How can you cope with the smell of smoking housemates?

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By: Jeff DrongowskiCC BY 2.0
I am a non-smoker who is stuck living in a smoky rental house until my husband graduates. My in-laws live on the main floor and smoke only in their bedrooms, but the basement of the house is rented separately to chain smokers. The odor permeates the whole house, not to mention our hair and clothes.

Sinus problems and health risks aside, I have a sensitive nose and would just like to smell something else for a change. Does anyone have tips to minimize the smell other than Febrezing the crap out of everything?

Is there anything I can do (short of moving out) to minimize the health risks of living in the land of perpetual smoke? -Holly

Here’s the bad news/official answer from

Multi-unit housing where smoking is allowed is a special concern and a subject of research. Tobacco smoke can move through air ducts, wall and floor cracks, elevator shafts, and along crawl spaces to contaminate apartments on other floors, even those that are far from the smoke. Second hand smoke cannot be controlled with ventilation, air cleaning, or by separating smokers from non-smokers.

Ok, so according to those guys, you’re shit out of luck: no amount of ventilation, air purifying, or closed doors is going to block the smoke or minimize health risks. That said, maybe there are some coping methods Homies might be able to share?

Homies, both smoking and non: how do you minimize the creeping smell of cigarette smoke?

Comments on How can you cope with the smell of smoking housemates?

  1. I used to live above a chain smoker. The maintenance guys gave their best shot at relieving the smell but they were unsuccessful. They tried caulking around my doors and windows, additional insulation… No luck. They just let me move units. Good luck =/

  2. Though I haven’t really had this problem (I have lived with smokers, but the housing rules were that you had to smoke outside), but maybe a portable air purifier or two would help. Someone else may have a better opinion on whether or not those truly work, but it might be worth a shot.

    • The air purifier we got (it was a pretty large one) works really well with cat poop smells, which used to permeate our entire house. But I don’t know how well it would work against smoke.

    • I believe those things are basically mini ozone generators, which are terrible for you in their own right. It might make the air smell better, but you might just be replacing one lung poison with another.

  3. As an ex-smoker I found that Lemongrass essential oil is great for clearing the air.
    If you leave a small, open container of baking soda near the door (I even used some old tights to wrap up some and put it in the air duct) – then use a diffuser to spread the lemongrass scent it really helps.

    • This isn’t an option for a lot of people in this situation. If someone doesn’t have the money to move, they’re kind of stuck. Deposits on new apartments, a vehicle to move furniture, increased rent if it would involve moving out of a family or roommate situation, and other moving expenses can be prohibitive. Also, a tiny shitty apartment may have neighbors that smoke, vermin issues, and so forth that make them unhealthy as well.

      • Thank you! I’m currently living with my inlaws because I have no other choice, and they smoke a LOT. They go outside in the summer but as it’s currently -40C they’re inside and smoking up a storm. My bedroom, and that of my toddler, is right below theirs. My clothes, her clothes, everything we have is constantly bathed in cigarette smoke but I literally cannot go anywhere else. It’s just wonderful being one of the hidden homeless.

      • Yep. We live in the Baltimore suburbs (places in a decent school district and allow pets seem to be at least $1600/mo and we’re living off his GI Bill stipend). My husband is going through the process of getting his veteran disability stuff straightened out and while he’s looking, he hasn’t found a job that will accommodate his school/appointment schedule without killing him. Since his stipend varies with the number of classes he’s enrolled in, etc, it isn’t considered verifiable income when it comes to considering us for an apt. I’d love to move. Hell, I’d rather live in the city in a crap school district and just homeschool, but I’m not the only decision-maker in the house. In the meantime, I bought a bad air sponge and it seems to be making a bit of a dent, so I’m going to try to get several more placed throughout the house.

  4. Some states have laws about smoke-free public spaces in residences; in Maine (where we live), residents of a shared space cannot cause any shared space to smell (and therefore be) smoky. Anyone violating that law can be evicted and fined pretty heavily. After we reported our former neighbor (who chain-smoked in her apartment, causing our stairwells and hallways to basically reek 24/7), she was fined and told she had to either stop smoking in her unit or leave. It sounds like this might be tricky in your space, but it could be worth asking your landlord if there are any rules in place that could help you.

