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How To Get Rid of Musty Basement Smells + Why You May Want To Act Fast

You want to wipe out the problem before it makes its way into your HVAC system. Experts weigh in

Whether you use your basement primarily for storage/laundry or it’s where guests stay or you’ve made it your space to lounge by the TV, often times there’s a distinct smell in those underground rooms. And, there’s a reason candle companies don’t sell “basement” scented products — it’s generally not an odor anyone enjoys. Luckily, if your basement smells less than fresh, we’ve got the easy expert tips guaranteed to clear the air quickly and get rid of musty basement smell.

What causes the musty basement smell?

Thanks to the fact that’s it underground, your basement has less air flow and is prone to dampness, particularly in areas where the groundwater is high or flooding issues create the need for a sump pump or French drain system.

“Basements are also typically dank due to lack of windows, which, when combined with moisture, can cause mold, mildew and fungus to grow,” explains air quality technician Milan Antonic of Air Purifier First. “These conditions are what create that unmistakable basement odor.”

Why it matters if you have a musty basement smell

Musty basement smell may be easy to ignore because it’s an area of the house you may not be in as frequently, but since it’s likely due to mold, mildew, and fungus, it can mean you have a bigger problem. The reason: the spores can travel through your home’s HVAC system and even through the walls, spreading into the rest of your home.

“This can create an unhealthy situation,” cautions mold remediator Abe Nyayapathi of Bio Recovery. “At high levels, mold and mildew can lead to sinus problems, asthma attacks, allergic reactions, skin irritation and headaches. Mold can even produce toxic substances called mycotoxins.” (Click through here to learn the neurological symptoms of mold exposure.)

The fungus can also compromise your foundation, as well as cause the sheetrock and the wood framing that forms your home’s walls to deteriorate.

The best ways to get rid of musty basement smell

The first step? Prevention. To stop mold and mildew from growing in the first place, it’s important to maintain between 30% and 50% humidity in your basement (as well as in the rest of your home), according to The Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. This is humid enough to ensure you’re comfortable but too dry for smelly basement culprits to crop up. Just use a hygrometer, available in home improvement stores, to learn what your current humidity levels are. A few options we like are the Antonki Indoor Hygrometer Sensor (Buy on Amazon, $10.97) or the Taylor Comfort Monitor Humidity Meter (Buy at Ace Hardware, $8.99).

If your hygrometer reads 50% or more, simply try any of the following easy tips — or better yet, a combination of a few of them — to dry up a damp basement and stop smells before they start.

1. Place bags of charcoal in corners

“Activated charcoal is porous and extremely absorbent,” explains mold remediator Gus Pullen, of Pure Maintenance. “It’s composed of carbon that draws in and holds onto both moisture and odors, so it prevents the humidity issues causing the root problem while also clearing the air.” Find activated charcoal capsules in pharmacies, pet stores and home improvement stores. Just place a few capsules in bowls in each corner of the basement and replace them every few weeks. You can also buy pre-made air purifying bags with charcoal, such as the Bamboo Charcoal Odor Absorbing Bags (Buy on Amazon, $19.99) or Natural Activated Carbon Bags (Buy at Walmart, $14.99).

2. Set bowls of baking soda around the room

If you can’t get your hands on charcoal, look no further than your pantry: “Baking soda is similar to activated charcoal in that it absorbs both moisture and odors,” explains Rich Mullins, who has cleaned his share of damp basements as the owner of H2O plumbing. Just pour about ¼ to ½ cup of baking soda into small bowls and place them in each corner of the basement until the smell disappears.”

3. Tuck dryer sheets in with storage items

Cardboard boxes, clothes and other fabrics stored in your basement are like magnets for moisture. Before tucking your items away, just stash a few dryer sheets in with them. They’re designed to tackle moisture-related odors like sweat and damp towels and will do the same job helping your garments and other items stay dry and fresh.

4. Enlist the help of a dehumidifier

Hand pressing a dehumidifier button

If the humidity levels in your basement refuse to budge after using any of the above strategies, you may need to invest in a dehumidifier. Choosing the right one depends on two main factors: the size of your basement and how humid it is. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers provides a handy table to help you figure out which capacity unit to consider. (Click through to discover the best home humidifiers.)

To remove lingering musty smells

Prevention is key, but if your basement still has an unpleasant odor, using either of these two pantry staples to get rid of mold and mildew are all you need to banish even the most stubborn musty basement smell.

A bottle of bleach (Get rid of musty basement smell)
CHRIS DELMAS / Contributor/Getty

Get rid of musty basement smell with chlorine

“Simply put, bleach is the fastest, most effective way to remove mold and mildew,” promises Kait Schulhof, founder of A Clean Bee. “Just mix about 1 cup bleach per 1 gallon of water and do a spot test first to make sure it isn’t going to damage the materials that make up the surface of your basement. Then use a sponge to scrub areas that appear to have mold, mildew or fungus on them — they typically show up as small, dark spots or splotches.” Because bleach fumes can be potent, it’s best to run fans, open doors or windows and wear rubber gloves and a face mask. (Click though for ways to get rid of mold on ceiling.)

Get rid of musty basement smell with vinegar

While not as strong as bleach, the acids in vinegar still represent a death knell for mold and mildew. “Give the walls and floors of your basement a quick wipe-down with white vinegar — no need to dilute it — then wipe everything dry,” says Antonic. “Not only will it kill the root causes of the odors, but vinegar is also a fantastic natural deodorizer and will take the existing smells right out of the air.” (Click through for even more white vinegar uses.)

For more tips on getting rid of smells, click through the links below.

Plumbers Weigh In: The Best Way To Remove Smells From a Kitchen Drain

Use This Cheap Trick to Remove the Stinky Smells Coming From Your Walls

How To Get Rid of Stubborn Washing Machine Smells + The One Odor That Spells Danger

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