Roommate stinking you in smells: Air freshener? Body odor? According to the research:
- Air fresheners can be hazardous to your health. Manage without.
- Explain your nose/breathing issues.
- Keep kids and pets safe with alternatives.
- Improve your roommate’s showering schedule.
- Adopt a more accepting mindset.
Part I: Your Roommate Is Using Air Freshener and You Want Them to Stop
“What is that? Is it an air freshener which my roommate has gotten? Oh my goodness! What a smell!!! What is up with my roommate?”
If that’s how you’re feeling at the moment, I totally understand.
Air fresheners cause all KINDS of problems for roommates, and this article has all the answers.
Here’s what you can do.
1. Manage without for the sake of your health
Personally, most air fresheners make me cough or even choke, so my roommates have had to do without.
I don’t feel bad whatsoever because science backs me up.
Study of over 1000 adults in the USA
This research found that products containing fragrances (air fresheners, shampoos and other personal care products, cleaning supplies, etc.) are a main reason for indoor air pollution.
The chemicals which create the fragrances can cause damage to human health.
Studies have found that even some ‘green’ and organic fragranced products emit (give off) air pollutants which are hazardous to our health.
Specific health damage
One of the chemicals which your roommate’s air freshener could contain is formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is used as a preservative.
However, even in very small quantities, formaldehyde affects our wellbeing in many bothersome ways. For example, it can cause us to cough or wheeze, have burning or watery eyes, feel nauseous or develop a skin irritation.
How much formaldehyde in the air is needed to cause these symptoms?
Not a lot—just a little more than 0.1 parts per million (ppm).
And just when you were saying, “What does THAT mean?”, here is the explanation by Zane Satterfield, P.E.NESC Engineering Scientist. Satterfield explains that 1 part per million is the equivalent of “an inch in 16 miles; a minute in two years; a second in 11.5 days”.
Hardly anything, right?
But wait! The amount of formaldehyde needed to be bothersome is only 0.1 parts per million—one tenth (1/10) of this amount.
How to manage without your roommate’s air freshener?
Tell your roommate about the health effects of her air freshener.
Suggest that instead, you keep your home well-ventilated by frequently opening windows. Use exhaust fans if available.
Ask her to develop a tolerance to smells. Unless they are very strong and stinky, the human body can learn to handle them.
2. Check out your nose
Does your roommate’s air freshener have a control? In other words, can he turn up and down the amount of air freshener which gets into the room?
If so, do an experiment: ask your roommate to turn the air freshener to the lowest setting.
Is it still a problem for you? If it is, you may have a nose condition.
Nose condition #1: Vasomotor rhinitis
The inside of your nose has membranes (thin sheets of cells). These membranes can get irritated (sore) or inflamed (swollen).
Irritation or inflammation of nasal (nose) membranes is called ‘rhinitis’.
Chemicals in the air freshener your roommate is using could be causing this condition.
It is not life-threatening, but it is very uncomfortable.
How to deal with vasomotor rhinitis?
Your healthcare provider can diagnose and treat you.
Some of the treatments your healthcare provider may suggest include saline (salt) nasal sprays, corticosteroid nasal sprays (to reduce inflammation), and decongestant pills (to open the nose by reducing swelling).
Tell your roommate about your diagnosis. Ask him to stop using the air freshener which caused it.
Nose condition #2: Hyperosmia
A hypersensitivity to smells is called ‘hyperosmia’.
Sometimes there is a known cause such as pregnancy, migraine headaches or a side effect of some medications.
Sometimes there is no known cause.
How to deal with hyperosmia?
Have your healthcare provider check you over to rule out anything serious.
In most cases, the treatment is to move away from the bothersome smell.
So, inform your roommate about what is going on. Ask him to respect your nose, and stop using the air freshener.
3. Use an activated charcoal air filter
Think of a sponge sucking up water. This process is called ‘absorption’.
Now think of those irritating air freshener particles sticking to an activated charcoal air filter. This process is called ‘adsorption’.
Activated charcoal air filters are effective at capturing volatile organic compounds…like that formaldehyde we spoke about in item #1 above.
Begin your search with The Wirecutter recommendations.