    • It sounds like the original poster lives with family who smoke, and they also rent part of the house to smokers. It’s unlikely the owners (her family) would be sympathetic and evict smoking renters when they smoke themselves.

    • How did you find this info about Maine, I am in NY and having this problem. And other problems as well. but I need the smell to stop I live i Duplex. i wonder if NY has the same laws. I have looked , should I consult a lawyer? how did you find your info?

      • I can’t find specifically find the law that Goldfish Fox mentioned…unless it’s the law the says that smoking is prohibited in any enclosed public space? Maine does have a smoking disclosure law (landlords must inform tenants whether or not smoking is permitted (and if so, where) and whether or not they will be exposed to second hand smoke), and landlords may prohibit smoking at all in their buildings if they choose.

        • I found the law online – I believe it was part of the state’s database of rental laws and statutes – and confirmed it with my landlord. It’s partly as Jamie said in Maine: landlords get to call the shots as far as prohibiting smoking in the buildings, but there is also a law against smoking in any shared spaces – which I guess is the “enclosed public space” law. Technically, according to both my landlord and the very compassionate pro-bono lawyer I chatted with (melissa – it’s VERY worth checking to see if your area has any legal aid-type services available to help answer such questions), any interior hallways, stairwells, and lobbies are considered “enclosed public spaces,” and anyone who causes them to be smoky is breaking the law.

  5. In terms of protecting your health, the only thing I’m aware of that helps is creating negative pressure (ie, the room wants to pull in air from the outside, rather than push air to the other spaces) in the rooms where there is a smoker, but that really only works if they are on a separately controlled ventilation system. A high MERV rating on your air filter would probably help a little and would be an easy change (though be careful, because it can affect your utilities costs and you need to be sure your HVAC system can handle it).

    As far as hiding the smell, I agree with others — lemongrass oil (try the Body Shop), baking soda, maybe those little draft blocker things for under the doors, etc.

    • I was also thinking about creating negative pressure- maybe the smokers could sit next to window fan that blows air out? And in her room, she could have an inward facing fan to blow fresh air in from the outside? That’s assuming the windows aren’t next or on top of each other. And also that it’s not winter…

      Cigarette smoke is highly irritating to my eyes- they get crazy red and won’t stop watering if I have to stand next to a smoker. I couldn’t deal with this living situation.

      • I had a roommate once that would smoke – but only in his bedroom. He would open the window and have a fan blowing whenever he would smoke. I didn’t have any issues with smell, and I actually didn’t know he smoked until one day he left his bedroom door open.

  6. If you live in rented housing and there is a landlord, you might want to see if the landlord could start instituting rules on no smoking inside so all the smokers have to go outside to smoke. If the housing is owned (and it sounds to me like it might be), then negative pressure actually isn’t a bad idea. I once visited the home of some of my ex-husbands relatives several years back and I remember being surprised at how non-smoky their house was even though they smoked in the home quite a lot. They just had some window fans set in the windows that sucked the indoor air out and blew it outside. They made sure to only smoke right next to them though, which I think is key. They can’t suck the smoke out as well if the smoker is far away from the fan. But it really did work because the house did not smell nearly as bad as other smokers homes I’ve smelled over the years.

  7. I used to live across the hall from a very heavy smoker in an apartment complex. The first thing we did was add an extra barrier. I have one of those door draft blockers, like a foam roll that you nestle up against the bottom of the door. It helped to keep odors from seeping under the door. If you can also add foam insulation around the door frame to your “area” that should help, too. The next thing I would do is vacuum at least weekly, to help clean up any soot or sediment from the floors (carpet or wood flooring). If you’re particularly sensitive, also wash your walls with soapy water at least monthly, and then apply an emollient like Pledge or Old English to keep dust from collecting in the first place.
    Also, my husband is an engineer. We’ve got one of those large HEPA room air filters – it’s about the size of a garbage can, and can clear a whole room in about an hour. We put that right next to the door to create “positive pressure” so there is less likelihood of air coming in through the door.
    Since it sounds like you live in a space that may have central air, I would also put HEPA vent filters on the vents in your space.
    So as far as your space goes: block, clean, and create positive air pressure. For scent issues, I would try one of those automatic air fresheners that spritz every 15-30 minutes. My gym uses some of these, and it smells rather lovely and not like sweat at all.

