Thrift Store Whiff

Woody, herbal, nutty, smoky, musty, sweet, cheesy, sweaty, bready, fermented, sour, and creamy. Stale Doritos. Gym bag. Smelly feet. A peculiar, but familiar bouquet to us all. A smell better known as “Thrift Whiff.”

The very moment you enter an antique or thrift store, that funky, dank smell lavishes your nostrils. Some find it comforting, while others can’t wait to get home to wash off the smell of grandma’s musty attic. Regardless of which side of the Thrift Whiff spectrum you fall on, have you ever wondered where that universally distinct smell comes from?

Deconstructing the Thrift Whiff

To breakdown the odor that wafts from a thrift store, we must look to Science. Being that nearly every item in a thrift or antique store is old and well used, it will have picked up some ‘flavor’ along the way. One of the primary odor carrying culprits found in such stores, is clothing and other textiles.

Companies such as Proctor & Gamble; the makers of Tide, Gain, Downy, and Febreze, employ armies of chemists to study and address the problem of rank smelling clothes. To decipher the various compounds responsible for an item’s smell, it’s subjected to a process known as Chromatography, or Gas-Liquid Partition Chromatography [GLPC] if you want to be all scientific about it!

Let’s say you wanted to find out why a vintage jacket smells like, well… vintage. Using GLPC, the jacket is placed inside an airtight enclosure, the enclosure is sealed, and then pumped full of nitrogen gas. Once the gas has interacted with jacket, it’s then tested to determine the various compounds responsible for the object’s smell.

Thrift Whiff Compounds

When it comes to vintage (old) clothing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the majority of stench molecules responsible for Thrift Whiff are derived from body soils―a more delicate way of saying sweat, oils, and skin! I know, gross!

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Outside of body soils, environmental contaminants will also contribute to the thrift bouquet. Things like cigarette smoke, food, perfume/cologne, cleaning solvents, gasoline, etc. Essentially, the Thrift Whiff is merely a collection of odors that objects were exposed to throughout their life.

Eliminating Thrift Whiff

So you purchased an awesome vintage letterman sweater from your local thrift store. It looks awesome and will display great. But there’s just one problem. It stinks.

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To effectively eliminate Thrift Whiff, machine- or hand-washing is best. And when it comes to the elimination of odors caused by body soils, wet cleaning is the only way to go. While you might be tempted to send your vintage garments to the dry cleaner, keep in mind that the clothing will come back ‘clean’ but the odor causing molecules will still be attached to the clothing’s fiber. Over time, the Thrift Whiff will return!  So, when contemplating a vintage clothing purchase, don’t buy it unless it can endure a deep water wash.

Odor Elimination Tips

Machine washing: the first, and best choice for most garments. Do not overload the machine, wash with cold water, and air dry, as high heat can further aggravate odors.  

Hand washing: If your vintage garments are too fragile for a delicate machine wash, you will need to wash them by hand, in cold water, and air dry.

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Specialty detergents: Stubborn odors may need to be washed with detergents designed to attack the most dogged smells. Tide Sport Odor Defense is great for machine washing, whereas Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap is perfect for hand washing. And if your garments have ‘yellowed’ with age, try Engleside Restoration.  

Charcoal: If you have an item that cannot be washed―such as leather―try burying it underneath active charcoal. Active charcoal is an excellent odor absorber. How excellent? Well, it’s one of the primary odor absorbing ingredients in nearly all brands of kitty litter! In fact, if you’re one of those “cat people” and don’t want to go through the hassle of tracking down charcoal, you can bury the item underneath kitty litter. Just make sure (a) the kitty litter hasn’t been used and (b) that you locate your kitty litter buried object away from curious cat(s)!

The good news for those that love vintage but hate its smell, is that with the right treatment and TLC, the odor can be eliminated. And for those that love vintage AND its beautiful bouquet; well, just sit back and take in the glorious smell of years gone by!

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