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Tips to Eliminate Stinky Fridge Odors (That Actually Work)

Woman taking lemon from refrigerator.

It’s easy to forget about food crammed into the back of the fridge, but you can count on an unwelcome reminder once it starts giving off a nauseating rotten odor. 

When that first hint of a smelly fridge hits your nostrils, it’s time to take action. Foul smells need to get out before they start affecting the rest of your food, and leaving them to worsen will only make them more challenging to remove. If you need relief from a smelly fridge, we’ll walk you through the simple methods to remove the stink and prevent odors from ever coming back!

Empty the Fridge

If you’re generally disciplined in keeping your fridge clean, you may not need to do an extensive cleaning to get rid of a bad smell. With a sudden random smell, you may only have to find and remove any spoiled food and toss a bowl of baking soda in the fridge to suck up the remaining odor. But when the smell has had time to fester, or if you’re having trouble pinpointing the smell, your best bet is to give the fridge a thorough cleaning.

Empty the fridge of all of its contents and store them in a cooler while you clean. As you take food out of the refrigerator, check for missed expiration dates, funky smells, and other signs of spoilage.

Without a cooler, you will only have a short time to clean the fridge. The USDA warns that storing refrigerated food above 40°F for more than two hours will make it unsafe to eat. If you have a second refrigerator where you can store food while you clean, you can do a more extensive refresh.

Clean the Interior

Take the shelves and crisper drawers out of the refrigerator, setting them aside to wash separately. If it has been a while since you did a deep clean, you’ll likely see a collection of old food particles and liquid drips, which undoubtedly contribute to the foul fridge odors. Clear any large chunks and spills with a rag or paper towel.

Stinky fridge aromas don’t simply hang in the air. One of the main reasons that fridges smell bad is that foul odors and bacteria have attached to the plastic liner. You can remove these ingrained contaminants with a few simple household cleaners.

A baking soda solution is an easy, non-toxic way to neutralize smells throughout the fridge. Combine a cup of baking soda with a gallon of warm water in a bucket. Dip a sponge in the mixture and wipe down the fridge walls, ceiling, and floor.

Avoid using an abrasive scrubber in the refrigerator. Scratches in the plastic can leave places for bacteria to hide, making your job harder each time you need to clean. Always use a soft cloth or sponge to wipe down the interior surfaces. You can gently loosen tough stuck-on gunk with a soft-bristled toothbrush if needed.

If you don’t have any baking soda on hand to help you with your smelly fridge, you can look to our other go-to DIY cleaner — vinegar. Whip up a 50/50 mix of distilled white vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Spritz it on the inside of the refrigerator, and use a clean damp cloth to wipe down the interior surfaces and door seals.

Wash Shelves and Crisper Drawers in Soapy Water

Wash your shelves and crisper drawers after cleaning the inside of the fridge. Use dish soap and water or your vinegar solution to clean away germs and food residue. Don’t wash shelves in hot water, as the cold glass can shatter from the sudden temperature change.

Check the Drip Pan

The drip pan is a shallow plastic tray that sits at the bottom of your refrigerator to catch condensation from the defrost cycle so it doesn’t spill onto your kitchen floor. In most instances, any moisture in the tray will evaporate with the help of heat from the condenser.

On occasion, moisture won’t evaporate as it should and stagnant water will develop in the tray. Mold and bacteria can then flourish and begin producing unpleasant smells.

It’s good practice to check your drip tray once every three months. With most refrigerators, you can access the drip tray by removing the kick plate from the front or a panel from the back with a Phillips screwdriver. Refrigerators vary in the placement of the drip pan, and some don’t include one at all. Check your owner’s manual for directions on accessing and maintaining your refrigerator’s tray.

Don’t Forget the Freezer

While you’re cleaning out the refrigerator, take the opportunity to clean out the freezer. If your fridge has spoiled food, your frozen foods are likely overdue for a purge. Check for expired food or freezer burn, and throw away any ice in the ice bin if it’s more than a few days old.

Even if your freezer looks clean, refrigerator odors can still affect the contents. In a single evaporator unit, air flows between the refrigerator and the freezer, and any fridge smells can easily infiltrate both sections. When bad smells pass into the freezer, it’s common for your ice to pick up a foul odor and taste.

Check the Filters

Foul-smelling water or ice from the dispenser could indicate that your fridge filter is dirty and needs a change. Filters typically last around six months. If you can’t recall the last time you changed yours, it probably means it’s ready.

Your refrigerator may also have an air filter, a crucial component in maintaining fridge freshness. Like a water filter, the air filter typically needs a change once every several months. Refer to your owner’s manual for information on how and when to change your fridge filters.

Air Out the Fridge

At this stage, you may be able to refill your fridge and call it a day. But if bad smells are a constant battle, you can take the next step and let fresh air circulate through your fridge. Unplug the unit and prop the fridge and freezer doors open. Air out the refrigerator overnight or longer.