4. Protect your pets
Humans are not the only ones bothered by the air fresheners which roommates use.
These are not great for any pet, but they can be toxic for cats.
Cats do not have the liver enzyme needed to process and get rid of essential oils.
So, when the oils are absorbed through the mouth or across the skin, they stay inside the cat’s body and become poisonous.
If you think your cat may be suffering from essential oil poisoning, call the Pet Poison Hotline immediately: 1 (855) 764-7661. This hotline operates in the U.S., Canada, and the Carribean.
Make sure you have a cover (lid) and that it stays on.
Air freshener particles which get into the water could kill your fish.
Products which can endanger your fish include sprays such as Febreeze, automated scent sprayers such as Glade Plug-ins, scented candles, and perfume.
How to deal with roommates who use air freshener to mask pet odors?
When I researched this on the internet, most people felt that a straightforward, point blank approach was best.
Something like: “Do you smell my dogs/cats/hedgehog/lizard? Is there a bad odor from my cats/dogs/fish/hamster? Please be honest because I want our home to smell good to everyone.”
If your roommate says ‘yes’, accept it graciously. You love your pets, so probably, if there is a strong smell, you don’t feel it.
However, your roommate is not you.
Now, you need to have an open and honest chat about how to create a good-smelling home.
5. Deodorize with baking soda
Yes, the same ingredient that puts rise into baked goods can also keep your home smelling good.
How to make a baking soda air freshener?
In advance, assemble/buy the necessary ingredients. They are not very expensive, so be the bigger person and shoulder the cost yourself.
Invite your roommate to a natural air freshener do-it-yourself activity.
Have a bonding session which will also (hopefully) provide a more natural and less irritating solution to your roommate’s need for an air freshener.
- Smallish glass jars: recycle food jars or buy cheap ones from second-hand stores.
- A big box of baking soda: available in most food stores.
- 1 tablespoon of a scent per jar: scent ideas are a cinnamon stick; dried herbs such as rosemary or sage; lavender or other dried flowers; dried orange or lemon peel).
- Breathable fabric to use as jar ‘covers’ (lids): so the baking soda can absorb the odors and the scent can get out; good fabrics are muslin (like in baby’s diapers) or burlap.
- Ribbon or rubber bands: to keep the fabric lids on.
- In advance, wash your jars with boiling water and let them dry thoroughly.
With your roommate…
- Fill each jar half full with baking soda.
- Add 1 tablespoon of scent.
- Cut out a fabric cover—shape doesn’t matter: circular, rectangular or square.
- Secure the fabric cover with a piece of ribbon or a rubber band.
- Place on a shelf that pets will not get to.
6. Discuss your asthma
If you suffer from asthma, your roommate’s air freshener could make your symptoms worse.
Another study of over 1000 adults in the USA
This study looked at how fragranced products, such as the air freshener your roommate uses, affects people with asthma.
The numbers show that 64.3% of those studied had negative health symptoms from fragranced products: respiratory (breathing) issues—43.3%, asthma attacks—27.9%, and migraine headaches—28.2%.
The researchers also looked at which categories of fragranced products were most problematic for asthmatics. It found that air fresheners or deodorizers caused health issues in 41.0% of those studied.
According to the study data, 62.8% of these negative health effects would be categorized as ‘disabling’—in other words, preventing the asthmatic from living their regular life.
How to prevent your roommate’s air freshener from worsening your asthma?
Education is the key.
Share the research data with your roommate.
Explain that it is not just a whim or a preference. It is a significant health issue for you.
Most reasonable roommates will understand and work with you to find a compromise that you both can live with.
Unreasonable roommates? I hear the sound of you answering ‘rooms for rent’ ads.
7. Be careful of unscented/fragrance-free products
Unfortunately, these products may use other fragrances to hide the smells of certain ingredients.
How to know whether a product should be used?
Take a picture of the label. Go online and research the ingredients.
If there is a red flag with one or more of them, it will show up.
8. Keep babies and children safe
Accidents happen…even with your roommate’s air freshener.
Swallowing air freshener
Solid, cone-type air fresheners
A small quantity of a solid, cone-type air freshener is not very toxic.
