Thursday, May 19, 2011


Ask a Clean Person: Spilled Nail Polish and Mysterious Smells

This may be impossible to answer, but here goes: My studio apartment has a mysteriously bad smell. It's not mold (at least not the kind I'm used to smelling on sponges or towels left damp too long), and it's not food... It's sort of a musty smell, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, that seems to get stronger or weaker at random — though it never fully goes away. What might this be? And is there a top-to-bottom cleaning process that might eliminate the mysterious source? Air circulation is not great because the windows are only on one wall, but I do have a window fan...help!

Well, hmm. I’ll level with you and say that it's tough to accurately identify “mysteriously bad” smells and prescribe a solution via the Internet — but the good news here is that I don't think you need to do a top-to-bottom cleaning of your home. (Well. Do one anyway? Just for funsies!? You can even lie and say you did. I’ll believe you.) What I think is going on is that you have an abundance of moisture in your home. I had this once too! And there is an easy solution for it!

There's a product called DampRid that is the most phenomenally weird and fantastic thing. It's these, like, pellets and you put them in the little plastic bucket they come with and then you stick the li'l bucket in a corner and then, like, after three or so months it will be full with the water it's been absorbing from your home. It's so cool and gross. Seriously, you’ll love it. (Also when it’s full you just flush it down the toilet la la la gooood-byeee!)

Anyway, give that a whirl and maybe set out a bowl of white vinegar for a spell to help absorb the smell? Or buy one of DampRid’s fun scented versions? You might also want to consider getting a standing fan to place in the interior of the apartment to help with circulation if space and your decorating choices allow for it.

Help! My boyfriend just kicked a bottle of hot pink nail polish off of the coffee table. The neck broke and nail polish went all over the floor. I mostly was able to wipe it off of the sealed hardwood (there's still some pink residue, but it isn't super noticeable), but it splattered onto my nice cream wool rug. I'm scared to use nail polish remover in case it eats through the fibers or something? Can it be salvaged, or does he have to stand on a chair in the corner with a "rug ruiner" sign around his neck? Is there a way to get the hot pink residue off of the hardwood?

Well certainly, put the sign on him! I mean, I’m never going to object to signshaming the menfolk. Please.

While he’s busy in the corner Thinking About What He Did, you can go get yourself some Motsenbocker Lift Off (#3). (They have a whole line of Lift Offs, but #3 is what you want for nail varnish.) That will work on both the rug and the hardwood. The Motsenbocker (and seriously how fun is that to say??) site includes a “where to buy” section, but most hardware-type stores will carry it.

Hey gang, Jolie here! I’m changing things up a bit and asking you, my beloved Dirty People, to answer a question for me: What are your favorite green products/non-toxic cleaning solutions? What delightful shortcuts have you discovered on the way to saving our great green earth? What products do you substitute for those nasty hazardous chemicals like bleach?

Make your voices heard by submitting suggestions or leaving them in the comments. Select answers will be used as part of a very special episode of Ask a Clean Person.

Previously: Toilets, Ovens, and the Importance of Rubber Gloves.

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?

Photo via Flickr

99 Comments / Post A Comment


I almost always use baking soda when I clean. It's gentle abrasiveness makes things nice and shiny, and it absorbs smells very well.


@rhoswhen ditto to the baking soda. cleaning a garbage disposal (yes, i am a clean freak who cleans my garbage disposal) is *so* easy with some vinegar and baking soda. it's like a middle school volcano right in your kitchen sink!


@rhoswhen ditto times two - baking sodal also works really well to clean the sink, deodorize things, and clean out drains (yay to the volcano!)

rien à dire

@rhoswhen Nothing takes care of ring around the tub like baking soda.

Btws, Jolie, do you have any tips for preventing that gruge in the first place (apart from a daily shower spray, of course)? Do you think Turtle Waxing the tub would help, or is that just total bananas?


