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Do Bathroom Fans Remove Smell? (8 Great Alternatives)

Where I live, bathroom exhaust fans are not common. They are typically only found in hotels and certain public restrooms that do not have windows. I always thought that these fans were installed to control odors, but they are actually there to control moisture.

Still, the way that bathroom exhaust fans function means that they are well equipped to deal with certain odors as well. There are also other ways to control bathroom odors if you are concerned.


Bathroom exhaust fans are effective at removing normal bathroom smells from the bathroom. The odors, suspended in the air, are pulled out by the fan and replaced with fresher air.

The Primary Purpose of Bathroom Fans

As stated, the primary purpose of bathroom exhaust fans is to control moisture in the bathroom. Moisture is generated in large quantities by hot showers and baths and is extremely destructive if given enough time.

Water corrodes, rots, and encourages the growth of bacteria and mold. There are also minor but more immediate inconveniences, including foggy mirrors and surfaces covered in condensation.

To prevent this, exhaust fans draw out the air in the bathroom, air laden with water vapor, and following the natural movement of air down a pressure gradient, “fresh” air is pulled into the bathroom to replace the exhausted air.

How-bathroom-exhaust-fan-works-illustration

Exhaust Fans Effective Against Toilet Smells

While it’s a pretty gross thought, the smells related to using the toilet are from a combination of gases and particulates. When these reach the receptors in our noses, our brain interprets the activation of these receptors as a bad smell.

If these gases and particulates are removed from the air, so is the smell.

Bathroom fans are very good at doing this because they remove the air in which the gases and particulates are suspended. They can no longer attach to your nasal receptors, so you can no longer smell the odor.

Now, since bathroom fans terminate outside, you might be concerned about the smell building up outside. However, this is extremely unlikely. When the exhausted air reaches the outside, the gases and particulates spread through a much larger volume of air.

They become so diluted that the chances of enough gases/particles (or indeed any) coming into contact with your nose to trigger the brain’s interpretation of an odor are almost non-existant.

Another way that bathroom fans combats bathroom odors is by keeping them from escaping out of the bathroom into other parts of the house.

By drawing the air into the ducts, exhaust systems create an area of low pressure in the bathroom. Following the laws of nature, air will always move down the pressure gradient (from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure).

This means that as long as your bathroom fan is running (and it is adequately sized for your bathroom), the odors will only escape into other rooms of the house if the gases and particulates start violating the laws of physics, which is just not going to happen.

Modern-white-bathroom-with-shower-toilet-and-a-bathroom-fan-above-it

Odors might take a little longer to remove because they do not rise to the exhaust fans like steam does. The fans will be located on the ceiling or on the walls close to the ceiling because this is where they can best capture steam.

However, if the ventilation system is designed correctly and you have chosen the correct bathroom fan, it will only take about 8 minutes for all the air in the bathroom to be replaced with fresh air.

What About Other Smells?

Bathroom fans can be helpful in removing all smells. For example, if you are painting your bathroom or an adjacent room, turning on the bathroom fan is going to help to control the fumes associated with this work.

However, for the odors associated with cigarettes or the smoke from a fireplace may not be eradicated by turning on the bathroom fan.

The odorous fumes suspended in the air will be removed, but these fumes can also be absorbed by materials. Over time, these materials release the smell, so the bathroom always has a lingering smokey odor.

Running the Fan Can Cause an Odor

Sometimes, running bathroom fans can seem to produce a sewer-like smell. The bad news is that this is not just a sewer-like smell. It’s actually sewer gases.

If you notice a sewer smell when the fan is running, then you should check all the drains for blockages and assess the pressure balance of the bathroom.

8 Alternative Ways to Rid Bathrooms of Bad Odors

A vented bathroom fan is very efficient at controlling bad odors in the bathroom, but it isn’t always necessary if you have sufficient natural ventilation or there is no bath or shower in the bathroom.

In such cases, there are a few cheaper and easier options that you can go with to remove bathroom odors. You can also employ some of these in addition to the bathroom fan.

1. Ductless Bathroom Fan

A ductless bathroom fan is a great alternative for bathrooms without showers and where there are no ducts already installed.

Installing these devices is very easy and can usually be done in less than an hour.

Unlike vented exhaust fans, the primary purpose of ductless bathroom fans (amazon link) is odor removal. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking they are sufficient ventilation if the bathroom has a bath/shower!

Broan-Nutone 682 Duct-Free Ventilation Fan, White Square Ceiling or Wall Exhaust Fan with Plastic Grille

Ventilation is characterized by the removal of “old” air and its replacement with “new” air. Duct-free fans only filter the same bathroom air through activated carbon, which chemically removes odors, trapping them in its porous surface, but which has no effect on moisture levels.

While ductless fans are not good at providing ventilation, they are good at achieving their primary function of odor removal.

One gram of activated carbon has a surface area of about 32000 sq ft. So, a typical 50-gram filter has more than 1.6 million contaminant trapping square feet.

This is also the reason why they need replacing once in a while. When the porous surface is filled with contaminants it no longer filters air and should be replaced.

Filter (4 Pieces)
  • Price For: Pack of 4 Fits Brand: Broan Item: Filter For Use With: Mfr. Model Number: 682 For Use With Mfr. Model Number: 682 Country of Origin (subject to...

