Thursday, May 5, 2011


Ask a Clean Person: The Smoker's Dilemma

I have a gross cleaning question! You see, a previous renter apparently used to smoke in the bathroom, and over time the smoke stains + bathroom condensation have formed all these yellow beads on the (painted drywall) walls. They're tacky like dried craft glue, and when I first noticed them I blamed my boyfriend for somehow peeing on the wall. Not attractive. And they're EVERYWHERE, on the walls and the ceiling.

I've tried using Windex, vinegar, and bathroom cleaner, but nothing works except scraping each bead off with my fingernail (and even then it leaves a little yellow ring.) Do you have any ideas short of power-washing this room, or should I just continue to avoid touching the walls?

I laughed for, like, 90 minutes at the mental image of you berating your boyfriend for peeing on the walls. Seriously. That is so completely hilarious to me, I love you.

I think you’re going to need to take a two-pronged approach here: First, you’ll need to deal with the beading and when that’s complete, you’ll need to tackle the staining. For the beading, get yourself a scraper tool (you can find these at the hardware store). Actually, get two — ask your boyfriend to help you out (“YOU PEED ON MY WALLS, IT’S THE LEAST YOU CAN DO”) because it’s gonna take some elbow grease. Once you’ve gotten the beading off, mix up a bucketful of cleaning solution. Either bleach or ammonia (but not together! We all remember that lesson, right?) is really going to be the best thing here, but if you’re really opposed to chemicals you can make a vinegar solution instead. Use a large sponge and/or a scrub brush to wash the walls, drying each section as you go with a rag. Depending on how much wall space we’re talking about here, you may choose to use rags to do the washing.

Good luck out there — nicotine stains are beastly!

Help! I had a totally gross roommate who smoked in his room for about seven months, and now that he's gone I'd like to rent the room to a normal human being with actual senses, but how can I?! The smell! It's everywhere! How do I get rid of it!?

One of my pet Clean Person tricks is to set out a bowl of white vinegar in a room that needs to be unsmokified; I generally don’t smoke in my home, but when I have friends over I often get drunk and permissible and let everyone (including myself) light up, so this is a thing that comes in pretty handy.

Depending on how bad things are with the room in question, you may want to wash the walls down with a water/vinegar solution in addition to setting out a couple of bowls of white vinegar. You’ll also want to remove and wash any blinds or draperies that might be holding onto the smoke smell. If you’ve got upholstered items that stink, try sprinkling a carpet cleaner on the surface and then going over it with a vacuum that’s been fitted with an upholstery attachment.

Opening the windows will help to keep the place from smelling like a Massengill factory.

Scenario: You're traveling and only have, like, two outfits for a weekend, end up in a smoky hotel bar one night, and have to wear an article of clothing (a shirt or something) again the next day but you're like, in a hotel. How can you best freshen it up?

A couple of thoughts before turning this one over to our esteemed commentariat for suggestions: Pack a stack of dryer sheets in your suitcase to keep things smelling fresh, and rub any smoke-smelling items with one or two of them to help remove the stench of your Parliaments. Febreze and Zero Odor market travel-sized spray bottles of their products, maybe pick one up and toss it in your luggage? If you’ve got a travel steamer, fill it with a white vinegar and water solution and give your clothes a once (or twice!) over. Et voila! Fresh smelling, wrinkle free garments.

Previously: Stovetops, Used Bike Shorts, and Yellowing Sheets.

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Is anything you own dirty?

62 Comments / Post A Comment


I'm gonna go ahead and just keep a bottle of vinegar in my pocket at all times.


@boyofdestiny: "Is that a vinegar bottle in your pocket, or..."

Matt Langer

"Previously: Used Bike Shorts"

"Previously: Used Bike Shorts"

"Previously: Used Bike Shorts"


For the person who is traveling - i remember dealing with this a lot in France. Oh those chain smoking Parisians! When you get back from the bars hang your clothes up, each piece separately on a hanger and leave out somewhere with air circulation. In the morning while you're getting ready, hang them outside if at all possible (i would just hang my clothes out the window) and then fabreze/perfume away. Hanging them up seemed to help a lot. You could even hang them in the bathroom - the steam from the shower could help get out some of the smell.


If you're hanging them in the bathroom and there's an exhaust fan in there, turn it on too.


@spiralbetty Ohh yea good idea! I am so glad they've banned smoking here... it's been a long time since I've thought about this!


Agree with hanging them up, it helps a lot! Also, spritzing your clothes with vodka can help remove smells.


yep - hang them out the window, overnight, if you can. they will be surprisingly fresh.


Does just drinking vodka and spilling it do the same?


Also, can the vodka be replaced with whiskey? Like, now?

Jolie Kerr

@cuminafterall First of all, your user name is AMAZING. Second of all: DOES THAT VODKA THING WORK? I've read about it in several places but????? Can you confirm for us???


