Burning question: What is that second-hand store smell & what can you do about it?

I just came back from a short trip to Berlin.Nowhere else, not even in London, have I seen so many second-hand and vintage stores. Berlin, you are being super-sustainable! While walking around these treasure troves of fashion I couldn’t escape the smell. You know which one: that thick, oppressive musty second-hand store smell…

Burning question: What is that second-hand store smell & what can you do about it?

I love spending hours in thrift stores, searching for my next treasure. 

But where exactly does the distinctive second-hand store smell come from, and why is it the same in vintage clothing shops the world over? To find out, I got digging around and that’s what I found out:

So what is that smell, actually?

Simon Harrop, a sensory branding expert and the founder of the Aroma company tested a vintage store air sample to try and establish once and for all this burning question: what is that second-hand store smell? He conducted a gas-liquid chromatography test [GLC], where you take the air from a space and you put it through this chemical analyzer that will tell you its chemical compounds.

So what were the findings? Pretty logical: the only difference between new and old clothes is that they’ve been worn and not all of them have been completely cleaned and carry natural human odors. The average human loses about one liter of water a day through perspiration. Much of this moisture will find its way onto our clothes. So what you are smelling is that… plus mothballs, fabric sprays and disinfectants. There’ll probably be some minute differences between different shops, but they’re not discernible by the average human nose, and probably not even by the trained human nose either, because it’s an amalgamation of so many different notes.

With the science part out of the way what can be done to improve this smell situation.

Dear second-hand shop owner:

  • In the case of garments that are launderable, the solution to the problem is a pretty easy one: Wash the clothes. Maybe add a half cup of an odor eliminating laundry booster like white vinegar, Borax, or baking soda if the smell is especially pronounced. I know it can be expensive and time-consuming to wash every item, but ‘c’mon, your customers are worth it.
  • Think about eliminating or cutting down on items that can’t be washed. Leather, wool and suede absorb smells (like heavy perfume smell or the lingering scent of things one smokes, like cigarettes or cigars). When displaying jackets in the store, hang them out not too tightly together, so the air can circulate around them. Ideally, you’d be able to air them out overnight before bringing them to the store. That would make a world of difference.
  • Don’t cram your store with clothes. Less is more. People will be able to see the clothes better, your store will look aesthetically pleasing & won’t have that second-hand store smell (since the air will be able to circulate freely between the displays). And for the rest of the stock? Rent a storage box!
nice thrift store

A good example of a second-hand store (actually it was a swapping store) that doesn’t cram its shelves and racks to the brims. 

  • Make sure you create a clean, fresh and modern atmosphere in your store by painting the walls in light colors and neatly displaying your stock on hangers and shelves. Again, less is more.
The shop that does it right: The LENA Fashion Library in Amsterdam

The shop that does it right: The LENA Fashion Library in Amsterdam

Are you a first-time vintage store customer?

A lot of my friends avoid second-hand stores and find them cluttered, smelly and dark. But things are changing and more and more second-hand shops are “cleaning up” (pun intended) their act by creating a welcoming space for their clients. Here are some of my tips in case you are a newbie:

  • Do wash every item you buy. You know the shop should have washed it. I know the shop should have washed it. But do they wash every item that comes in? It’s better not think about it and wash your newly bought garment at home before wearing it. Maybe add a half cup of an odor eliminating laundry booster like white vinegar, Borax, or baking soda if the smell is especially pronounced.
  • Some fabrics absorb smells more than others.  You’ll want to steer clear of 100 percent cotton fabrics because they take a long time to dry and will allow body odor to bloom in the meantime. When it comes to making body odor worse, synthetic fabrics tend to trap odors at a greater rate than natural fabrics. Although many of these man-made fabrics, like polyester, are quick to wick moisture away from the skin and equally quick to dry, their construction can up the “stink” quotient. Needless to say, things that can’t be washed easy will smell more. Are you sensitive to the second-hand store smell? Then stay away from wool, leather and suede bags or jackets.

