Carpets

You may have covered this in your top-to-bottom cleaning, but a lot of the smell may be in or coming from the carpets. It won't change the smoke coming into the apartment from the neighbors' downstairs, but if that's the direction its coming from, you'd be surprised how much is probably trapped in there. Sprinkle some bicarb soda on the carpet and grind it in a little bit. Leave it there while you move from room to room, doing the same thing in every room. Let the bicarb soda rest for a few minutes, and then break out the vacuum cleaner.

Start in the first room that you put soda down in, and just vacuum the floors as normal. With luck, you'll bring up not just the soda you sprinkled on the floors, but some of the nasty smoke smell that may be trapped in the carpet as well. Then spray down the carpets with a little Febreeze or other similar odour-removing fabric spray. If that doesn't work, you may need to take the carpet cleaning to the next level and actually pay a carpet cleaner. Photo by Kai Schreiber.

Break Out The White Vinegar

Vinegar smells pretty strongly on its own, but cigarette smoke -- especially old, stale cigarette smoke -- smells much worse. So if you don't mind your apartment smelling like a salad for a little while, pour some small bowls of white vinegar and let them sit in the worst-smelling rooms of the apartment for a while. Lightly soak a paper towel or rag with white vinegar, and rub down your upholstery if it has gotten into your furniture, and rub down the walls as well -- if your neighbours have been there longer than you have, the smell is likely in the walls, too.

The smell of vinegar should dissipate in a few minutes, less if you throw open the windows while you do this. If you really can't stand the smell of vinegar, mix in a little essential oil, like lavender or vanilla, which will hopefully stick around after the smell of vinegar and cigarette smoke have faded away.

Use Activated Charcoal

Bicarb soda can do a good job at small odours, and can really help lift the smoke smell out of your carpet if you use enough of it, but if you're ready to use the big guns, it's time to invest in some powdered activated charcoal. You can usually get it at pet stores (where it's often used in aquarium filters,) health food stores (where it's become something of a fad,) or large department stores. Pour a little activated charcoal into a few small bowls and put them around your apartment. Leave them in place for a few days: they should slowly but surely start to absorb the odours.

Additionally, if you see any other odour control product with activated charcoal in it, like kitty litter or carpet powder, it'll probably do a decent job of taming the cigarette smell coming from your neighbours downstairs. If you can find kitty litter with charcoal in it, it may be cheaper to put that around your apartment (assuming you don't have a cat!) than buying large containers of activated charcoal alone, so give that a try.

Just Talk to Them

Finally, all the regular cleaning and scrubbing in the world won't help if you don't do something about the source of the problem. If you intend to stay for the duration of your lease, you may want to drop by your neighbours downstairs and introduce yourself. Let them know that the building is pretty drafty (something they likely already know) and let them know that their cigarette smoke comes up through the floors into your apartment above. Don't walk into the conversation with an assumption of how it's going to go: they may blow you off and indicate they could care less how their smoking affects you, but they may be willing to listen, and they may be understanding to your plight.

Don't expect them to start smoking outdoors from now on, but suggest they keep it to one room, or crack a window when they smoke instead of leaving them all shut. Maybe offer to give them the air purifier to keep the smell down. You never know, they may be sympathetic, and you may even make a new friend in your new building.

We hope we've offered up some suggestions to help you freshen up your apartment. It can be pretty rough living directly over a chronic smoker, especially when your building is old, drafty, and isn't doing you any favours in keeping the smell from drifting among units. With a little luck, some elbow grease, and hopefully minimal investment, you can keep your apartment smelling fresh and clean. Good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

PS Have you shared an apartment or apartment building with a smoker? Are you a smoker yourself? What are some of your tips to keep your home smelling fresh and free of set-in cigarette smoke? Share your suggestions in the comments below.

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send an email to [email protected], and include 'Ask Lifehacker' in the subject line.


    Most of those cleaning methods are only going to get rid of the accumulated smell in the apartment, they don't have anything to do with stopping the addict downstairs from smoking, and technically they have a right, so far, to smoke in their own place. Until the law changes, and that won't happen any time soon they are not going to stop, so talking to them is a waste of time. The only way to stop it is to seal all drafts and if the floor is loosely boarded enough to let smoke through, well... Until smoking is banned totally (taxes!) Sorry but you're stuck with it, move!

    Put nicotine patches or gum in their letterbox?

    Step 1: Don't smoke.

      If you'd read the article you would know that it isn't the person asking who is smoking, it's their neighbour..

      I had the same problem last year, until those tenants moved out. They would go out on the balcony to smoke and the smoke/smell would drift up (2 floors) into my bedroom and kitchen windows. Of course I can close the windows but not in summer when it is swelteringly hot.

      So your knee-jerk response is not relevant to this discussion.

      Unfortunately, as Antipodean points out.. there is not a lot one can do about this serious and potentially harmful "annoyance".

        You don't think maybe it was a joke, sure a lame one but it could just be a joke.

    Start smoking yourself, then once your olfactory system is dead, you'll be laughing!

    Ozone filter.

    I'd really think about staking a claim that the apartment isn't fit for living and get the lease terminated. No way should you have to endure that.

    would the same apply for, say, foreigners whose apartment exudes cooking smells you didn't like? or is it ok to bitch because this involves "smoking"

      Nicky- Smoking is recognised by most non-smokers and even some smokers to be a toxic smell. It is ridiculous to compare it to cooking smells. I assume that you are a smoker so you may have no idea how bad it actually smells. It is as bad as living next to a factory or a busy road and having fumes come into your home. So yes, it is ok to "bitch" about this. It is a big deal. Some people don't actually want their homes smelling like shit. If a smoker even so much as sits near me I can smell them- it is comparable to someone who hasn't had a shower in weeks.

    if u don't mind coffee smell, put coffee grounds in bowls in the worst smelling rooms. However an ozone filter works great, just some can be a bit pricy.. I'd say febreze the heck out of ur apartment. Hope that helped.

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