Yep, vodka works! I heard about it from a theater-person friend and tried it when I went to Nashville, where they still let you smoke in bars (and carry guns, yikes). I hung my shirt up and sprayed it before I went to sleep, and the next morning the smell was gone.

I have not yet tried using flavored vodka to perfume my clothes, so I hope someone else will have to speak to that.

Sea Ermine

@DrFeelGood @joliekerr This is insanely late (like 3 years late) but I was rereading old posts to prep for a upcoming home cleaning and I wanted to add that you can put the vodka in a spray bottle and add a few drops of lavender essential oil and not only will it get rid of the smoke it will make your clothes smell amazing. This is also good for an upholstery refresher (I spritz my couch with it weekly when I flip the cushions) and great for spritzing on your duvet while it airs out at home when you're at the laundromat washing the covers.

Katie Walsh

So do the bowls of vinegar suck up the smoke smell?


@Katie Walsh I think the lesson is, if the answer isn't bleach, its vinegar! I use vinegar to clean out my coffee maker, the fridge, and other smelly places. I think it neutralizes scents, somehow...

Jolie Kerr

@Katie Walsh They do!

Jolie Kerr

@DrFeelGood I FOR SERIOUS PROMISE that the next couple of weeks will bring you answers that DO NOT involve bleach, vinegar or baking soda.

I'll make no promises regarding Magic Erasers though. God. Those things really are magic.


@Jolie Kerr Lol! I love it though. Means that the cleaning product industry will get less of my money. Plus I love going all MacGyver when I'm cleaning.


@Jolie Kerr ...Dumb question, but, how long do you leave out the bowls of vinegar?


@Jolie Kerr Don't even feel bad! Because last night I unclogged my drains with baking soda and vinegar all because of your tips. It worked, and it was fun! Fizzzzz!!!


@Jolie Kerr As an ex mural painter that prepped many a funky surface I always used TSP (trisodium phosphate). Leaves no residue and will clean about anything including wood.

Jolie Kerr

@jacqueline That's not dumb! Sorry, I should have specified: Overnight should do it, but of course things things always depend on how strong the smell is. For our friend with the smokified room, it might take a few days. For destinking a night of a few sneakied ciggies, overnight should be enough.

Jolie Kerr

@zidaane I Read about TSP but didn't recommend it because it's a super hazardous chemical!! But yes, if people are not afraid of it, try TSP. You can buy it at hardware stores or Home Depot-ish places.


@Jolie Kerr Your hands will be really smooth after with about three layers less skin.


@Jolie Kerr I can attest to the tremendous power of the TSP (thanks renovation man!), but we used a phosphate-free version of it (TSP-PF). Not so much hazardous stuff, and it's awesome because of no crazy odors/off-gasness. I'm asthmatic, so I appreciated that part. I use it to clean all painted/drywalled/primed surfaces prior to painting--do not use on bare wood, though! It totally cleaned up 50-year-old wallpaper paste! Whoot!

Tammy Pajamas

That's what those yellow/orange beads on the bathroom walls are?!


@Tammy Pajamas Not necessarily. It happens in my house and we don't smoke. Just steam from the shower dripping down the walls and probably picking up dirt.


I suspect it might be pigment coming out of the paint during condensation, or something? Something to do with the paint, anyway. I've been spraying my bathroom walls down with bleach about once a month to get rid of the yellow streaks and prevent them from beading up and hardening.


@Tammy Pajamas NO! I'm convinced it's hairspray.


@Tammy Pajamas Do you have a fan in your bathroom? We just finished a couple of bathroom renos, and my guy explained the gross yellow stuff was shampoo/soap/steam concoction that builds up because of inadequate ventilation. Gag.


@Tammy Pajamas @amydian: Those yellow stains are indeed seepage from low-quality paint. Treat as amydian suggests, but short of stripping the walls and repainting, the best thing you can do is make sure the room is well-ventilated.


After scraping off the beads, instead of laboring with the bleach/vinegar, maybe you could slap on a fresh coat of paint? If the walls are white/ otherwise easily matchable it may be actually less work, and would probably have a better result.


to #1, it's probably not tar or nicotine. it's your latex paint surfactant leaching out:

The following is from the Paint Quality Institute

Surfactant Leaching:

Concentration of water-soluble ingredients on the surface of a latex paint, typically on a ceiling surface in rooms that have high humidity (e.g., shower, bathroom, kitchen); may be evident as tan or brown spots or areas, and can sometimes be glossy, soapy, or sticky.

Possible Cause:

All latex paint formulas will exhibit this tendency to some extent if applied in areas that become humid (bathrooms, for example), especially in ceiling areas.


Wash the affected area with soap and water, and rinse. Problem may occur once or twice again before leachable material is completely removed. When paint is applied in a bathroom it is helpful to have it dry thoroughly before using the shower.