    • I thought of a few more.
      For your hair, there are spray products on the market that remove the smokey odor from your hair. They’re marketed for people who like to go out to the bar, but then don’t wash their hair right away.
      For your clothes, if you can, run them through a wash with extra rinse cycle. My husband is allergic to cats, and this is the best way to remove “cat smell” from clothes. Febreeze also makes a laundry scent remover meant to work on smokey clothes, but I believe vinegar in the rinse cycle should do the same thing.

      • My husband smokes and my job requires me to be in other people’s personal space. For my hair I steep a jar of dried rosemary in apple cider vinegar for a month, strain and dilute 1:1 with water. Every morning I rinse my hair with this, but I imagine spraying on would work too. Rosemary is great for concentration, hair loss and dark hair, and vinegar is great for removing odours.

  8. My husband has smoked inconsistently for the entire time I’ve known him. Recently he switched to the e-cigarette, and then to a vaporizer. He says it’s WAY better than real cigarettes. And the “smoke” is actually water vapor that smells like whatever flavor he chooses (usually watermelon) and disperses quickly. I don’t even notice when he’s smoking inside. He still gets his nicotine fix – but his lungs don’t hurt, and he’s able to measure and control how much nicotine he puts into his body.

    I don’t know if your roommates would be willing to switch – but maybe if you just brought one home from 7-11 for each smoker they would try it out. My hubby switched just cuz I asked him about e-cigarettes one day. He hadn’t thought about them before, but then he tried it, and there’s been no looking back…after all, smokers know better than the rest of us that it’s bad for them……

  9. It is always easier to remove yourself from a situation than waste the energy trying to live with it and being miserable. Being miserable is exhausting.
    I was once in a similar situation, but the in-laws I was living with were as bad for my mental health as my physical health. The trouble was, I was convinced that living with those people was the only option, and otherwise I was out on the street. THAT IS NEVER THE CASE. You always have the option to change your situation and move into one that is better for you. In my case, I got out of the terrible relationship and left him and his crazy family to live however the frack they wanted, but I understand your marriage might not be the thing you need to get away from. You do however need to get away from his parents. They might be great as in-laws but clearly as housemates and landlords, they don’t really hold your comfort as a priority. They are not the only option, and you and your partner deserve to be happy and comfortable in your home. If you have to take a second part time job, or apply for a student loan, just do it. You can even try applying for on-campus housing, or low income housing. A small kitchen is a small price to pay for your health.
    When you get out of the shower, and the cold air hits you with a smelly stale cloud that immediately clings to your wet hair, and then you go to the closet and put on your clean clothes that already smell like a crowded bar, then you go to have breakfast but there is a full ashtray on the table next to the butter dish, your mental health is suffering. It’s not just your lungs that are in danger here, and you need to take care of yourself. I hope you find your way.

  10. I have a super sensitive nose and air purifiers with “ionizers” make things much worse for me–many produce ozone as a byproduct of the “ionization” process. I’m really sensitive to ozone apparently, because of course I am.
    If your landlord is handling the replacement of your air filters–or if, like me, you cheap out on this kinda stuff–buy yourself a really nice, anti-allergen air filter. Replace it when you’re supposed to–or even sooner. Get or make an air filter for your air vents and replace them frequently.

  11. We have one of these big ass air filters:

    Though I haven’t tried it on cigarettes it works great on hookah and burnt-food smoke, as well as all manner of stinky chemical smells.

    The downside is that it’s pretty damn expensive (ours is a super-lucky hand-me-down, but it’s expensive enough that moving might be cheaper) and it’s a big ole hulk of a thing.

