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That musty smell: Love it or hate it, please eliminate it

Heart shape latte coffee

Smells are important for our emotional wellbeing

While you’re reading this, notice if there are any smells around. Do they make you feel relaxed, or do you feel anxious or like wanting to run away?

The sense of smell can be the most important sense of all when it comes to our quality of life. It’s because smells have a lot more to do with our emotions than we can imagine. When we smell the smells we love, the chances of feeling well on an emotional level are enormous. And vice-versa: a smell that we dislike can trigger negative emotions.

So, why does this happen?

Experts suggest that we associate most smells with our past experiences. It’s amazing to realize that this process begins even before we’re born!

The smells we love

To explain this, an article Scientific American mentions that: "A number of studies have shown that odor learning begins before birth (...) In studies where mothers consumption for distinctive smelling substances such as garlic, alcohol or cigarette smoke were monitored during pregnancy, it was found that their infants preferred these smells compared to infants who had not been exposed to these scents. These early learned preferences also influence food and flavor preferences in later childhood and even adulthood.”

Pregnant woman in grass field

Normally, during pregnancy, there is bonding and babies receive lots of love. So there is a high probability that we love the smells that our mom was around at that time.

After knowing this, I asked my mom what she ate during pregnancy. She said that she didn’t remember much (probably all kinds of food), but she was sure that she had lots of coffee (wait... one minute.. I thought this wasn't recommended during pregnancy). So although I don't drink much coffee, its smell does calm me down and it makes me feel at home.

Which smells do you like?

I’ll share some of my favorite ones with you:

  • Citric smells: They make me feel that there are cleanliness and freshness around. Especially, the smell of lemon.

Sliced lemon with fresh smell

  • Citronella: It makes me feel very relaxed.
  • Perfume: This applies only to some perfumes and it can be someone else's or my own. Do you feel better when you have perfume or cologne on? For a long time, I had been searching for my favorite perfume and finally found it! Now that I’m using it again I feel slightly more confident. Strange, but true. 
  • The smell of rain: I love the smell of a rainy day, especially during the summer. Is it because its sound makes me feel relaxed?
  • The smell of nature: Smelling plants or flowers definitely gives me a feeling of peace. Do you feel the same way?

Woman smelling a rose with rainbow reflecting on her face

Do you like any of these?

The smells that make us want to run away

The same happens with the smells that we dislike. There are certain smells that we relate to negative past experiences. Scientific American explains this with an example. They say that, for example, if there's a new smell around when we're going to have a surgical procedure, we may dislike it from then on. That's because we're going to relate it to anxiety and stress.

I mentioned that certain perfumes can make me feel better. But we need to be very careful with perfumes, because other people may not like the same ones that we do. Some may not even like perfumes at all and there are countries where very few people use perfume. They can even find any perfume annoying. 

Which smells make you feel like wanting to run away?

Some that make me feel this way, are:

  • Urine (human or animal): A stinky bathroom can make me really upset (it's not that I'm picky). 
  • Cigarette: I can smell a cigarette from 1 block away and that can disturb me. The earliest experience I can recall about a cigarette is when I was a young girl. It was that scary day when burglars pulled us out of our family car to steal it and they left us in the middle of nowhere. That was the first and only time I saw my parents smoking. 
  • Trash: I can't stand it for more than 10 seconds. For how long can you stand it?

Orange trash dust bin

How do you feel when you're around the smells that I mentioned? There's nothing wrong if you like them.

Opinions vary when it comes to the musty smell of a basement

While doing some research on what people had to say about basement smells, I found that many find it disgusting and it’s one of those smells that you don’t want to stay around for too long.

To my surprise, there are some people who do like the musty smell of a basement. That got me thinking... I don’t love or hate this smell, but there’s sort of a happy/nostalgic feeling when it's around. I’ve only lived in a house with a basement once and for a short period of time. So when I notice a musty basement smell, I remember the moments I lived there and my first reaction is to smile. I used to spend a lot of time there playing with my siblings and parents.