On Nail Polish: In the event that you set down your Walmart bag with your brand new manicure supplies and your Redbox chick movies too hard and the bottle of pretty purple polish breaks and ruins everything, do not use nail polish remover. Just call customer service and sound panicky and maybe even cry and hope they don't charge you $50 for movies you didn't even get to watch. Just a heads up.

Question: Does anybody know of a safe way to get nail polish remover off of DVDs?


Borax, baking soda, and vinegar. My gran used to swear by it. Smells bad, but cleans well. (I don't do any cleaning myself because I'm a slob, but I know it works.)


White vinegar cleans *everything*. Stainless steel, glass, cooktops, etc. I always have a huge gallon jug of it in the house. Also Mrs. Meyers. Love the lavender stuff.



I am a white vinegar evangelist -- it's magical!

Also, Bon Ami and/or baking soda is THE gentle scrub.


@Sassypants Love Mrs. Meyers! The geranium smells kind of like the superposh Jo Malone white mulberry scent and it makes me actually enjoy doing dishes. "La la, is this glass in the cabinet dirty? I think it is!"

Pound of Salt

@Sassypants Do you dilute the vinegar with water or anything or just "apply directly to affected areas?"


I had to register to put in a shout for white vinegar (even though I'm sure everyone knows about its miraculous properties). We keep a big spray bottle of vinegar solution right beside a pile of old T's for spot cleans and as a general surface cleaner.


Weird smell question - one of my radiators smelled like maple syrup the other night. Should I be concerned? Or is fenugreek the new heating rage?


@perfect_cursive I'm pretty sure it's not Northrax. Hopefully it's just waffles.


@alpelican Fred Armisen *does* have a habit of popping by and then crouching in the corner.


@perfect_cursive If you see something, say something!


@perfect_cursive Is there coolant in radiators? That makes sense, right? Because they get hot? On Car Talk, a woman called with a maple syrup question (but about a car) and Click and/or Clack said it was likely an anti-freeze leak.


I'm a big fan of everything Mrs. Meyer's lavender. It just smells so damn good!


Does anyone know if that lift off stuff will also get nail polish out of jeans? Not that I'm clumsy and spilled purple nail polish all over my favorite jeans or anything...

Jolie Kerr

@hearththr It will!


@Jolie Kerr Um, would it get nail polish out of a cashmere sweater? For a friend.


Also another good use for white vinegar? I use it as the fabric softener in my wash load for laundry! I let a lot of my clothes air dry, and they get kind of "crunchy" that way. White vinegar works miracles and is great for my sensitive skin too, as some of the laundry soaps and fabric softeners irritate my skin.

elysian fields

@MotherChucker oooooh good one! I also air dry most of my clothes. Will try this next time I wash. How much do you use? just a tbsp per load?


@MotherChucker I second this! I use it in one of those Downy Balls and my things come out so soft.

Hot mayonnaise

Warning: the nasty (in a good way!) stuff that will dissolve nail polish will very likely also dissolve/harm the finish on your hardwood floor.


@Hot mayonnaise I "borrowed" 100% acetone from work to get up a nail polish stain once and lol yes problems.


DampRid sounds perfect for my basement, Jolie, thanks! The big trick will be to keep the dog from eating it.


i really want to be on board with the white vinegar...BUT, THE SMELL!!! Gaaahh!! how do we get over the smell when we are willy nilly cleaning everything in sight with it!??


@ThundaCunt I wonder if you could infuse it with something in the spray bottle? Like stick a bunch of herbs in it? And then make pickles with the leftovers?


@ThundaCunt The smell goes away pretty quickly... I dilute mine 50-50 with water and open a window after. I live in a 200 sqft apartment and used some half an hour ago and I can't smell it, I promise!


@ThundaCunt you could also fill a small spray bottle with a diluted essential oil of your choosing (lavender works particularly well) for a strong homemade air freshener! it will kill (or at the very least severely diminish) the smell.


I swear by Atmosklear odor neutralizer. It works on EVERYTHING to get rid of funky smells. I simply scrub like the dickens and then give it a once over with the Atmosklear and it has yet to fail me. Mold, musty stuff, smoke and even cat pee.

