Scientists Tackle the Age Old Question “What Is the Thrift Store Smell?”

The “thrift store smell” is all too familiar to anyone who enjoys a good bargain, a thrift store, or collecting vintage clothing. This scent can cling to any fabric, but it is more noticeable on clothing than on upholstery or bedding. You might think that the smell on clothes is entirely due to body odors, and you’d be right. However, when scientists investigated why thrift store clothes smell the way they do, they discovered that it’s a complicated bouquet.

Some people associate this smell with decay, while others describe it as funky or cheesy. Certainly, the breakdown of the fabrics over time, as well as foods cooked or consumed near the fabrics, can change the way they smell. However, it turns out that vintage clothing contains a plethora of other compounds. The other compounds in this set were things we all encounter on a daily basis, such as gasoline, car exhaust, food, perfume, and even dry-cleaning solvent residues.

Because many of these odors are environmental in nature, it helps to explain why the overall scent of most vintage shops is familiar, recognizable, and consistent across time and space. While individual items of clothing have their own distinct smell, some mild and some raunchy, when taken as a whole, they all contribute to that distinct thrift shop odor.

Because many antique stores also sell vintage clothing, they may have this odor as well.The worst of these odors are often not removed by dry cleaning, which explains why they can linger even after a garment has been professionally cleaned. Hand washing is the best option for delicate items. Wet cleaning can be very effective at removing odors and stains, though it may be necessary to repeat the process several times in some cases.

If the water runs clear, the garment is not clean and may still have odors. Avoid using the dryer because heat not only damages vintage clothing but also intensifies odors. So here’s the real pearl of vintage wisdom: don’t buy it unless you’re okay with how it smells or you can safely give the item a vigorous wash with soap and water.

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