Last update on 2024-05-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

2. Homemade Air Freshener

Most of the commercially available air fresheners barely mask toilet smells with strong chemicals and pollute the indoor air with dangerous substances. This can even be true of products marked “green” or “eco-friendly”.

The Natural Resources Defence Council’s independent testing discovered that 86% of tested air fresheners contained phthalates. Even the ones that were marked green or eco-friendly!

In light of this, I consider it to be best to mix up your own air freshener, thus ensuring that you are not poisoning your family with unknown chemicals.

Here is what you will need for the air freshener:

ItemDescriptionView On Amazon
Spray bottleMake sure you choose a bottle that will protect the solution from ultraviolet light. I would avoid plastic bottles as some essential oils can damage them.View
Essential oilIt is very important to use a reputable seller for this. I have linked to a set of 6 essential oils so that you can experiment and see what you like best.View
AlcoholThis will help water and the essential oil mix together. Rubbing alcohol or vodka will do.View
How to make a homemade air freshener; recipe and things needed infographic

As you can see it is possible to make an air freshener with just 3 ingredients, not dozens, like on the commercially available products.

Here is my go-to recipe to use in the bathroom to get rid of any unwanted smells:

  • 3/4 cups of water
  • 6 drops of eucalyptus essential oil
  • 4 drops of tea tree essential oil
  • 2 tablespoons of rubbing alcohol

Be sure to experiment with different essential oils and quantities to see what you like best.

3. Baking Soda

Baking soda (amazon link) is one of the home’s most versatile staples. One use for this unassuming powder is absorbing odors.

The way to use it is to place small bowls of baking powder around the bathroom, changing them out every week or whenever you feel like they have stopped doing their job.

The reason why baking soda removes bad smells is because most odors are acidic. Baking soda has a very high pH, making it alkaline. Acids and alkalines react to neutralize each other, so the smell is neutralized.

Harbor Point Mineral’s Baking Soda - Sodium Bicarbonate (50 lb)

This is also why baking soda is very effective at removing the smell of vinegar (an acid) after you have used it to remove mold from the bathroom.

One problem with baking soda is that the powder is quite vulnerable to moisture. The powder readily gets clogged by water if you use it in a bathroom with a shower or bath.

4. Lighting a match

Lighting a match after going to the toilet is, in my opinion, the most effective way to hide the unpleasant odor (apart from an exhaust fan). But remember to dispose of the match probably so that there is no chance of an accidental fire.

Sometimes, when I don’t have matches on hand, I use a lighter to light a small piece of toilet paper. This works best if you light it up, let it burn for a couple of seconds, and then blow it out. There will be a little smoke and that will hide the smell quite effectively.

Hand lighting the lighter while holding the toilet paper on the other side illustration

The only problem with lighting a piece of toilet paper is sometimes if you let it burn for too long it is very difficult to blow it out. So, before lighting it look for a safe spot where to throw it if things get out of hand.

Why Lighting a Match Helps

Lighting a match will not get rid of the bathroom odor, it simply masks it. Lighting a match produces sulfur dioxide, which will cover the unpleasant bathroom odors until they have time to clear. By the time the smell of sulfur dioxide is gone so will be the smell you are trying to hide.

5. Bamboo Charcoal

Bamboo charcoal is quite a new product but it is very effective. It can be used all over the house and even in the car.

Bamboo charcoal absorbs both moisture and odors, leaving your house smelling fresh and clean. Keep in mind that if your bathroom lacks an exhaust fan, it is best to start with ventilation, and if the smell still persists move on to more advanced things like a bamboo charcoal air purifier (amazon link).

10 Pack Bamboo Charcoal Nature Fresh Air Purifying Bags Activated Charcoal Bags Odor Absorber, Moisture Eliminator,Deodorizer,Air Fresheners For Car Smell,Closet,Shoe,large Room,Pet Room(10x100g))

One bag of bamboo charcoal lasts for about 2 years. It must be activated in the sun for 2 hours every other month.

6. Air Purifier

Air purifiers with activated carbon filters are also effective at removing odors. They not only freshen up the smell of the bathroom but also improve the air quality. This is especially important for people with allergies or asthma.

Mechanical air purifiers consists of a filter and a fan. The fan circulates the air through the filter, thus cleaning it.

I have an article dedicated to using air purifiers in a bathroom. Head over there if you wish to learn more.

7. NoMO Air Purifier

The NoMO Air Purifier (amazon link) is, in my opinion, a very clever device. I have not personally used it but I have heard wonderful things about it. If the look of it does not bother you then this is something that would be very valuable in a shared bathroom.

The way it works is you mount it on the side of the toilet bowl and with a touch-free swipe (points for hygiene!) you turn it on before you go to the bathroom. Since it is very close to the source of the bad smell it works much more effectively at removing bad odors than exhaust fans or air purifiers.

NoMO Air Purifier for Bathroom - Chemical Free Activated Charcoal Deodorizer, Eliminates Toilet Odors and Smells

Since ductless fans and air purifier are most likely at least a couple of feet from the source of the smell, the odor has time to spread around the room. There will then be a much larger air volume that has to be filtered through and that’s why it takes much longer for an air purifier to get rid of the nasty smells.

8. Clean Your Bathroom Regularly

No fancy product or device will help if you simply won’t clean the bathroom. They can hide the smell temporarily but it will return after a short while.

The bathroom should be cleaned at least once a week—more often if the bathroom is shared and many people are using it.

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