Run the Fridge with an Odor Eliminator

After airing out the fridge, plug it in and let it cool. Before adding the food back in, let the refrigerator run with an odor eliminator, keeping the door closed to let it absorb as much remaining odor as possible. The following are some of the most effective tools to eliminate fridge smells.

Get Rid of Refrigerator Smells with Newspaper

Newspaper is a surprisingly effective odor absorber. Crumple several pages to maximize the exposed surface area, and stuff them in your refrigerator while it’s running. Leave them for 2–3 days with the door shut to remove any hidden fridge smells.

Use Baking Soda to Neutralize Bad Smells

When bacteria, yeast, and mold break down food items, they release foul odors into the air. Odor particles are either acidic or basic, and as an amphoteric compound, baking soda can interact with all kinds of fridge smells to eliminate them. For instance, spoiled milk releases lactic acid while butter releases butyric acid, which will stop smelling when the powder neutralizes their pH levels.

Baking soda can help absorb excess refrigerator moisture while removing odors, making it a practical addition to your fridge when it’s full of food. But simply putting an open box on the shelf isn’t enough. Spread the powder on a plate or in a small bowl to increase its exposed area, giving foul odors a better chance of coming across it.

Absorb Odors with Coffee Grounds

Coffee grounds are another fantastic odor absorber that has the added benefit of giving off a pleasant scent. Nitrogen in coffee beans is an effective odor neutralizer, particularly when facing the rotten-egg stench of sulfur gasses.

Spread some grounds on a couple of baking sheets. Put one baking sheet on an upper shelf and another below it to give the coffee the best chance to neutralize odors. Leave the grounds in the fridge for 3–4 days. Dispose of them in the compost when the time is up if the idea of recycling them through the coffee maker doesn’t sound appealing.

Try Cat Litter to Eliminate Odors

If you’re all out of baking soda or coffee grounds, try the odor-absorbing power of kitty litter to get rid of those nasty smells. Sprinkle some on a tray and leave it in your fridge for 3–4 days to absorb odors.

Use an Activated Charcoal or Zeolite Refrigerator Deodorizer

When you’ve tried everything else, a refrigerator deodorizer is an effective solution to evict stinky smells from your fridge or freezer. A refrigerator deodorizer is a product containing an odor-eliminating material, typically activated carbon (charcoal) or, in some cases, zeolite, a microporous mineral. These natural substances have a high surface area that allows them to grab foul odors and various gasses, taking them out of circulation.

Add Vanilla Extract to Keep Your Fridge Smelling Fresh

If you want your fridge to smell amazing every time you open the door, add a cotton ball with a few drops of vanilla extract to the inside. The vanilla smell will circulate and overpower any remaining fridge odors. Since it primarily masks bad smells, use vanilla extract as a follow-up to another odor removal method.

How to Prevent Foul Fridge Odors

Food spoilage is impossible to prevent, but it’s easy to anticipate and even delay with a few smart practices. Start by making sure your refrigerator and freezer are at the proper temperatures. The optimal fridge temperature to keep food fresh is around 37°F, while freezers should stay at 0°F to inhibit bacterial growth.

Keep food in airtight containers, being sure to date leftovers so you can identify when you need to pitch them. Use glass containers instead of plastic, as they’re much less likely to absorb smells from the stored food.

If spoiled produce is constantly creating bad smells in the fridge, an activated charcoal deodorizer can be a huge help in the crisper drawer. It will actively draw in any smelly odors and ethylene gas, slowing the ripening process. Your produce will last longer, and you won’t have to contend with foul refrigerator odors every few days.

Why Does My Fridge Smell So Bad?

As one of the germiest places in your home, it’s not surprising that refrigerators can smell so bad. Refrigerators offer the organic matter and moisture that boost bacteria and mold growth. These microbes give off foul odors as natural products of their activity as they consume food, which can then hasten food spoilage across the rest of the fridge.

How Do You Get Rid of the Rotten Food Smell in a Fridge?

The best way to get rid of bad smells in the refrigerator is to remove any rotten food and clean up spills. Removing the odor-causing bacteria and mold will ensure it doesn’t come back. After a thorough cleaning, add a tray of baking soda, coffee grounds, or, even better, loose activated charcoal to suck up any lingering scents.

How Do I Get the Bad Smell Out of My Refrigerator?

A stinky odor shouldn’t leave you scrambling to buy a new fridge, but it often takes a lot more than an open container of baking soda on the top shelf to get rid of the smell in its entirety. 

Any odor elimination technique can take a few days to have the desired effect. If you have irritating fridge odors but no time to deal with them, book a specialty cleaning with Anita’s to have a professional tackle the task! Request a cleaning today, and within minutes, we’ll connect you with experienced local cleaners to help you get rid of those foul fridge odors for good.


Anita's Housekeeping Editors