Q: I recently inherited a beautiful, antique dark cherry wood dresser from my grandparents. It's a gorgeous piece of furniture. However, it reeks of mothballs. I have been trying to air it out for several days now but it still has quite the pungent smell. I'm cautious to put any of my clothes in the dresser for fear that the stench will transfer and I'll walk around smelling like a senior citizen from the 1960s. What can I do to get the scent out? I have very sensitive skin, so any chemical air fresheners, cleaners or fragrances are out of the picture. What am I left with for options?
Howie, Lewes, Del.
Great question given that when it comes to home furnishings and foul odors, we mostly hear about ways to air out new furniture that’s been swathed in chemicals like formaldehyde and not so much about airing out antique furniture that will potentially make you reek like Minnie Castevet if you make the mistake of storing your clothing in it.
You mention that you’ve been letting the dresser breathe for a few days now. I’d let it breathe for a few days longer as the toxic stenches of either naphthalene or para-dichlorobenzene (the key nasties in mothballs) is stubborn and may persist for a matter of weeks since at this point the odor is most likely embedded deep into the wood grain. It’s key to keep the dresser in an extremely well ventilated area. Leaving the odor-plagued dresser outdoors and in direct sunlight for an extended period of time would be ideal but, of course, leaving it unattended in the backyard — an open invitation for various critters to make themselves right at home, if there ever was one — or dragging it to the driveway every afternoon for a “breather” and then back inside during the evening isn’t always an option. This is where bit of creative thinking and assistance from small home appliances comes in.
To start, I’d open or completely remove the drawers and place the dresser near an open window and let a fan blow directly on it toward the open window. Being careful not to blow out a fuse while the fan is running, you can also take a blow dryer to the surfaces of the dresser once a day as direct heat will help kill lingering odors. This may seem odd but not only do you want the dresser to air out but to “sweat” as well.
Although it may seem like a good idea, don’t bother giving the dresser a simple scrub-down with tap water and rags — getting the wood wet will just make things worse by embedding the smell deeper into the wood. In the evening, when you’re not blowing a fan toward the dresser and lovingly blow-drying the drawers, I’d suggest reinserting/closing the drawers and employing a few natural odor-absorbing remedies: open boxes of baking soda, lavender sachets, wadded up newspapers sprinkled with essential oils, coffee grounds, a bowl of white vinegar or a couple of shallow pans filled with charcoal briquettes — the same kind you’d use for grilling (activated charcoal disks that are used remove pet odors work, too). You can also perform some light sanding on the dresser although I’d certainly sand an inconspicuous “test area” before going to town with a piece of sandpaper.
In addition to DIY remedies, there’s a line of mothball-specific deodorizing granules and powder from Smelleze on the market that’s nontoxic, odorless and all around environmentally friendly. I’ve never tried the stuff but it’s worth a shot if the homemade stink-absorbing solutions don’t do the trick.
On the topic of store-bought remedies, I’ve personally had success with The Bad Air Sponge, a mysterious little jar filled with nontoxic, biodegradable magic that removes and neutralizes odors instead of masking them. According to the product’s website, The Bad Air Sponge is successful in conquering unsavory stenches frequently found in nursing homes and locker rooms, so I’m guessing if you place it in your pungent, mothball-y dresser it might have some effect.
It seems that folks have found success with different solutions when it comes to ridding a piece of furniture of dreaded mothball smell so I’d experiment until you find one that’s practical for your living situation and is time- and cost-effective. It sounds like a beautiful piece of furniture with some sentimental value so I wouldn’t let the stench of mothballs prohibit you from using it. Let me know what works for you, Howie!