Let’s face it; chairs have it tough. Brand new chairs are assembled out of plastic and foam, and they often have a unique odor to them stemming from the factory environment where they’re made and from off-gassing from the materials.
Once you have had one for a while and used it consistently, well, it will pick up other odors as well. Spills, chemicals, environmental contaminants, stains from cigarette smoke; heck, a chair is pressed against a particularly noisome part of the body all day, and even that counts for something.
The fact is, chairs – whether brand new or older – occasionally need to be deodorized. You may not notice it, and indeed maybe most people won’t, but deodorizing a chair is a good step to take any time you have to move one from one environment to another when you’re assembling a new chair to use, or before you donate an old chair to a charity. The only question is, how do you do it?
We’ve put together 15 ideas on how you can cleanse, deodorize, or otherwise de-scent a chair, whether it’s brand new or has been in use for a while.
Before You Begin: Check the Tag
Most chairs have a tag built into them or plastered onto them, which includes the care instructions. Unless that tag was removed from your chair, you should check it, so you can make sure you’re not going to damage your chair while cleaning it. Some chairs also come with instruction manuals or brochures.
Typically, a tag will have a letter code to tell you how to care for your chair. These codes are:
- W: Water-based cleaning is fine.
- S: Solvents are fine, but do not use water.
- WS or SW: Both solvents and water are fine.
- X: You should not clean the chair yourself; let a professional do it.
- C: Your chair uses a proprietary fabric called Crypton, which requires special care.
Check the tag before you go about using a cleaner, to make sure you’re not going to damage the fabric, eat away at the foam, denature the dyes in the fabric, or otherwise ruin your chair.
1. Wait a While
The inexorable passage of time eventually degrades everything, due to the simple nature of entropy and the way the universe works.
That’s not to say that a chair that smells bad will smell good after you wait a few hours. No, waiting is specifically a technique for getting rid of that “new chair smell” that has a way of filling up an office when you unpack and assemble a new chair. That smell is a combination of scents from the manufacturing facility, the packaging, and the off-gassing of the plastic and foam used to make it.
Luckily, this smell will dissipate over a few days. We recommend assembling your chair and leaving it in a well-ventilated room for a few days, to let this scent dissipate. While there may be some lingering scent when all is said and done, most of it will be gone, and you can use your chair normally afterward.
2. Leave the Chair in the Sun
The sun is a powerful engine suspended high in the sky. The ever-burning orb of incandescent gas sends radiation and thermal energy across the vast depths of space to bombard the surface of the planet, doing everything from fueling the growth of plant life to giving you a sunburn if you stay out too long.
The sun’s light can also cleanse something like a chair. Solar radiation – particularly, the ultraviolet rays – breaks down things like organic compounds, as well as both natural and synthetic particles.
Now, you don’t need to leave it in the sun for long. A few hours, or a few days, is plenty. As long as your chair gets the full brightness of the sun (not filtered through UV-blocking glass), it should be able to break down a lot of the nastiness that causes odors.
Just be sure not to leave the chair out in the sun and forget about it for a long time; that much sun exposure will break down the plastic, making it brittle and more prone to breaking.
3. Vacuum the Chair
Step one for cleaning any chair is to vacuum up any debris or larger particles that may have gotten trapped in the chair, and trust us, there will likely be particles trapped in the chair. We’re not just talking about that lost M&M that slipped in the cracks; we mean dust and other particulates that accumulate in the air, on every surface, and everywhere else.
A vacuum with strong suction can penetrate the seat of a chair quite deeply, sucking out dust and particles that cause or trap odors. You may need to go over the chair more than once, depending on the strength of your vacuum and the length of time since you last cleaned your chair. This alone won’t entirely deodorize a chair, but it’s a good start to help with any cleaning you’ll do later.
4. Apply Baking Soda
Baking soda is one of the most powerful household cleaners available without going out of your way to pick up a nasty chemical. There’s a reason it’s commonly used on basically every green living blog in the world. What can it do?
- It chemically reacts with odor-causing compounds to break them down.
- It’s mildly abrasive and works extremely well as a scouring paste.
- It can react with vinegar for further cleaning power.
Take your chair out somewhere you won’t make a mess and sprinkle baking soda liberally over the chair surface you want to deodorize. Let it sit for several hours, up to a day or two. It takes time for the chemical reactions to occur, after all. Once it has sat for a while simply vacuum up the powder for a clean-smelling chair.
5. Rub with a Dryer Sheet
Dryer sheets are essentially just thin layers of fabric coated with a fabric softener compound. This compound is what helps soften clothes and linens when you run them through a dryer, and can leave them smelling great as well.
Use this cleaning power to cleanse your chair of foul odors. Simply take a dryer sheet (wrapped around a sponge or some other object to make it easier to handle, if you like) and rub it along the surface of your chair. This rubs off the fabric softener chemicals and infuses them into your chair, where they can help fight odors and cover them up with their scent.
