How to Get Rid of Funky Refrigerator Smells

A multipronged attack can bring back the freshness.

Rank refrigerator smells take many forms. They might emanate from the quart of milk you didn’t toss before leaving on vacation or some hidden-away deviled eggs. Ever forget  a potato at the bottom of the vegetable bin? Worse than you can imagine. Some odors are more offensive than others, naturally, but it’s never a good idea to let them persist because they can permeate every inch of the fridge right down to the mechanicals and can be difficult to remove. 

But with a little patience and perseverance you can stanch the stench. Here’s a step-by-step guide.

Step 1: Take Everything Out

Even if you’ve identified the offending item, you need to empty the entire contents of the refrigerator and freezer. If you have a second fridge, stash perishables there. If the odor is the result of a power outage, don’t take any chances by hanging onto food that may have spoiled. A refrigerator will keep food at safe temperatures for about 4 hours, if it’s left unopened, according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services. 

Step 2: Handwash Bins and Shelves

Take out the shelves, bins, crisper drawers, ice trays, and any other loose components and wash them in the sink with hot, soapy water. For particularly pervasive refrigerator smells, mix up a sanitizing solution of 1 tablespoon liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water and use it to wipe the bins and shelves down; then rinse in plain water and air dry.        

Step 3: Deodorize the Interior

Now you’re ready to wash the inside of the refrigerator. For this, our experts recommend a solution of 1 cup baking soda per gallon of water. Wipe down the interior with a sponge soaked in the solution. For caked-on food, dip a damp sponge directly in baking powder and apply a little elbow grease. Stay away from abrasive cleaners and pads, which can scratch the interior of the refrigerator.         

Step 4: Air it Out

Here’s where the patience piece comes in. For best results, you need to unplug the refrigerator, leave the door open, and air it out for at least one day. If the refrigerator smells persist, wipe the interior down again with the baking soda solution and air it out for another day.

Tip: To introduce a pleasant smell, you can place a couple of cotton balls soaked with vanilla inside the refrigerator and freezer and close them in there for a few hours before restocking.  

Step 5: Clean the Evaporator

If there’s a lasting funk that just won’t go away, chances are the refrigerator smells have permeated the evaporator coil, which produces cold air for the fridge and freezer. The coil, along with the fan that distributes the air, are typically located on the back wall of the freezer. 

In the video above, we show you how to clean the evaporator on a top-freezer refrigerator. Start by removing the screws that anchor the panel. Next disconnect the plug for the electronic controls and icemaker. Remove and wash the panel. Use a spray bottle to apply warm soapy water to the coils, capturing the dirty water runoff with an old rag; repeat the process with fresh water to rinse. Allow the coil to air dry completely before replacing the panel.  

This job is definitely easiest on a top-freezer, since you have plenty of room to maneuver. But you should be able to access and clean the evaporator on any refrigerator; check your user’s manual for specific instructions.

Note that if you have a newer refrigerator with dual evaporators, you will have two sets of coils—one for the freezer and one for the fridge. But if the odor is only in the fresh food compartment, you’ll only have to clean that coil.

Now if you can only get someone to decontaminate that disgusting fridge at work.

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