    I’ve heard vodka and water sprayed on things can help get the smell out- same with vinegar. But honestly… I’d do whatever I could to move. It’s not worth the health risks.

  12. Air purifiers that release ozone are actually not that great for you. Especially if you’re running one in a small space. It’s actually probably as bad for your lungs as the incidental secondhand smoke, if not worse.

    Regular tower style air filters (ours came from Sharper Image, which I believe is defunct now, but I paid 10 bucks for it at an estate sale and they can often be had very cheaply this way) work great on cat odor, mildew, and smoke odor. I smoke outdoors only and have a “no smoking inside the house” policy for guests, which I know won’t work with your situation. I would say a regular air filter, coupled with something inside your air ducts that emits a pleasing smell (like baking soda sachets with essential oils, as others have suggested.) If you can convince the tenants to do the negative pressure/fan in the window thing that would be great and would probably make a big difference to you. Creating negative pressure in your space would possibly only suck more smoky air in.

    I don’t know how the tenants are…whether they’re nice people or not. Have you talked to them about what is going on? As a smoker, I admit to being annoyed by the constant stream of smoker hate that people seem to feel free to engage in, and it really bugs me that there are places where I would be not allowed to smoke in my own home if I chose to. However, I also wouldn’t want to be making someone else miserable and not know it. If I were in their shoes and you talked to me about the problem, I would try very hard to do whatever I needed to do to make sure you weren’t miserable in your own home either. If that meant going outside to smoke, I’d do it. (Bonus, you smoke WAY LESS that way.) It is possible that they don’t even realize that you can smell the smoke, because I guarantee you if they’re that heavy smokers smoking inside they can’t smell it. Maybe at least try talking to them about opening the window and running a fan or something. Your inlaws are their landlord…at the very least that might make them reconsider chain smoking with the windows shut all day long.

    • My brother-in-law switched to e-cigs when he found out how much it was bothering me (his bedroom is across the hall.) MIL still occasionally smokes in her room, but was open when we said we’d buy her the e-cig. The problematic roommates are the basement dwellers. They are dickheads. Our landlord (who is my sister-in-law’s uncle) has ZERO backbone. They have apparently not paid their rent in several weeks and he won’t kick them out because they are a couple who was in rehab with him back in the day and he thinks it important to their recovery to provide them a roof. He’s a terribly nice man, but not a great landlord. I’m hoping we’re able to move sooner than we think, but I will definitely try the essential oils and look around for a cheap air filter. Thank you!

      • Ugh. That sucks Holly. I’m sorry. I hope that the tips you get from this help you some, and that you guys are able to get the heck out of there as soon as possible. Life is too short to have your health and happiness be in the hands of dickheads. Good luck.

  13. Have you tried a Lampe Berger? I think there are some other brands that make the same product, too.

    They help clean the air and get rid of smells that linger around, way more effectively than a candle or air freshener. I’ve never personally used one to try to get rid of smoke smells, but I’ve heard that they work for that. You can choose a bunch of difference scents, or no scent.

    I have one and it’s amazing for getting rid of cooking smells (bacon smells really good when you’re about to eat it, not so much a day later), hedgehog cage (if we leave it a couple days too long between cleaning it smells pretty much like a cat’s litter box), mildew smell/general mustiness.

    Some scents are better than others at combating certain things, so if you find a retailer that carries these, be sure to ask the sales rep what’s good for getting rid of cigarette smells. I think someone above mentioned lemongrass, so something citrus might work well. My husband usually hates scented things, but he like the scents we found, so there’s something for everyone.

    Obviously this isn’t going to get rid of the smell completely, but I don’t think anything will as long as you’re still living with smokers.

    I had a friend in residence at university whose mom smoked, but always by an open window or outside, and everything she owned smelled like smoke for at least a few months after moving out. It’s a really hard smell to get rid of.

    • I should also mention that they burn an alcohol-based solution, so they are different from oil diffusers, and you can’t use them interchangeably! Some people ruin their lamps by trying to put diffusing oil in them instead of the alcohol fragrance.

