Odor Removal: Stop Stink With the Science of Smell

Use the Science of Smell to Remove Bad Odors

Humans and animals alike must use their available senses to experience and interpret their environment and ensure their safety. Of all your senses, your sense of smell may be the most important for learning more about the world around you. While you may initially think of your sight or hearing as crucial to navigating your daily experiences, different odors can provide far more information about your surroundings and your food sources than you may realize.

The way something smells can have a profound impact on you: your emotions, and your behavior, even your spending habits1. Pleasant, inviting, or simple scents can encourage consumers to make purchases2, but pungent smells may just have the opposite effect. If a restaurant has an off-putting odor, guests may leave and eat somewhere else that smells more inviting. If guests stay, this unpleasant background aroma may taint their experience and give them a lasting negative impression of the restaurant and its food. In this way, smell can have a huge impact on a business’s bottom line, especially those that serve food.

Combating strange or unpleasant smells can be one of the most difficult challenges you face when establishing and growing your business. No matter what industry you work in, you must keep your business clean, healthy, and safe for both your customers and employees. To do so successfully, you need to understand how smells work and how they can affect your business — and how you can leverage the science of smell to rid spaces of bad odors.

How Smell Works

Much like your sense of taste, smell is a chemical sense3; your body is able to discover chemicals in your environment and essentially translate them into a scent. When you inhale air, scent molecules enter your nose and dissolve in the mucus in the roof of each nostril. Sensory cells underneath that mucus then detect that odor and transmit a signal to your olfactory bulb, which is a bundle of nerves in your brain. Finally, your brain interprets that signal as a specific odor and synthesizes it into a physical experience or sensation.

Unlike your sense of taste or touch, your sense of smell reacts to a stimulus almost immediately. Other sense stimuli must travel to your brain through neurons and your spinal cord, but your ability to smell is linked directly to your brain. Because of this close proximity, your sense of smell is also closely connected to your memories, emotions, and mood.

A growing body of scientific research shows that smells can evoke emotions4, make you recall memories5, and even affect your behavior6. In other words, smell can do far more than just make people wrinkle their nose at a disagreeable odor — it can manipulate experiences and influence human behaviors.

The Smell of Clean

For businesses, this means that you can use the power of scent to your advantage. Research indicates that the brain’s ability to distinguish between “good” and “bad” smells7 comes from the need to survive. From smell alone, you can help ensure your survival by assessing risks and avoiding potentially hazardous environments and food sources. Simply put, bad smells indicate that something is unsafe to consume or be near, while good smells suggest that your surroundings and food sources are safe. In modern life, follow food safety best practices and never rely solely on smell to determine if food is safe.

While a strange scent can drive customers away, a nice smell can create a positive experience for customers and incentivize them to support your business. Further, because scent is related to memory, you can use scent to help them remember how enjoyable and clean your business is. Creating a strong first impression that your business is clean and safe won’t just satisfy your customers during their first encounter with your organization; it may even help them remember how enjoyable their experience was and encourage them to return in the future.

What Is Bad Odor?

Bad odors or scents are distinctive smells that are typically some combination of unpleasant, undesirable, or unbearable. They are caused by volatile chemical compounds that rise into the air, which are detected by your nose, and then translated into a scent by your brain. Without fail, bad odors are caused by something or come from a specific source. Common causes of bad odors include:

  • Feces, urine, and vomit;
  • Sweat and body odor;
  • Rotting or spoiled food;
  • Fungus, mold, and bacteria;
  • Smoke and tobacco.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of bad odors, and it’s worth noting the subjective nature of scent; what smells strange to one person may smell nice to another. However, one study found that molecular structure may play a role in humans’ perceptions of scent8 and determine whether something smells good or bad. Generally, heavier molecules that are spread out are more frequently associated with a bad smell, and molecules that are lighter and more compact are often thought to be more pleasant. Further, most things that have a bad smell are considered to be unsanitary, unhealthy, or unhygienic in some way.

Removing Bad Odors

For this reason, it’s crucial to remove any bad odors in your establishment, lest your customers begin to associate your business with the smell of rot or decay. Your entire staff must be trained to clean properly and effectively, including odor management and removal. In many instances, this may be as simple as sanitizing or disinfecting surfaces and objects that come into contact with an odorous material. Some odors, though, may be persistent or the result of a different issue altogether, such as mold or smoke. Luckily, there are a few steps you can take when dealing with an odor that’s difficult to get rid of.

Identify the Source of the Odor

Before anything else, identify where the odor is coming from. You won’t be able to get rid of the odor if you don’t know where it is. Based on the smell, you may know immediately what the source of the odor is. Common culprits include trash cans, the bathroom, sinks, dishwashers, and kitchen drains , but it could be anything (or anyone) in your establishment.

Some odors can be trickier to locate than others. When a scent is hard to find, pay close attention to your surroundings. When and where do you notice the smell? What are the conditions or your environment like when you do notice it? The simplest things — such as whether a window is open or closed, the air conditioner is running or not, or a certain person is in the room — can give you clues as to the source of the odor.

Identify the Type of Odor

Next, you have to determine what the cause of the smell actually is. Certain scents may only be temporary, such as a customer’s body odor, but others may be trapped or embedded, like unsealed grout that’s soaked up food waste or a cloth chair that’s been continuously exposed to tobacco smoke. Still, others may be easy to clean up but a repetitive problem, such as smells of urine or fecal matter from the bathroom or the stench of dirty dishes that will soon be washed. When you know what type of odor you’re dealing with, you’ll be much better equipped to remove it.

Create a Plan of Action

Finally, you need to determine the best way to address the odor and take the proper steps to get rid of it. For most smells, the typical plan of action can be broken down into three key steps: cleaning, disinfecting, and then removing the odor.

First, you need to clean. You need to remove any visible materials and food from the surface or object that came into contact with the source of the odor. You won’t be able to properly sanitize, disinfect, or remove the odor without cleaning it first.

Sanitize or Disinfect
After cleaning, you should sanitize or disinfect the surface or object. This is particularly important for smells caused by potentially hazardous materials, such as human waste or rotten food, and will ensure that no one else accidentally comes into contact with it.

Sanitizing reduces the presence of any bacteria, viruses and fungi on a previously cleaned surface to safe levels. This is generally reserved for food contact surfaces.

Disinfection eliminates pathogens and microorganisms that may be potentially infectious or responsible for the smell. When using disinfectants, there are several best practices to keep in mind:

  • Use a disinfectant that has been approved by and registered with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, as well as each state’s EPA.
  • Follow FDA Food Code guidelines9 for sanitizing dining areas and food contact surfaces in a restaurant or cafeteria.
  • All high-touch surfaces in your business should be disinfected regularly, especially those that come into contact with the public.

Many scents, even persistent or lingering ones, will be gone after disinfection and deep cleaning.

Odor Neutralizers, Removal, Remediation, or Replacement

Finally, try to determine the best way to neutralize any scent that may still be lingering. A pleasant-smelling candle or air freshener can help minimize that stale odor, and could possibly even have an effect on the spending habits of your customers.

However, that isn’t always enough to truly get rid of an off-putting odor. In some cases, you may need to remove and replace the smelly object or surface entirely. When choosing a replacement, always consider how easy it will be to clean and maintain the new surface or object — otherwise you may find yourself in the same situation in the future.

Getting rid of bad odors is an important part of keeping your business clean, appealing, and welcoming to customers. It can be challenging, but it certainly isn’t impossible. As long as you’re prepared to deal with unpleasant odors when they arise and know how to use the science of smell to your advantage, you can ensure the health of your customers, employees, and business as a whole.