Small Projects + DIY

How I got the smell of my neighbor’s cigarette smoke out of my bathroom

  • My first step was to figure out how the offending smoke was sneaking in
  • I tried airing out my bathroom before using baking soda to neutralize the smell
Celia Young Headshot
By Celia Young  |
July 25, 2023 - 3:30PM
A cup of baking soda sits on a bathroom sink.

A cup of baking soda can help eliminate odors, though I recommend using more than less. 

Celia Young

In the morning, most people wake up and smell the coffee. But when I first moved to my new Brooklyn apartment, my motto quickly became “wake up and smell the cigarettes.”

The mysterious smell plaguing my bathroom made brushing my teeth aggravating and showering nauseating. I gave the privy a good scrubbing when I moved in, but all the Teen Spirit in the world couldn’t fix one problem: My neighbors smoked. And the odor was strongest in my bathroom. 

I have no business telling anyone whether or not to unbox a pack of Marlboros, but I need my bathroom to pass the smell test—for my roommates, guests, and myself. (I can only imagine what my mother would say, if or when she ever comes to visit).  

So instead of bothering my new neighbors, I put my nose to the grindstone to clear the air in my bathroom. Read on to learn how I got my restroom smelling fresh and clean, while keeping my sanity intact.

Finding the source

Some people think of journalists as bloodhounds: dogged reporters dedicated to sniffing out the truth. As it turns out, my nose is not nearly as strong as my research skills. 

It took me at least a week to identify which neighbor was the source of the smell, and all the while I grew suspicious of everything. Was my vent somehow letting fumes drift in from an upstairs unit? Could it have something to do with the plumbing? Did my new roommate harbor a secret cig habit? 

As it turns out, the smell was not coming from inside the house. I made this discovery somewhat by accident, when I cracked the kitchen window to let some fresh air in on an unseasonably cool day. 

Apparently my neighbor had the same thought. I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke drifting in through the kitchen window. Then I saw the cigarette butts outside the sill. 

It didn’t take long to diagnose the problem: our interior windows faced each other, in a tight space sandwiched at the center of our apartment building. The smell had slipped into the kitchen and quickly dispersed in the larger space. But in the much smaller bathroom, the smell lingered. 

Letting it breathe

I started keeping my bathroom window closed, when I could, to try to block out the smell. But I didn’t want to totally seal off the space at the risk of inviting mold and mildew. So I went about finding out how to improve the ventilation without relying on the window.

First off, I checked my bathroom fan to make sure it was pulling enough air out of the bathroom with a handy do-it-yourself test. All you have to do is take a piece of toilet paper and hold it against the exhaust fan while it's running. If the toilet paper stays stuck on the fan when you take your hand away, the fan is working as it should. If not, you might need to talk to your building manager about cleaning your exhaust fan.  

Mine was in working order, pulling air up from my bathroom and out through the ceiling vent. To help aid this process, I started leaving the door open a crack and keeping the fan on for longer periods of time when I noticed the smell. It wasn’t perfect, but I started to notice the smell of smoke less and less.

Eliminating and disguising

I was still getting the occasional waft of cigarettes, and while it was fascinating to learn when my neighbor’s nicotine habit intersected with my bowel movements, by week two I felt I’d learned enough. 

The final death-knell (for the smell, not my sanity) was baking soda and soap. Baking soda is a common household trick for getting rid of odors because it acts as a base, reacting with most smells because they come from acids (like rotting food). 

I sprinkled about four tablespoons of baking soda into a wide-brim drinking glass, though this trick is most effective when the baking soda has a large surface area. (Unfortunately, my tiny bathroom is in a bit of a surface area deficit).

While the baking soda absorbed the smoky smell, a new batch of fragrant soap I purchased helped cover up any lingering scents. Today, my bathroom smells like victory, not cigarettes.


Celia Young Headshot

Celia Young

Senior Writer

Celia Young is a senior writer at Brick Underground where she covers New York City residential real estate. She graduated from Brandeis University and previously covered local business at the Milwaukee Business Journal, entertainment at Madison Magazine, and commercial real estate at Commercial Observer. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

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