Hot mayonnaise

@SuperMargie: "like the dickens" = automatic +1

Hot mayonnaise

Certain types of clay, when dry, will suck up a ton of water (from the air or otherwise). A lot of kitty litters use clay to suck up cat urine. Is Damp Rid any different than kitty litter? Kitty litter is probably cheaper.


Mr. Clean Magic Erasers are the only product with Magic in the title that lives up to it's name. Bathtub grime, countertops, walls, leather sofas - just add water.

no way

For the weird smell asker - sounds a whole lot like something may have died in your walls/under your floor. Do you live in an older structure? The smell will change from musty to sweet (gag) and all sorts of other olfactory adventures. Then it will gradually diminish. I have no idea how to clean/prevent this from happening, but there you have it. If that's what it is, it's gross but it will go away.


@no way: That was my first thought, too: dead mouse, if you're lucky; something... larger if you're unlucky.

Also, check your cupboards for a stray onion or potato -- a rotting vegetable could be another culprit.


Seventh Generation cleaning products - I buy them all the time - they work really well (at least, I, as a moderately clean person can't tell the difference), and don't smell chemical-y. They have a good bathroom cleaner you can buy in grocery stores, etc.


@Ophelia That thyme scented disinfecting stuff is awesome. I still sort of don't 100% believe that it works, but I love the smell.


@thatsrealbutter I also found a lemongrass one (different brand, but same shelf) for the kitchen that smells so good I want to eat it.

Emma K@twitter

@Ophelia The all purpose/floor cleaner smells AMAZING. It makes me look forward to mopping.


I once got hot pink nail polish off my bathroom floor (not that I dropped a full bottle of it on my first day in my new apartment or anything-- the fast-drying kind too! Oh God-) with a Mr Clean magic eraser.

As for green cleaning, I use vinegar/water 50-50 in a spray bottle to clean my cat's things (the smell dissipates in like 5 min, just open the window) and Mrs Meyers for my things. Baking soda added to the laundry gets super-funk clothing stink out of workout clothes.

Crossover post: Jane on DIY/green make-up or bath stuff?


@fishiefishfish Dammit, I just deleted my comment. But I wanted to put a word in for Tarte in terms of eco/green make-up. I have an excellent eye shadow palette (Femme Naturale, I think?) and their tinted moisturizer is really good, equaled only, I think, by Stila's. Finally, thanks to Jane's amazing glowy skin tutorial, I actually got one of their bronzers, and it looks really terrific, especially for pale-skinned/red-haired girls. So, not DIY, but they're definitely all about the green thing. As for bath stuff, I LOVE Biggs & Featherbelle soaps. They smell amazing, and are made entirely by a team of two sisters in Maryland. I use their soaps pretty much exclusively: http://www.biggsandfeather.com/


@dietrich Ooh, Tarte! I have their lash-stain non-mascara stuff, and I love it. Perhaps I should expand my browsing!


RE: Weird Smell. Does your fridge have a drip pan? If it's not a tiny bar-type fridge, it probably does, right underneath. People forget about them all the time and they can get naaasstaaay. You should be able to reach right under the front, grab, and pull it out. It's just a small tray to collect, yep, drips from the dehumidifying process going on inside the fridge. Give it a rinse and a follow-up swipe with the oft-saluted white vinegar, and you're good to go.

Kristin M Bonelli

I recently spilled hot pink nailpolish, shattering the bottle so it ALL spillec, all over my friend"s white kitchen floor. After trying to wipe it and only making it worse I let it dry and then used that Mr. Clean magic erase stick and it worked LIKE A DREAM


Toothpaste is AMAZING at getting anything off anything.


@El: Yes! I've used it for everything from cleaning my silver to filling very, very small cracks in the paint of crappy rented apartments to scrubbing droplet-type stains from white clothing. As long as you don't mind smelling a little minty, it's fabulous!