Musty smell in an attic or basement

There's some who really, really, love a musty basement smell. When asked: Does anyone else really like the way old basements smell?”, here’s what they had to say:

  • Yeah I mean I'm sure some basements don't smell so good but most of the ones I've been in have this distinct smell, not sure if it's nostalgic or it's just a weird thing that I like.”
  • “Yes! I went to an old church. It smelled amazing.”
  • “Yep. My boyfriend lived in a basement and I grew to love his musty smell.”
  • “Yes, it's a fusty, but pleasant atmosphere. I like going in the basement with a candle, it makes me think of the previous owners of our house and how they went down in the basement themselves to get pickles from giant glass jars. It reminds of olden times, of gentlemen with top hats and funny moustaches and ladies with their hair in buns and wearing white shirts with rolled sleeves. Does anyone else like the smell of attics as well?”
  • “I do in a sense. Sometimes an antique can be found amongst that smell.”

Even if you love them, certain smells represent a danger

Love them or hate them, some smells are trying to warn you that you may be in danger. They can be a sign of bacteria, toxicity or other things that can be harmful to your health. That's why the great majority of people don't like them and most repel them because they're physically irritating. In the case of ammonia, for example, too much exposure can harm your respiratory system.  

You need to be aware of smells like:

  • Dead animals (like rats)
  • Animal urine (ammonia)
  • VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds- for example, gasoline, or the new paint on your wall)
  • Trash
  • Rotten food
  • Cigarettes
  • Rotten egg smell (it’s usually propane)
  • A musty smell (from mold and mildew)

Yes! A musty smell.

Love it or hate it, a musty smell is a sign of danger. It means that there’s mold and mildew and that you may be at serious risk. Did you know that black mold can affect you in many ways? Here are some ways it can harm you:

  • Physically: It can have negative effects on your health, such as respiratory problems. Some deaths have been linked to toxic mold too. 
  • Emotionally: Some cases of depression have been associated with it.
  • Your home: It likes eating some materials found in houses, so it can affect your home too. 

“Cut” the problem from the root

In this case, it's just not about hiding a smell. If you care about your health and wellbeing, you need to eliminate it completely by finding the root of the problem and “cutting” from there. 

Hand cutting something with scissors

Musty smells come from mold and mildew, and these fungi can only survive under very humid conditions. So, how to eradicate them? You can learn more about this by reading the 6 Steps to Winning the Battle Against Mold. In most cases, some good cleaning together with the use of a dehumidifier will be of great help.

So the next time you feel that musty smell, love it or hate it, remember that your life may be in danger. You can always save your life or someone's else's. 

There are quite a lot of other smells that can make you feel way better! 



TOSOT dehumidifier basement dehumidifier 

TOSOT 70 pint dehumidifier

I have a house in Florida where I rent rooms for short stays and one of the rooms smelled like rotten wood. The smell was really strong and I didn't know how to get rid of it. I had some clients cancel their reservations in the middle of their stay because they could not deal with the smell or the humidity. I was losing money.

I put this dehumidifier and it started pulling gallons and gallons of water, so much that I decided to install a permanent drain and leave it working 24/7. The AC seems to be running more efficiently now. The smell is almost gone.

If you have high humidity in your house I highly recommend this product. It's quiet and works really well. I bought 2 more so I can install them on the other rooms as well.” Selvas


TOSOT 50 pint dehumidifier

“First off I have been in our house for over 20 years every summer we would get a smell in the basement and not know where it was coming from. We decided to try a dehumidifier, within 1 day we could tell the difference. THIS THING WORKS wish we had thought of it years ago.”Armond Rice


If you want to learn more about these topics, you may want to read these posts too:


In the weeks ahead, you'll learn tips to clean mold and make your home smell fresh. Sign-up for our newsletter to get weekly tips to improve the quality of your home and of your life. A life well-lived it’s what it’s all about.



Use information at your own risk:  The information presented is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional medical or home improvement advice. The information and suggestions should be discussed with a professional.  You are responsible for independently verifying the information if you intend to rely upon or use it in any way. You use all information at your own risk. 


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