The fragrance chemicals are imbedded (stuck into) the wax, and this makes it difficult to swallow a large amount of the toxic ingredients.
However, choking is a potential hazard.
Liquid air fresheners
Small amounts can cause the mouth to be irritated. Nausea and vomiting can also happen.
Large amounts act like a sedative (causing sleepiness) or alcohol (causing intoxication).
Spray air fresheners act in the same way but their risk is low. This is because it is difficult for babies and young children to operate the spray mechanism.
***Top toxicity risk***: Evaporating beads and reed diffusers
The beads are super easy to swallow. As a result, youngsters can swallow lots of them, accumulating a large amount of toxic chemicals in their bodies.
Since the beads hang around in the intestine (gut), they slowly dissolve, releasing their toxic chemicals over a long time.
The diffusers usually have open tops. This makes it easy for babies and young children to swallow a significant amount of the poisonous liquid.
How to handle air freshener poisoning?
Whether it is swallowed, inhaled (breathed in), gotten into the eye or gotten onto the skin, take action immediately.
You can check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for help or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
Note: This contact is the National Capital Poison Center. It is an independent, private, not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Their website states: “In recognition of its high quality, the Center is accredited by the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The Center is not a government agency.”
9. Keep babies and children healthy
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently tested 14 different brands of air fresheners commonly found in stores, probably including the one your roommate is using.
They found that 12 out of the 14 contained ‘phthalates’.
The especially tricky thing is that NONE OF THE 12 PRODUCTS had phthalates listed on their labels.
What are phthalates?
Phthalates are chemicals which disrupt (create an imbalance or confusion in) hormones. This is especially dangerous for unborn babies and young children.
Why is this hormone disruption dangerous?
Testosterone is one of the hormones involved with the male reproductive system.
Incorrect levels of testosterone can cause abnormalities (negative differences) in a developing reproductive system. These abnormalities include irregular genitals (penis and testicles) and low sperm production.
The effect on girls’ hormones is not yet known.
Other effects to both girls and boys are an increased risk of allergies, asthma, and blockage of the air passages in the lungs.
Studies also appear to show that phthalates may cause children to be overweight and shorter.
How keep unborn babies and young children healthy?
Well, your roommate might just have to stop using that air freshener!
If there is a pregnant woman or young children in the home, that’s a 24/7 deal.
If they are only occasional visitors
I don’t know for sure, but from the research I have seen, here are my suggestions:
- Stop using any air fresheners several days before the visit.
- On these no-air-freshener days, thoroughly ventilate your home by opening the windows and using any available exhaust fans.
- Vacuum carpets and upholstery.
- Have fume-protective masks on hand. These eBay offerings can give you an idea of what’s available. Most hardware stores and large DIY chains will have a selection in stock.
10. Get a sense of proportion
Is your roommate using air freshener a once in a while thing?
Does it happen several times a day?
Or is it somewhere in between?
Use a phone app such as ColorNote to collect data.
This app is like a virtual sticky note. It has a traditional sticky note format and a to-do list format.
My favorite is the to-do list.
How to get a sense of proportion?
- Make a ColorNote “Roommate Air Freshener” to-do list.
- Each time your roommate uses air freshener, write down the date, time, and a number between one and five (1-5)—1 = hardly any air freshener felt, 5 = way too much used.
- Collect data for a week and review.
- Based on your findings, decide what to do.
Is it a once in a while thing? Perhaps you can live with it.
If it happens more often, you will need to decide if that is bearable or just too much.
Do you feel that your roommate and her air freshener have gone over the limit? Invite her for a friendly chat.
Show her your data. Facts are mostly unemotional and often help to make your point without an argument.
Come to a compromise. One idea is a roommate air freshener timetable—she puts it when you are out and stops a few hours before you are due back.
Part II: Your Roommate Stinks. What Can You Do?
I am going to take a leap here and assume that you have tried air fresheners, but they are not working.
Just in case I am wrong, though, the majority opinion is that having a chat with your roommate before using an air freshener is recommended.
You don’t want your roommate googling to find Part I of this article, do you?
How to have that chat with your roommate?