This is not a product per se, but for slow drains, I always try using a toilet plunger before proceeding to the crazy toxic drain openers. The plunger has worked many times. Just plug the other opening in the sink (you know, the little air hole thing at the top of it) with a wet washcloth and fill the sink with water and start a'plunging. You have to have a strong stomach for the gunk that this will bring up into your sink, but just wear gloves and wipe it out and enjoy your new speedy drain.


@katerrific Ew. *runs off to try it*

Don't Panic

@katerrific And if that doesn't work, the next step is a Plumber's Snake. It's essentially a long (like 25 feet long) metal spring that you twist down your pipe until it corkscrews into your clog. Then you just reel it back in like a fishing pole and the clog comes with it. You can get them from Home Depot or Amazon for less than $20 and they work really well. Can be a little disgusting when you pull it out and it's ensnared with a wad of old hair and soap, but way better for your pipes and the environment than Drain-O and the like.


@Don't Panic Also, doing the baking soda & vinegar experiment down the drain followed by a pot of BOILING hot water about once a month keeps everything moving smoothly in a preventative drain health kind of way.
I learned that from Real Simple like 11 years ago before it turned into Real Big Slab of Nothing But Ads.


@katerrific ooh! would this work for a bathtub? because I have to Drano that sucker like every other month, and it is the WORST.


@alpelican I'd say give it a shot with the bathtub, but you may need the plumber's snake. I've clearly thought too much about it, but I don't think hair comes up as readily as chunks of food or toothpaste or what have you that would be in a sink.

Don't Panic

@katerrific I've seen plungers work on bathtubs too - in one spectacular example the maintenance guys at my college were able to plunge a plastic stopper out of the tub drain (why it was down there, Lord only knows), which I still don't understand the physics of. But it required three guys, two plungers (the second to cover the emergency drainage hole) and much vigorous plunging. The snake might be a more reliable option. But for stubborn drains, a combo of the two might do the trick.


@katerrific There's also this stuff that's like a can of pressurized air, but specifically for drains. I don't know what it's called, but you jut block that little hole, pump a few times, and it shoots a big ball of pressurized air down the drain. More effective than a plunger, but probably less green. But way more cool.


Once you have your drain cleared, use a drain cover - they're plastic little baskets that fit over the drain. I use one in the shower and it catches soooo much hair and soap scum. We've gone from calling the maintenance guy every other month to never having to have the drain unclogged.


@DrFeelGood Ditto on the drain hair-catcher. I used to have to Drano (yes, sorry) my bathtub every few months and now I just scrape a wad of hair off the catcher every day! Hurrah! (Um, this sounds sarcastic, but I really love that hair-catcher.)


DampRid is THE SHIZ.

Also, I lurve Method cleaning products. I really like their lemongrass antibacterial kitchen cleaner (which uses thyme oil as the antibacterial part, not gross chemicals) and their glass cleaner, which smells like mint. Sometimes I clean my windows just to smell the cleaner (HAHA J/K I NEVER CLEAN MY WINDOWS). But the two times I did, they smelled lovely.


Hello, lovelies! Could apple cider vinegar be used in place of white vinegar?
Thanks a bunch.


@Barracuda It can, but girl it is like 4x the cost.


Bon Ami is my favorite "green" cleaning product. I use it on many surfaces and also stainless steel cookware.


I make a lot of my own cleaning products - it ends up working pretty well and is extremely cheap. You can make a nice all purpose cleaning spray from castile soap - I usually add some essential oils to make it smell nice. You can also use this as a base and tailor it. For example, add tea tree oil if you want to kill mold/bacteria (but for the really bad situations just revert to bleach or diluted bleach alone), add vinegar for bad smells, dilute and add rubbing alcohol for cleaning glass (the rubbing alcohol changes the surface tension - getting rid of streaky problems). For a really good cleaning scrub, make a paste with glycerol, baking soda and castile soap. For cleaning greasy stains - use something with a basic pH (this is actually how you make soap in the first place! so depending on what you use, you can actually turn the gross grease into a soap-like substance). Also for minor (MINOR!) drain clogs, ye olde vinegar and baking soda trick works pretty well (just be sure to pour the baking soda down the drain first)
If anyone is interested, I can put up the exact amounts I use later


@cattron I am interested. I'd also be interested in knowing how safe these things are with my precious kitties. Right now I'm getting by on white vinegar, but I know I'm going to have to clean some more serious messes at some point.