If you have an exhaust fan use it regularly and if possible open windows.


@vvv Thanks for explaining this better than I could! I once read about this on an Ask Metafilter threa.


@vvv Huh, thanks. (I'm Questioner #1.) That makes me feel a lot less gross about the walls, although I imagine it might be toxic anyway. Of couuuuurse our ghetto landlords glued and painted the window shut, so there's no way of ventilating the bathroom.


@wallsdonotfall Check local housing codes - non-ventilated bathrooms are probably illegal.


@wallsdonotfall Really? Ghetto? ....Really?

Ella Quint

Okay Jolie, here is a new weapon for ye olde arsenal of cleaning products - TSP - trisodium phosphate. !!WARNING!! This shit will eat through yer skin so gloves are totally neccessary. Dosen't really fume/off gas, but like bleach and ammonia NO MIXY-MIXING!!This handy stuff is the ULITMATE wall cleaner and in fact is sold as a prep cleaner for painting. It will power right through the nasty condensation-smoke beads without having to scrape first!


Fabric softeners and dryer sheets might be one of those things worth seeking out alternatives to. A bunch of the chemicals in them are listed as toxins by the EPA. I'm not sure if the green brand versions are much better, but maybe there's a non-toxic lavender-based product that works well?

Sorry to constantly sound like a crank--Jolie, I love your column and don't mean to undermine advice given here--but I work in water quality advocacy and know too much about how poor our understanding and regulation of toxins are in the US.


@spiralbetty Agreed. I switched everything to non-scented a few years ago for this reason, since all scents are basically VOCs, and now when someone uses scented laundry soap and dryer sheets on clothes I handle, it almost makes me nauseous. Not that there's still not bad chemicals in what I'm using... just less bad?

Ella Quint

Just wanted to add a lil' boast - was a renter for like 10 years and TSP always helped me get my damage deposit back in full. Even with smoker roomates.


What about Mr. Clean Magic Erasers for nicotine stains? Those things really are magic, they got ancient rust and other weird stains out of my tub and weird stains off my ancient rental apartment linoleum as well.

Jolie Kerr

@parallel-lines They'll work for the stains, but not for getting the pee-pee beads off her wall!


For the smoky room: In my last apartment, my upstairs neighbors smoked and it drove me berserk. The bowls of vinegar really, REALLY work. Since it sounds like this is a one-time fix, the other thing I'd suggest is the BAD AIR SPONGE:

It works like a charm. It has a bit of its own distinctive scent, but it's a thousand times better than cigarette smoke and you can air that stuff out. Get two and put them in there. Turn on a fan. Magic! They cost about $10 apiece at Bed Bath & Beyond, I think, and hardware stores probably sell them too.

Jolie Kerr

@underthesea Nice, thanks!!


Thaaaaank you Jolie. I don't know if I want to go to that kind of effort if it might just leach out from a new coat of paint when we'll be gone in six months, but maybe I'll leave a note for the next renter? "IT'S NOT PEE."

(he was really apologetic before realizing what I was talking about! and then indignant.)


Because I am A Lazy Person, but also don't like the weird orange-y brown stains that accumulate on my bathroom ceiling, I've found that using a Swiffer Sweeper with the wet cloths on it works pretty darn well without the need for a pesky stepladder or anything.


@DorothyMantooth They should have a column for us - "ask a lazy person"!


@DrFeelGood Hahaha! "But I don't feeeeeel like answering any questions this week."

Jennifer Michelle@facebook

@DorothyMantooth I've done this too! Works pretty well.


@DorothyMantooth OK that would be an inherent flaw of this idea... damn!


Dear Clean Person,

Is there anything that baking soda and/or vinegar and/or some other product can do for my stinky feet and/or shoes?

Jolie Kerr

@alpelican There will be an entire post dedicated to shoe issues of all kinds in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!!!


@Jolie Kerr Oh thank god because now that it's hot again, I am afraid my coworkers will hate me.


@alpelican A lot of stinky feet issues have to do with (ugh!) decaying dead skin. You gotta scrub that stuff offa your feet on a daily basis! Get one of those sandpaper-on-a-paddle-type thingies and keep it in the shower. Scrub a little each day, and it will help! Also, never wear the same socks twice, and try not to wear the same shoes two days in a row. You can stuff your shoes with charcoal briquets wrapped in newspaper to absorb odors. Or fill old socks with baking soda, tie closed, and stick those in your shoes to absorb odors.


@Jolie Kerr Yes, please please please write about this!


The thing for any kind of crap on a bathroom wall is some Cillit Bang oven cleaner and a Nylon scrubber. I know, I know, corrosive etc., but leave it on for 10 minutes and start scrubbing with a nylon scrubber and all the crap will just slide off. Didn't have beads but had near impossible to remove orange and pink scum in our shower. Now it's super clean! Caveat: rinse it off well, lest it eats through the walls or something.


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