You could say something like; “Just wanted to give you a heads up that I’d like to use an air freshener in the living room (or whichever room you wanted). I was thinking of using this one (show item). What do you think? Is this smell ok or should I look for a different one?”
This opens the door for your roommate(s) to voice any objections or health issues they might have.
Now, on to the other options which can fix, rather than mask, your stinky roommate.
1. Differences in showering awareness
While researching this topic, I found an interesting study about showering and swimming pools.
You know how you are supposed to take a shower before entering a public pool? Many pools even have an open shower at or just before the pool entrance.
Would you be surprised to learn that most of the people in this study did not pay attention to this rule?
Not only that, but when asked, these people did not really know that such showers are an important way to keep public pools clean.
This shows that not everyone has the same awareness of the need to shower.
How to increase your roommate’s showering awareness?
Obviously, you are not going to open the conversation by saying your roommate stinks.
Instead, diplomatically inform your roommate that they are difficult to be around due to their strong body odor.
Ask if they were aware of this. Has anyone else commented on the same thing?
If so, great! It will be easier to add your voice and suggest a more frequent showering or bathing schedule.
If not, keep going. Tell your roommate that it is really bothering you.
Request that they shower or bathe more frequently.
2. Differences in sensitivity to disgust
Data shows that females are more sensitive than males to disgusting things.
Sorry gentlemen, but this is not going to be a surprise for most of the ladies out there!
If the stinky roommate is male and the bothered roommate is female, this could explain why.
And since not all guys and gals are the same, it also could be that same sex roommate pairs have one more sensitive half and one less.
How to deal with your sensitivity to disgust?
Step 1 is to realize that a big part of the situation is you. Another roommate might have no issues with your roommate’s stink.
So, your roommate might not have a bad stink at all. Sobering thought, right? (But could be true none-the-less.)
Step 2 is to find a convenient time for the both of you to sit down and have a F2F talk.
Explain about your sensitivity. Ask for your roommate’s understanding and cooperation.
Together, work out a plan.
Components could include more frequent showering or bathing, a more vigorous schedule of airing out the house, air fresheners (natural or commercial), and a healthy dose of acceptance on your part.
3. Differences in diet
Shōgun: A Novel of Japan by James du Maresq Clavell was published in 1975. A teen at that time, I was captivated by this story.
I was not alone. By 1990, the novel had sold roughly 15 million copies all over the world.
Anyway…one of the most fascinating parts to me was this: the Japanese could smell the foreign Englishman coming because his sweat smelled different to theirs.
One of the main reasons was that the Englishman ate red meat, and they did not.
Not just a ‘novel idea’
Study after study supports the conclusion that our diets affect what we smell like.
The main culprits are: alcohol, coffee, asparagus, red meat, curry and cumin, garlic and onions, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.).
These foods and spices have chemical compounds which are excreted (come out) through your sweat glands. In other words, they change the way your sweat smells…and not in a good way, causing a big need for air freshener.
How to manage differences in diet
The first thing is your mindset. Now you know that your stinky roommate is not dirty or unwashed.
It is just a natural process that, unfortunately, doesn’t suit your nose.
If you were eating the same things as your roommate, he probably wouldn’t smell stinky because you would smell the same way.
So, there’s a solution! Anyone up for a beer and a steak or a curry and rice?
NO? (lol) OK…
When you speak with your roommate, be honest but respectful. After all, he has the right to the diet of his choice.
Explain the science—the connection between certain foods/spices and stinky sweat.
Reassure your roommate that you are not asking him to stop eating the foods and spices he likes. Rather, you are asking him to be aware of the effect they have.
You can offer the following tips to reduce the stink:
I. Your roommate should make sure to eat chlorophyll-rich greens (spinach, watercress, etc.).
The component chlorophyllin helps prevent body odor.
In fact, doctors have used topical chlorophyllin (on the skin) to reduce the odor of bad-smelling wounds. They have also used oral chlorophyllin (by mouth) to reduce the odor of bad-smelling feces (bowels).
II. Fiber may cut down the odors of these dietary stinkers.
There is evidence that fiber in the gut binds (sticks) to the smelly chemicals, reducing the amount they can stink up things.
