Home Scenting: Why Are Some Smells So Hard to Get Rid Of?
Home Scenting

Home Scenting: Why Are Some Smells So Hard to Get Rid Of?

Home Scenting Report: You wake up the morning after a late-night party with friends who are smokers, and the pungent stench of their cigarettes or cigars is still in your hair. Or maybe you plop down on the couch and wrinkle your nose at the fragrance of wet dog, which is still detectable even though it's been days since your damp pooch rolled on the cushions.

Your nose and brain can detect a lot of smells — about a trillion of them, according to recent estimates. But while many smells come and go relatively quickly, others seem to take up long-term residence in fabric, clothing and hair.

Why do some smells linger longer than others do, and what makes these tenacious scents harder to banish for good?

Our sense of smell activates when special sensory cells in our noses, called olfactory receptor neurons, react to certain molecules in the gas phase and generate a signal to the brain. Different receptors "recognize" different molecules based on the molecules' shapes and the configuration of atoms on their surfaces, said Christopher Cramer, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota.

"There's a lock-and-key level of specificity, with some receptors being SUPER-specific, while others are more promiscuous," Cramer told Live Science in an email. Certain chemical cues are interpreted as pleasant smells, while other molecular configurations trigger disgust.

Tobacco smoke is a complex brew, containing thousands of chemicals produced by the burning tobacco leaves and additives, according to the American Cancer Society. Chemicals that are left behind when the smoke dissipates can saturate clothing, textiles, carpets and furniture; the residue is sometimes referred to as "third-hand smoke," the Mayo Clinic reported.

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