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5 Things You Need to Know About… Removing the Smoke Smell From Your Clothes
We often talk here at Cigar Advisor about how the aroma of a good cigar is one of its most appealing qualities. But truth be told, there can be too much of a good thing: when that stale cigar smell of last night’s Liga Privada lingers a few days too long, we’re left wondering whether we’re better off burning our clothes and buying new ones.
So how to get fresh again?
I had originally written a version of this how-to for the Summer ’18 edition of Cigar Journal magazine…but for those of you whose New Year’s party clothes are still wadded up in a ball o’ stink on the floor next to your hamper, now is a good time to revisit the topic – as there is hope for your holiday threads. Be advised, there’s more to it than just hanging your coat outside until it’s un-stunk…so we’re going to hash out five things you need to know about getting that smoke smell out of your clothes and explore some methods to breathe new life into your lucky smoking jacket before the next cigar night.
Why the Smell of Smoke Sticks in Your Clothes
Before we get that leftover smoke smell out, we should take a minute to figure out how it got in there in the first place (and so stubbornly, too). Technically, cigar smoke is a byproduct of the incomplete combustion of tobacco; it’s primarily water, oils and ash. Ash is an especially interesting animal: it’s what didn’t burn. These non-combustibles are mostly minerals, such as magnesium and potassium, and they’re kind of sticky – evidenced by the mark it leaves on your shirt when you drop that sweet long ash on yourself.
The oils and fine ash particulates that get released into the air as “smoke” are what carry the aroma. It’s the same as when you fry food: as the grease heats up and your battered haddock filet starts to brown, the airborne oils and crispy batter particles get stuck in the weave of your shirt – leaving you smelling like you just pulled a double behind the cooktop at Long John Silver’s. And as long as these tiny particles stick to your clothes, you’re gonna smell them.
Skip the Home Remedies
The internet is chock full of hacks and home remedies for getting the smoke smell out of your clothes. The bad news is, most of them don’t work; the worse news is that you may do more harm than good. And many of the ones I read were pretty far out: one called for adding mouthwash to my load of laundry; another told me to spot-treat my suit with olive oil. Another life hack genius said to spray my clothes with a 50-50 vodka/water mix, or stuff the fabrics in a bag with used coffee grounds. Since I’m the skeptical sort, and would never do any of these things to my clothes on purpose – I went to my local pro. Buddy Croft owns and operates Eagle Cleaners in Clarks Summit, PA; I’ve been taking my “good clothes” to him for a few years (quick turnaround and never a broken shirt button!), and decided to ask him about these supposed remedies for smoky clothes: “I wouldn’t recommend any of these. At worst, you could ruin the fabric. Best case is you’ll smell like you spilled vodka in your ashtray, then dropped it on your shirt,” he said.
How the Pros Get the Smoke Out of Fabric
To get the stink out, fire restoration companies will put the affected items – your clothes, your upholstery, etc – into an ozone chamber, and bombard the material with O3 to break down the oils and release the ash and soot particles. Great for your curtains, but overkill for freshening your guayabera.
As for Buddy, he explained how the dry cleaning process – which, ironically, isn’t really “dry” – cleans clothes: “When we dry clean a garment, we use a solvent. There are soluble fats in the smoke’s oil – those dissolve, and the leftover particles are picked up in a dry clean ‘detergent.’ If you washed your clothes at home, the particles would be redeposited in the wash water and sully the load. Here, the detergent binds with the particles; then everything is filtered, and the particles are caught. The tar is dissolved, and the rest of the soot is carried away.”
I’m dumbing down the process here, but it’s actually pretty intricate with all sorts of science and chemistry stuff happening. But before your dry cleaner gets his hands on your smoky duds, you have a little legwork to do – you’ll need to remove as much of the smoke smell and residue as you can before your garment gets cleaned…and the best way I found is this method from Michael Herklots, at Nat Sherman Cigars:
You’ll need: garment steamer, garment bristle brush.