Did you fall in love with a jacket or a purse after all? Here are some tips on how to get rid of this musky second-hand store smell:

  1. Dry-clean itThe most obvious choice is to try and dry-clean the new addition to your wardrobe. Not all dry cleaning stores are the same, really take your time and look for a good one. Remember that dry-cleaning probably won’t take away the deeply rooted musky smell so you might have to do one of the other tips as well. Take all glass or breakable buttons off. Note to the cleaners if there are belts or scarves. Ask your cleaner if they can clean fragile items in mesh bags. Ask them when they change the cleaning fluid and do your vintage when it’s fresh. Ask them to clean white and light colored items with like colors.
  1. Spritz It. Fill a small spray bottle with white vinegar and lightly spritz the garment. That’s all! It sounds strange, sure, but the acid in the vinegar will counter the odors by leveling out the pH. The vinegar smell will dissipate in a short time, so you don’t need to worry about smelling like salad dressing. If you’re vinegar-averse, the same routine can be performed with vodka – go ahead and use the cheap stuff for deodorizing and save the good stuff for drinking.
  1. Steam it. Steaming a garment, especially if you use a scent-infused steaming solution, will eliminate the second-hand store smell from vintage goods, and will also help to revive wrinkled or napped fibers. A few passes may be needed to fully eradicate particularly pungent odors.
  1. Air wash it. Fresh air and sunshine are really great natural deodorizers. If you have a setup that allows for it, like a secure backyard or balcony, and the weather is cooperative, hanging a smelly item outside is a cheap and easy option to keep in mind.
  • What not to buy? Undergarments, tights and linens. This goes without saying, but even stores that do an excellent job of cleaning everything should really not be selling undergarments secondhand (unless they are still in the package or with original tags). Besides the obvious yuck-factor of underwear and lingerie, bras get stretched out so they no longer do their job well. The same thing goes for shapewear. You’re better off buying new, without exception.

Second-hand stores are full of beautiful fashion finds and unique accessories. Go ahead, challenge yourself and you could be amazed by what you discover there. Vintage stores could provide you with the most sought-after labels at a fraction of the price. Second-hand stores will make your closet unique and creative. 

Once you've found your first gem you'll be hooked forever

Are you a “second-hand” enthusiast. Did I miss any tips here? Please let me know.

16 Comments
  • November 18, 2017

    As a secondhand shop manager, believe me when I tell you we are totally aware of the smells that come in and do what we can to eliminate them. And we never use mothballs ourselves! I doubt most shops use them; that odor comes from donors. That being said, I think thrift shops are often operating on a shoestring budget and can’t always afford to redo decor or buy better racks. It can be difficult to get a nonprofit board to approve cosmetic changes.

  • November 20, 2017

    I’ve worked at nonprofits for years, some of which have had secondhand stores. One was horrible – they never washed the clothes, just threw the donations on the table…the smell was terrible. The one I worked out most recently was wonderful – they washed the clothes beforehand, threw out what was disgusting, and they must have done something to make it smell decent because it definitely didn’t have that horrible and overwhelming smell! I love your suggestions because, while we frugal types go for secondhand stores, so do those with extremely low income and this allows them to maintain their dignity!

  • November 20, 2017

    And the takeaway on this is ….. always, always, always wash new-to-you clothes as soon as you get them home! I find that most of the thrift stores I’ve been at are pretty good at washing things they receive. Yesterday I was at the Salvation Army thrift store while a friend of mine was working there. She was pulling out stuff from a bag and said, ‘Oh, these have to go right in the wash.’

  • November 20, 2017

    My sisters and I love to shop second-hand shops and they all have that “smell”. Some of ours won’t accept clothing that has not been washed or dry cleaned.

  • November 20, 2017

    All great tips! I haven’t bought too much second-hand, but I want to check out more. It’s good to know ways to clean the items.

  • November 21, 2017

    I️ love wearing my secondhand stuff. I always wash everything as soon as I bring it home. I have used vinegar, but never cheap vodka to clean purses. I’m going to have to try it out. Thanks for the tip.

  • November 21, 2017

    this is such an interesting post…i know the smell you are talking about and now it makes so much sense.

  • November 22, 2017

    I love the authentic smell of a charity shop 😉 Always shopping for trousers, tops, shoes and jackets and I rarely wash an item before wearing it unless it’s in obvious need…

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