How to get a musty smell out of a room

Damp, musty smells can happen to even the best-maintained homes
By
Updated on May 16, 2024
Written by
Jeff Somers
Jeff has been writing for HouseFresh since 2023. He lives in Hoboken, NJ with his wife and their cats, and has published nine novels and more than fifty short stories. In addition to writing for HouseFresh, Jeff also covers topics connected to home ownership for Lifehacker,
TL;DR

Musty smells in your home are usually the result of mold and mildew growth, which is not just unpleasant but potentially unhealthy.

Getting rid of musty odors starts with identifying their source. This typically involves a water, humidity, and/or ventilation issue in the home.

Cleaning and airing out the space combined with a high-quality air purifier can eliminate odors—but they will come back unless you take steps to permanently rectify the situation.

These steps include repairing water-damaged areas of the home, improving ventilation, and establishing a regular cleaning schedule.

When a room in your house has that stale, earthy odor it’s not just unpleasant, it’s potentially hazardous to your health. That’s because a “musty” smell is often caused by mold and mildew growth, which release microbial volatile organic compounds (mVOCs) that cause that distinctive smell. Mold can be dangerous, causing allergic reactions and respiratory problems that can worsen with extended exposure.

If you smell that distinctive musty odor, covering it up might make the room more pleasant, but won’t protect you and your family from potential health risks. It’s essential that you discover the source of the odor and eliminate it.

Step 1: Track down the musty smell

Your first step in the war against musty smells is to find out where it’s coming from. The areas where you should focus your search include:

1. Bathrooms and kitchens

The wet rooms in your house are the most obvious culprits when it comes to mold growth and stale air. Look for

  • Leaking pipes under sinks
  • Damp showers or walls
  • Forgotten spills under appliances
  • Kettles or pitchers that weren’t drained properly
  • Trash areas where dampness can proliferate under plastic bags

If you have leaky pipes, call a plumbing professional and have them repaired or shut off the water to that area. Mop up any dampness or standing water, clean out trash receptacles, and clean visible mold or mildew stains from walls.

2. Basements, garages, and crawl spaces

Dark and infrequently visited, these areas often hide water leaks or general dampness that inspires mold growth.

Look for a leaky roof, leaking pipes, or exterior water incursion. Soak up any standing water and make repairs as necessary. If there is visible mold, call a professional mold remediation professional to have it treated.

3. Water damaged areas

If your home has experienced flooding or roof failure, look for signs of water damage including stains on walls or ceilings or warped wood flooring.

Water-damaged materials should be removed and replaced. If replacement isn’t possible immediately, a short-term fix is to clean the area thoroughly using bleach, vinegar, or a commercial mold cleaning product.

4. Laundry rooms

Laundry rooms are often damp and humid. Add in the regular influx of stinky clothes and damp towels, and your odds of finding the source of your musty smell here are pretty good.

Start by giving your washing machine a deep clean. Look for forgotten piles of dirty clothes or gym bags. Ensure that none of the pipes or drains in the area are leaking, and repair as needed if they are.

5. Pet beds

Pets can be a source of musty odors in your home. These odors aren’t linked to mold, but pet dander can cause allergic reactions and other health problems as well.

Thoroughly vacuum and wash your pet’s beds and blankets on a regular basis, and use a vacuum designed for pet hair when cleaning the house.

6. Garbage

Moisture can become trapped between the plastic garbage bag and the interior of your garbage can, creating the precise dark, damp conditions that mold loves. Add in a leaking garbage bag, and you have a recipe for musty odors.

Clean your garbage cans regularly, and use high-quality, tear-resistant garbage bags.

Step 2: Get rid of the musty smell

Once you’ve identified the source of musty smells, making your home free of these unpleasant odors requires a little elbow grease.

1. Thorough cleaning

Start by cleaning the whole house. Even though you’ve already cleaned up the affected area, mold spreads by releasing spores that travel through the air, so more mold might grow in the house. Pay special attention to carpets and upholstery, where odors can become trapped. Use baking soda to make them smell fresh again.

2. Air out the home

If the weather is warm and dry, opening windows and letting fresh air and sunlight into the home will help push the lingering musty odor out and discourage further mold growth. Change the filters on your heating and cooling systems as well, and run them on fan mode to help circulate the fresh air throughout the whole space.

3. Use a dehumidifier

Often, damp conditions exist in your basement or crawl space. One good way to reduce humidity and the potential for mold to grow that causes musty smells is to use a basement dehumidifier or a crawl space dehumidifier. Be aware that if you have a very serious issue with dampness or mold, you may need to contact a professional contractor.

4. Use air fresheners

If the musty smell continues even after you’ve removed the source, using air fresheners until it fades away naturally can be helpful. Just be aware that this might be masking the problem in the short term.

5. Use an air purifier with HEPA and activated carbon filters

Lingering dampness and staleness in the air can be effectively dealt with using an air purifier that combines HEPA filtration technology and activated carbon filtration. Air purifiers with HEPA + activated carbon effectively remove bad smells from a room’s air because they remove the musty smells and mold spores in the air.

Tip

To help deal with musty smells and mold particles, our number one recommendation for small budgets and rooms is the Core 300S. If you have a room larger than 219 sq. ft., then our top pick is the Levoit EverestAir.

Step 3: Prevent musty smells from coming back

Don’t let all that effort go to waste! Once you’ve eliminated those musty odors from the house, you’ll want to ensure they don’t return.

1. Repair leaks and water damage

Suppose you elected to use a short-term solution to deal with water-damaged areas of your home. In that case, the only way to ensure that the musty smell doesn’t return is to remove the damaged materials replace them and have any plumbing issues addressed by a professional.

2. Improve ventilation and reduce humidity

High humidity and poor ventilation conspire to make your home a welcoming space for mold and mildew. Increasing the air circulation in the home can help prevent its return:

  • Change HVAC air filters
  • Install or run ceiling fans or other types of fans to keep air moving
  • Open windows to let fresh air enter the home, and raise blinds or shades to let sunlight in
  • Use a dehumidifier and air purifier regularly
Tip

Are you trying to get a musty smell out of a room without windows? Read my guide on how to ventilate a windowless room.

3. Regular cleaning

Now that you’ve cleaned the odor-causing mold and dirt out of your house, make sure it doesn’t return by setting up a regular cleaning schedule. Make certain to focus on the areas in your home where you discovered mold or other odor-generating problems when tracking down the source of your musty smells.

Wrapping up

Fresh, clean air is something we often take for granted. A musty, damp smell is a warning that something isn’t right in your house. The good news is that dealing with stale air and that musty smell is often straightforward: Perform a deep cleaning of the house, improve air circulation, and use tools like air purifiers to keep things fresh.

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About the author

Jeff Somers

Jeff has been writing for HouseFresh since 2023. He lives in Hoboken, NJ with his wife and their cats, and has published nine novels and more than fifty short stories. In addition to writing for HouseFresh, Jeff also covers topics connected to home ownership for Lifehacker,

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