Step 1: Hang your offending garment in fresh air (try to find a place that’s under cover).
Step 2: Brush the cloth really well to loosen the smoke particles sticking to the fibers.
Step 3: Steam the front, then the back of the fabric.
Repeat Steps 2 and 3 at least once; I do it twice, to be thorough. Then, leave your shirt/jacket/whatever to hang in fresh air. After a full day on the hanger, you should notice that most (if not all) of the smell is gone. Then it should be ok to wash them, as long as the clothing is ok to be put in a washing machine. I say play it safe, and send it to your dry cleaner.
Seem like a hassle? It beats the alternative: “Cigarette smoke is worse – sometimes you can’t get rid of it,” said Buddy.
Heed the Tag
If your smoky wearables are non-washable fabrics, they demand your dry and delicate touch. Don’t waste your time with dryer sheets – they won’t remove the smell of smoke from the fabric, only mask it. For this tip, pull out your vacuum cleaner and be a friend to your finery…
You’ll need: a box of baking soda, a heavy-duty vacuum.
Step 1: Spread the fabric out flat, and sprinkle baking soda across the entire surface.
Step 2: Let it sit for 24-48 hours.
Step 3: Go outside and give that shirt a good shake, getting rid of the loose baking soda.
Step 4: Vacuum away the baking soda that remains. Be gentle – if you press the vacuum nozzle too hard into the cloth, you’ll end up mashing the smoke particles deeper into the cloth.
Repeat all three steps until the fabric is freshened.
Just like we use baking soda for absorbing smells, this works on your gear because you’re giving the smoke particles something to stick to before you suck it all up with the vacuum.
Rags to Riches – Spray Your Way to Freshness
I’m including three product recommendations to help you get fresh…one you know, the others you definitely need to hear about:
That’s a no-brainer. But why? More science: Febreze’s active ingredient is called cyclodextrin – and on the molecular level, the compound has a shape that’s kind of like a donut. When you spray Febreze, the odor-causing particles get trapped inside the donut “holes” – never to be smelled again. Chemist Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine wrote about it at thoughtco.com: “As Febreze dries, more and more of the odor molecules bind to the cyclodextrin, lowering the concentration of the molecules in air and eliminating the odor.” Then, you wash away the smoke particles.
Whiff Out comes in two forms: a crystalline deodorant powder that gets added to your ashtray, eliminating the stale smoke smell at the source. It’s said to provide a “more luxurious ashtray experience,” and is similar to activated charcoal (just note that even though you sprinkle it in your ashtray, don’t rest your cigar in it). According to the manufacturer, you can also use the powder the same way as the baking soda-and-vacuum method I described earlier.
The other is a water-based spray version of Whiff Out that actively deodorizes the smoke smell on contact, and replaces it with a subtle, fresh scent. Conveniently travel-sized, too. Both are natural products, meaning no chemical reaction.
Re-Fresh Smoke Odor Eliminator is a 4-ounce, non-aerosol spray that’s formulated with natural citrus oils to quickly neutralize the odor of stale smoke (and other rank stuff). Each can is good for about 750 sprays, and is available in your choice of 10 scents, ranging from the lighter Crisp Cotton and Vanilla Bean to more aromatic choices, like Cinnaberry and Juicy Tropical. If you just want a clean, fresh fabric with no smell, try the Zero – it’s unscented. Bonus: besides your clothes, you can use Re-Fresh on upholstery, in your car, or even just a quick spritz to freshen the air in the room.
So there you have it – Five Things you need to know about getting the smoke smell out of your clothes, and a couple of trusty how-to’s to get your gear fresh again. Just remember: your fabric has cleaning and care instructions for a reason – so if in doubt, always test on an inconspicuous spot of the fabric first. Also, even though I’ve consulted some professionals to help with the info here – I’m not an expert, I’m just passing it along. I highly recommend you need to consult a pro cleaner if you’re going to follow this (or any) advice. Especially the weird home remedies online. Better safe than sorry.