Don’t Bother Boiling a Lemon to ‘Neutralise’ Odours

Don’t Bother Boiling a Lemon to ‘Neutralise’ Odours

I write a lot about different methods to remove odours from of a bunch of different things, from smoky smells in the house to stinky ones in diaper pails. While different tactics work for different stench causers, one underlying truth remains the same: You have to eliminate whatever is causing the smell instead of just covering it up.

That said, yesterday I cleaned out my little pet cage. I’d gotten rid of the source of an unpleasant smell, but an unpleasant smell still lingered. So I decided to test a claim I’ve come across a few times in the course of my career as a household hacks writer: that boiling lemons on the stove will “neutralise” odours in the air. Here’s what happened.

How the hack is supposed to work

The lemon, boiling. (Photo: Lindsey Ellefson)
The lemon, boiling. (Photo: Lindsey Ellefson)

This hack crops up all the time online, and is disarmingly simple: You cut a lemon in half. You boil it. You can even just boil old lemon rinds if you have them hanging around; per the many sources that recommend this hack, they’ll accomplish the same thing, which is allegedly to fill your home with a citrus scent powerful enough to mask unpleasant smells.

Some sources even claim lemon will actually remove smells from the air. These sources usually do not include any evidence for this claim, and when they do, it doesn’t pass the, uh, smell test, which is to say it seems made up. (The heat releases essential oils that move through the room and kill bacteria in the air? OK.)

Nevertheless, I added three cups of water to a pan, dropped two lemon halves in there, and boiled them. I felt electric with possibility, and excited to live in a fruity-smelling palace.

What actually happened

Nothing happened. I boiled the lemons for 15 minutes. For context, I live in a small New York City apartment; any wafting scents should not take long to permeate the place. To get a feel for the efficacy of the trick, I sat on the other side of the apartment and waited. I smelled nothing.

After adding a second lemon. (Photo: Lindsey Ellefson)
After adding a second lemon. (Photo: Lindsey Ellefson)

I returned to the kitchen and cut another lemon. This time, I squeezed its juice into the boiling water before adding the two halves. I waited another 15 minutes, eyeing the steam (which sources of this method assured me is vital to the process) and feeling my joy ebb away by the second. With the exception of a single moment where I fleetingly thought, “wait, is that a citrus scent?” there was nothing of note to report.

What to do instead

This hack was a dud for me. From what I’ve read, it should have worked in about 10 minutes; that it didn’t create anything resembling a pleasant aroma after 30 (and twice as much lemon as recommended) is disheartening.

If you’ve also eliminated the source of a smell (again, the critical first, and perhaps only, step) but the stench is still lingering, just use an air freshener, which deposits its stronger smell over top of the unpleasant one.

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