Is your roommate eating whole grains? What about enough fruits and vegetables?
Both of these groups are a kind of natural air freshener.
III. Your roommate could sponge his ‘smelly bits’ (particularly the armpits) a little more frequently.
4. Stinkier might be healthier
It is a known fact that an obsession of American culture is body odor—specifically, getting rid of every last bit.
While researching this topic, I found a World War II anecdote. They say that the Russians could tell when the American soldiers were coming.
Noise? No. Bright uniforms? Nope. Smell. They could smell their soap.
Being on the scent
Research shows that smell is an important method of communication.
Since we can smell at a greater distance than we can see or hear, we can find out important information about a person long before they are close—gives us extra time to stay or go.
So, it is to our advantage to be able to smell other people’s scents.
Cleanliness is next to godliness
There is definitely a case for being clean. However, the research shows that overshowering is bad for our health.
Every time we shower, we wash away our body’s natural oils. These oils help keep our skin healthy.
Less body oil can cause dry, cracked skin.
How to handle a roommate with a healthier stink?
There is a fine line between a clean, body scent and just plain stinky.
To keep the balance, suggest to your roommate that she pay attention to the ‘important bits’. In other words, the parts which tend to produce most of the smells.
Specifically, these are the armpits, groin, and mouth.
Instead of a full shower or bath, your roommate can use a washcloth, sponge or toothbrush to clean her important bits as needed.
5. Too stinky might be a sign of a health issue
Bad health often shows up as a strange or stinky body odor.
Here are some of them and what they mean.
Your stinky roommate’s breath has a fruity odor
This could be a sign of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). This is a potentially deadly complication of poorly managed diabetes.
What to do:
Recommend to your roommate that she see her healthcare provider ASAP.
Your stinky roommate has a ‘fishy’ odor from her groin area
You may have to be careful with this one, depending on your roommate situation.
We don’t want your roommate getting the wrong idea, but still, you are going to have to say something.
When the bacteria which grow in the vagina get out of balance, they cause a condition called ‘bacterial vaginosis’.
In addition to the fishy smell, your roommate will probably have a strange vaginal discharge and some itching ‘down there’.
What to do:
Mention to your roommate that you noticed this smell. What does she think?
Perhaps a visit to her gynecologist is a good idea?
Your stinky roommate has bad breath all the time
24/7 bad breath is not normal.
One big reason could be teeth issues, gum disease or poor oral hygiene.
Another common reason is poor gut health.
When people do not have enough stomach acid, they often get ‘hypochlorhydria’.
Hypochlorhydria shows up as problems with digestion, unbalanced nutrition, and gut infections.
People with hypochlorhydria may experience digestive issues, nutritional deficiencies, and gastrointestinal infections, but prompt treatment can prevent serious complications.
What to do:
Discuss your roommate’s bad breath with him.
Gently suggest that constant bad breath is a sign of something more.
Strongly suggest that he visit his dentist to check things out.
If all is well, tell him that he should see his healthcare provider for a checkup and some tests.
Your stinky roommate has strong-smelling pee
Yes, ok, I am not suggesting that you are going around smelling your stinky roommate’s pee.
But if you share a bathroom, you might come in just after her and…
Strong-smelling pee can also be a sign of gut issues.
What to do:
Ask your roommate if she has noticed a change in the smell of her pee.
Mention (quickly) that you are not being strange or anything, it’s just that you’ve been noticing it when using the bathroom after her.
Suggest that she visit her healthcare provider to make sure all’s well.
6. Wear cotton clothing to reduce the stink
Sweat by itself usually has no scent. The odor is the result of our sweat interacting with something.
Sometimes, it is our sweat interacting with the bacteria on our skin.
Other times, it is our clothing.
The data shows that sweaty cotton t-shirts are less stinky than synthetic ones (polyester, etc.)
How to change your stinky roommate’s clothing?
Everyone likes presents, right?
Invest in your nose by gifting your stinky roommate two, new, cotton t-shirts in his size.
Present them to him with the scientific facts about sweat and shirt material.
Suggest that he do everyone a favor by switching to cotton as often as possible.