  14. For a while my roommate smoked next to an open window, and it was alright. But then something changed, and I could smell it often. I told her it was bothering me, and she immediately volunteered to only smoke outside. It has been 100% better. If you aren’t really equals, this kind of conversation might not work out so easily. But it never hurts to try. I agree with the answer; you can’t get around it if someone is smoking in your house. If they won’t smoke outside, it would really be in your best interest to research other living options. Good luck <3

    • I live in an apartment building and for a while we had upstairs neighbors who would smoke in the hallway next to an open window, which doesn’t work in the winter because cold air is denser, which means it pushes inside and it carried the smoke right down the stairs into my apartment. They left, but now there’s heavy smokers down the hall. I have a draft-blocker tube that I made, but I can still smell it near the door a bit.

  15. Something like an aroma nebulizer will help clean the air a bit, but also add lovely scent if you use aromatherapy essential oils in it. You can get citrus ones and all kinds of things. I love them, but haven’t tried them out in a smokey environment.

  16. Really, nothing is going to seriously minimize the health risks, but there is a lot that you can do about the smell.

    1. If you have carpets, have them professionally steam cleaned and deodorized. If you can’t afford to have it professionally done, rent a steam cleaner from the grocery store and go to town.
    2. Launder all of the launder-able fabrics in the apartments; curtains, comforters, etc. Toss in some white vinegar with the wash.
    3. Wash the walls with a bleach or vinegar and water mixture. (There’s also stuff that you can buy at the hardware store that is specifically designed to remove nicotine from walls. I used this in an old apartment once and it was totally disgusting. I could literally see the tar and old smoke dripping down the walls).
    4. If you can, repaint. Put up two layers of kilz, and then latex paint.

    After you get out the old smell, you can try to stay on top of the new. You can put activated charcoal out near where you think the most smoke smell is coming in, and you can frequently sprinkle the rugs with deodorizer before you vacuum. Clean surfaces with water and vinegar.

  17. I have not read the comments so I apologize if someone has suggested it but if you are willing to spend a little cash, an ozone machine will do the trick. I work at a non-smoking hotel and this is what we use when we catch guests smoking in our rooms. You can order them off amazon from like $98 and above.
    Otherwise the other options I would suggest is a type of plug-in air purifier (might be cheaper but not as effective?? never tried before). Lastly, of course would be something like air fresheners along the lines of Scentsy or Wallflowers. Unfortunately in a situation like this I don’t know if there is much you can do unless you want to get a new vent system or move out :/
    That’s all I can think of! I hope someone comes up with something good!

    • I would recommend researching the ozone machine first. We had them in my hotel as well, and I was told they could cause harm to a person if the person was in the room with them for too long. I have no clue if that’s bullshit or not, so I would just say “do your homework.”

      • Good point! I have heard that before, too. I have been told you cannot be in a room while it is being Ozoned. That process usually takes an hour. It is my understanding that there are no long term effects of exposure, but you can get head aches, nausea, and dry eyes if you stay in the room. But I could be wrong! So OP, if you decide to use it, make sure you do some research of your own and I’d say use the timer, too. Perhaps plan on turning it on and returning to the room after you’ve been to work/school/etc.

        • This is absolutely true. I have worked for a maid service that used ozone filters to rid places of bad lingering smells (heavy smoke, rotted food that tenants threw in the floor when they were evicted, once a dead body) and they work…but you shouldn’t be in the room with them. The large professional ones, anyway. The personal ones they sell are less scary, but still not great for your lungs or your health, I actually think it’s pretty irresponsible of companies to make them available to people. Especially the “personal” ones that go around your neck. Ozone is poison. 0_O

  18. For the short time I lived with smokers two small air purifiers really helped me, but they where smoking outside. The smell on all of their things bothered me and I couldn’t deal with their door being left open. I don’t know how I’d manage if they had been smoking inside.

  19. I knew a couple of chain-smokers once who kept a bowl of white vinegar out on their coffee table all the time. They said it can just grab smoke right out of the air. This was three years ago so I honestly don’t remember how well it worked (and I was usually smoking with them when I was there). It’s worth a shot, though. Good luck.

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