How to make your home smell better without harmful chemicals

Aromatic candle. By Hugo.arg at the Samogitian language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It’s a familiar problem: Strong cooking smells from the kitchen waft into our living areas and linger long after dinner is over. Or the stench of the garbage sticks around, even after the trash can has been emptied.

There are generally two approaches to whisking away bad smells: neutralizing the odor or changing it to something more pleasant. For a quick, inexpensive fix to the stinky-kitchen problem, Becky Rapinchuk, author of “Clean Mama’s Guide to a Healthy Home,” likes to leave a dish of white vinegar out overnight. “Vinegar absorbs odor,” she says. “It works similarly to the way baking soda works in the fridge.”

She also likes charcoal bags, which absorb odors in smaller places, such as drawers or the bottoms of garbage cans. Or just open a window for five to 10 minutes a day, says Gurl Gone Green blogger Suzi Swope.

The other option – masking or changing the unpleasant smell – is where things get tricky. It’s tempting to reach for a cute candle or an aerosol air freshener, but scientists say that might not be the safest choice. Conventional home fragrance products can contain hundreds of chemicals, including phthalates, benzaldehyde, camphor, ethyl acetate, benzyl acetate, musk ketone, benzene, formaldehyde, BHT and acetaldehyde. Studies have shown that some of these chemicals can cause headaches, breathing problems, contact dermatitis and other health issues.

The easiest way around this is to choose fresheners with ingredients that you know and can research if needed. Think dye-free candles made of beeswax and scented with essential or natural oils, Rapinchuk says. (If you’re concerned about whether the beeswax is harvested ethically, soy is a good alternative.) Wicks should be clean-burning, which means they’re made of all wood, hemp or cotton. The same selection principles apply to deodorizing sprays.

And be on the lookout for “greenwashing” – a company’s attempt to market something as green or “natural,” even though it’s full of preservatives and artificial ingredients. You can check a product’s ingredient list on the Environmental Working Group’s website ( or app.

We asked Rapinchuk, Swope and Sara Swabb, an interior designer and the owner of Storie Collective in D.C., for their favorite air fresheners without potentially harmful chemicals. Here are their suggestions.

Swope likes the three-wick Botanica beeswax candle for its cotton wicks and essential oil fragrances, such as spruce, vanilla and lavender ($26, It burns for about 18 hours. Rapinchuk says that a plain beeswax candle can contribute to cleaner air. When beeswax burns, it produces fewer volatile organic compounds and less soot than paraffin candles, according to the Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society.

Another popular option is to use an electric essential oil diffuser. Swope loves Vitruvi’s stone essential oil diffuser ($123,, which can be set to run for four or eight hours and has a 500-square-foot diffusing capability. The initial cost is steeper than that of a candle or spray, but the diffuser should last for years.

Rapinchuk suggests Plant Therapy essential oils for diffusers, such as the organic lavender essential oil ($8.99 for 10 milliliters, To create a room spray, she mixes a half-cup of water, a quarter-cup of vodka, and 10 to 15 drops of essential oils.

Reed diffusers from Naked Goat distribute scents for two to three months. The reeds act like plant stems or straws, drawing the fragranced liquid to the top, where the scent is released. One of Swabb’s favorite scents is Naked Goat’s Cactus, a combination of citrus, coconut, pear, sandalwood and more ($24,

For small spaces, Rapinchuk suggests cutting a bar of soap while it’s still in the wrapper to expose the top and let the scent permeate the air around it. She suggests using a Castile soap bar, such as Dr. Bronner’s pure Castile bar soap in lavender ($4.99, Try using this in a closet, in mudroom storage bins or in powder room bath towel drawers.

And if you need to freshen up a room quickly because of a pet accident or some bad fruit lurking in a corner, Swope suggests using Grow Fragrance’s plant-based air and fabric sprays, which come in cedar, lavender, bamboo and more ($15,

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Lindsey M. Roberts is a freelance writer in North Carolina.



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