Thank you, my dear.


For the person with the weird smell: my apartment used to have a bad, recurring smell that would come and go, and it didn't particularly seem like mold, but it was -- caused by a pipe that was slightly leaking in the wall (not leaking enough to cause visible water anywhere). You might want to have your landlord check it out. They can do a "peppermint test," adding peppermint oil to the water system and then walking around to smell the air for peppermint coming out of any leaks.


I have no idea how "green" this is (probably not very?)but soap scum doesn't stand a chance against fabric softener. I usually use the dryer sheets since they're slightly abrasive, but regular liquid works, too. Your hands feel soft and the bathroom is April fresh afterwards.


not sure if this qualifies as "cleaning," but my mama always taught me to grind up any leftover lemon peel in the disposal. gets rid of that funky smell and (I assume) cleans off some of the gunk that can get trapped?


@mangosara Yeah! And someone told me to microwave lemon zest in a bowl of a little water to get any funky food smells out of said microwave.


not sure if this qualifies as "cleaning," but my mama always taught me to grind up any leftover lemon peel in the disposal. gets rid of that funky smell and (I assume) cleans off some of the gunk that can get trapped?


Vaguely damp smells are the worst! This is a smaller scale tip, but are you anywhere near a Japanese mini mart or grocery? You can get these disposable dehumidifying packets for closets and cabinets and drawers. They are amazing and so necessary in summer humidity. You will be amazed at how much water is absorbed from your underwear drawer, even.


re: bad smeller...could be damp plaster (in the walls), which tends to hold water for*ever* and will get smellier on hotter or more humid days. The walls have to be replastered (or re-sheet-rocked) before the smell will go away. I've been there, it sucks.


My one and only cleaning tip is using mint toothpaste to polish any tarnished metals (silver in particular).

I don't know what actual silver polish is made of but it smells pretty bad so I'm just going to assume it's toxic (and didn't the butler in Great Gatsby get nose poisoning or something from it? Yeah).


Ooh ooh I have a silver cleaning tip!

Line a glass bowl with aluminum foil, place tarnished jewelry in the bowl, and completely cover the jewelry with baking powder. Meanwhile, boil some water. Pour the boiling water over the baking/soda jewelry in the bowl (a little at a time!) If it smells like sulfur, it's working. Allow it to sit for a bit, then check the jewelry (use something plastic or wooden, not metal!) If it needs more cleanin', put it back in the bowl and sprinkle more baking soda and pour more water. Works every time!


@Nutellaface Yes, but baking SODA, not baking powder. Tarnish on silver is sulfur compounds from the air that react with the silver. The heat of the water is the catalyst that makes a chemical reaction happen to remove the tarnish. It's CHEMISTRY! It's non-toxic, and won't pit your silver like some ammonia-based cleaners can do. It usually won't harm stones (although some dyed ones might be lightened by the process, so beware) and it's also safe for pearls.

Christina Williamson


don't make my mistake.


My favorites are the usual suspects: vinegar and baking soda. Salt is great for cleaning cast iron pans. Borax will unclog a drain. Oh, and I use Oxyclean instead of chlorine bleach.

Michelle LeBlanc@twitter

I'm usually such a lurker, but I had to log in and be the bearer of bad news here - bad smell asker, is there any possibility you or someone near you has bed bugs? I know this is terrifying, but once I had them and they leave this kinda nasty sweet-sour smell from their dead bodies hanging out. I hope that isn't true for you and it's just a leaky pipe or something!

Jolie Kerr

You guysssssss!! Do you know how cool you all are? You are so so so cool! Thanks for all the great tips, both here and in email (and OMG wait until you hear what one girl does with a grapefruit!)