6. Use a Steam Cleaner
Another option you have available to you is to use a small handheld steam cleaner. Steam cleaners use heated water to infuse a surface with hot moisture, and then use suction to pull it back out, taking dirt, grime, and odor-causing compounds right back out. This combination is powerful for cleaning upholstery and fabrics, but you have to make sure your chair won’t be ruined by water.
7. Treat the Chair with Vinegar
Along with sunlight and baking soda, vinegar is the third in the trifecta of green cleaning tools. Vinegar can eat away at particles and compounds that cause odors and will get rid of them surprisingly quickly.
Of course, you can’t do this in the middle of the workday; you’ll fill the office with the scent of vinegar. It’s best to do this in a ventilated room, during off-hours, or outside (to let the sun help.) Simply apply vinegar to the chair using a cotton ball or small cloth, or apply more to soak the chair and let it dry later. Just be careful using both vinegar and baking soda; they react together.
8. Use Rubbing Alcohol
Rubbing alcohol as a cleaner is a little more powerful than vinegar, and has a stronger and longer-lasting odor itself. It will still help denature any organic particles and some chemicals that cause odors, and it will evaporate itself and leave no odor behind, but it might be worthwhile making sure you’re only using the alcohol in a well-ventilated space, and/or using a respirator when you apply it, depending on how much you’re working with it.
Simply soak a cotton ball or small cloth in rubbing alcohol and rub it on your chair’s surface, working it into the cushion. Let it sit to dry for a while until it no longer smells or has any odor.
9. Use a Leather Conditioner
You didn’t think we forgot about you, leather chair owners, did you? Leather is much less prone to absorbing smells while it’s being used and it tends to have a leather scent, as well as the care instructions that come with the chair. Typically, you will want to follow whatever instructions came with your chair to care for it. The best option is usually to use a leather conditioner regularly, to make sure the leather maintains a protective coating, doesn’t crack or dry out, and doesn’t become brittle. Of course, the higher quality the chair, the higher quality the conditioner you should use.
10. Use a Commercial Cleaner
If your home remedies and simple treatments don’t work, you’ll need to bring out the big guns, and that usually means a commercial chemical. Commercial chemicals – just cleaning products you buy from the store – are usually carefully engineered solvents mixed with water to allow them to penetrate surfaces.
There are dozens of these products out there, including Woolite, Bissel cleaners, Resolve, Scotchgard, and more. Simply pick up the cleaner that works best in your experience, or pick up a range of cleaners and test them out on different chairs.
11. Use a Dry-Cleaning Solvent
For chairs that cannot use water or water-based cleaners, you’ll want what is known as a dry-cleaning solvent. Think of it like using baking soda, but on steroids. You may also get something like perc (perchloroethylene), a liquid cleaner that is not water-based and is thus more likely to be safe on non-water chairs. Much like commercial cleaners, there are dozens of options here, though many of them are just different brand names for the same mixture of chemicals.
12. Good Old Soap and Water
When all else fails, and you’re either sure water won’t damage your chair or you’re willing to take the risk, get out the bucket and a scrub brush. Mix up some soap and water, and just go to town on your chair. Soak the chair cushion thoroughly, scrub at the surface and press down to get the foam thoroughly soaked, to release dirt and grime, and odor-causing particles. Then, using something absorbent like a towel, sponge, or rag, press on the chair to release the water and pull it out.
Repeat this process until the water being released from the chair is relatively clean and clear. From there, press on the cushion with your absorbent material to remove as much moisture as you can get out of it, then let it air-dry for a day or two afterward. This should remove the majority of whatever is causing odors, leaving your chair fresh and clean.
13. Febreze or Other Deodorizer
Febreze is a brand of deodorizing product that doesn’t do much to address the cause of odors but does cover them up quite well. Some people swear by it; others don’t think it does much other than cover up smells with other, stronger smells. You can feel free to give it a try.
14. Hire a Professional Cleaning Service
Some chairs have an X on them saying they should be cleaned professionally. In other cases, you might simply want to talk to a professional anyway. Either way, there are guaranteed to be cleaning services somewhere in your area that can help you clean and care for your office chair. It’s more expensive than doing it yourself, but it’s going to be more thorough and end up with a cleaner chair.
15. Buy a New Chair
If all else fails, why not just get a new chair? If your chair is old enough to have absorbed so many odors that it’s impossible to clean, there are probably other things wrong with it, like cracked plastic, squeaks, dirty casters, and more. Often, it can simply be a better idea to just get rid of the chair and get a new one.
Two great examples are the ErgoChair and the KinnChair. Both have high-quality materials that are more resistant to odors than other materials and are also easier to clean. Whichever chair you decide to get to replace your old one, do some homework into the construction and the material that is used to ensure that your next chair stays cleaner and holds up better over time. Like the age-old adage says, "never skim on things that separate you and the ground".
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