Huggies and kissies and spritzies with vinegar solution!


@Jolie Kerr That grapefruit thing isn't going to be another yeast infection cure, is it? Because I'm pretty...er, roomy, and it's all I can do to get the half-lemon in there.


I had ants start to come in to my house the other day and I thwarted them simply by moving the coffeemaker where they were coming in. I threw a lemon over there for good measure. They apparently HATE the smell.


One more for white vinegar- use it instead of Jet Dry in the dishwasher. It works like a charm!


Jolie - that's Zoya, isn't it?


Cheap-arse vodka can be scented with essential oils (check to make sure they are natural/pure, with no added color) to disinfect and freshen. It works on fabrics and in the air (but, again, for the fabrics, no "fake" oils -- I had a tangerine one that had an orange dye in it. Bad.) Works on clothes, too.


@raksasi One more excuse to be a lushy housewife!


Reading all of this ALMOST makes me want to clean! Thanks for nearly motivating me.

Countess Sandwich

I had a similar Weird Smell situation once: it turned out that my neighbor had taken to smoking pot in the courtyard right under my window. You'd THINK I'd have realized that the smell was pot, but when you're not smoking pot yourself, you don't jump right to, "my apartment smells like pot." Also, his pot smelled odd. ANYWAY: could the smell also be something your neighbors are doing/cooking?

Mysterious Bad Smells are so annoying.


Dr Bronner's lavender soap will get linoleum floors squeeky clean


waiiiiit i forgot my favorite cleaning trick of all time!! put a denture cleaner tablet in a ziploc bag with some warm water and rubber band the bag around your shower head (or other gunky faucet). the same thing that cleans your grandpa's dentures and your little sister's retainer also works WONDERS on faucet buildup.

and also, white toothpaste (*only* white, no blue streaks or flavor flecks or anything) can buff dirt stains out of white sneaks.

Sara Keeth@twitter

I go back and forth between using homemade non-toxic stuff and super-strong toxic things I buy. Mostly I'm a sucker for good packaging. My favorite non-toxic thing is... drumroll, please... a microfiber cloth. Seriously, they clean just about everything.

But I'm totally down with baking soda. And I use vinegar to make my crystal all super shiny (yeah, I'm an old lady like that, but I got that Waterford bowl as a gift when I got my MA and I'm leaving it out on display FOREVER).

Also there's this stuff I buy at the hardware store called Folex and it will get ANYTHING out of white carpet, and there's absolutely no smell. It's made of magic.


Oil of Thieves. Its name is derived from (reportedly...) four thieves who, during the 15th-century plague, used cloves, rosemary, and other aromatics to protect themselves while robbing plague victims.

A drop into a spray bottle filled with water makes a household cleaner that kills germs and smells fantastic, too. (Also: crazy story of origin. You can't say that about Windex.)

You can blend the various oil yourself, buy the oil blend premade, or just buy cleaning products made with it.

Dora Gordon@facebook

you should buy the book "Better Basics For the Home" by Annie Berthold-Bond. It has green alternatives for every situation. I love it and use it all the time.


Bright red nail varnish all over my new wood floors. Ahh! Spraying gallons of hairspray and then wiping away actually got rid of it. Such a relief (and cheaper alternative to re-varnishing the floors)!

dottie chang

I got this tip from the UK show "How Clean is Your House?" The UK version is the best and they promote lots of green cleaning techniques. The US version is obviously sponsored by a specific brand of cleaning product. Watching this show is great for a pre-cleaning pep session. It's like Hoarders but with two British mums helping you clean.

If you want to freshen a carpet, deodorize a skinky room or battle dust mites try making a vodka based spray with some tea tree oil or eucalyptus oil. I fill my spray bottle and then add about 15-20 drops of oil. I then spray it on carpets, my bare mattress/pillows and other places that could use it. When the vodka dries out, it doesn't smell like alcohol it just smells fresh. I use cheap-o trader joes brand.


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