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How to Remove that Thrift Store Smell, and Other Vintage Cleaning Tips

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Photo by Driely S. for Racked
Photo by Driely S. for Racked

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If you're someone who's big into thrift stores or is an avid collector of vintage clothing, you've likely faced one or more of these common problems: mystery stains, fabric that's yellowed from age and exposure, leather goods that are scuffed, nicked, or dried out, and the most ubiquitous of thrifting issues...that horrible musty smell.

Well, woes be gone! We've got a whole countdown's worth of ways to tackle all those vexing vintage conundrums.

Five Ways to Get Rid of that Vintage Smell

Activated Charcoal
Activated charcoal, also found under the names activated carbon, active carbon, and active charcoal, can be purchased loose in pet supply stores (look in the fish section!) or in brick form from companies like Innofresh. It's a great odor absorber and neutralizer; to use, seal the offending item in a lidded container or large sealable bag (even a trash bag will do) along with the activated charcoal for 24 hours, or even up to one week.

Kitty Litter
Record-scratch-whaaat??? Yeah, you read that right: Kitty litter is a super odor eliminator and is particularly great on items that don't play nicely with water, like beaded clutches or silk kimonos. The litter contains activated charcoal, so if you've already got some in the house, you can use it as a substitute in exactly the same way.

White Vinegar
Dress your vintage gear like a salad by spraying white vinegar on it. It sounds weird, but the acid in the vinegar will counteract any odors—the vinegar smell will dissipate fairly quickly, so you don't need to worry that you'll walk around smelling like a pickle.

Another weird-but-true spritzing agent for odor removal is vodka; use the cheap stuff like Georgi or Popov and save the Chopin for your martinis.

Steaming a garment, especially if you use a scent-infused steaming solution, will eliminate smells from vintage goods, and will also help to revive wrinkled or napped fibers. A few passes may be needed to fully eradicate particularly pungent odors.

Four Ways to Salvage Leather and Suede

Saddle Soap
Saddle soap is just what it sounds like: soap that's used to clean leather saddles. It will also clean leather bags, jackets, belts, and shoes that are dingy and worn-looking and is a particularly great choice for cleaning lighter-colored leather. To use it, apply a damp (but only very slightly damp!) cloth to the soap, which comes in a tin, and rub in a circular motion to produce a lather. Then apply it to the leather, wiping clean with a non-sudsy part of your damp cloth.

Shoe Polish
Most people only think of using shoe polish for shoes—we can't really fault them for that since the word "shoe" is right there in the name. But shoe polish, especially colored shoe polish, is great for reviving leather handbags that have been nicked, scratched, or otherwise banged up by their previous owners. Two brands to look out for that offer a huge variety of colored polishes are Tarrago and Meltonian.

Leather Conditioner
Leather conditioner is a milder choice than saddle soap for reviving older leather goods that may have become dried out over the years. You can buy a brand-name leather conditioner, such as Leather Honey, or DIY it by mixing two parts white vinegar to three parts olive oil in a spray bottle.

Suede Eraser
Suede erasers are The Thing for removing scuffs, stains and grime from all manner of suede items. If you can't find a dedicated suede eraser, you can substitute a white art eraser.

Three Ways to Remove Yellowing

Hmm, well, it's actually more like "one way to remove yellowing from aged items using any one of three products" but that seems a little unwieldy. Most yellowed clothing and linens can be brought back to their original white or light-colored state via a good, long soak in hot or warm water (depending on the fabric type—avoid hot water when working with linen and other easily shrunk textiles) and a generous scoop of either OxiClean or Borax. For particularly delicate or precious items, try using Engleside Restoration. These products will whiten and brighten without bleaching or otherwise causing color loss.

Two Ways to Tackle Mystery Stains

You can also try the OxiClean or Borax soaking method on items that have mysterious stains, but if those two products prove ineffective, try upping your game with either K2r or dry cleaning solvents. These are the kind of stain removal products that can be found at your local hardware store, so you know they mean business.

K2r is a spray product that you'll apply to a stained item, allow to dry, and then brush away; dry cleaning solvents should be applied sparingly by putting a small amount on a light-colored cloth or rag and dabbing at the stain. Once you've gotten the spot out, you'll need to remove the solvents by going over the area with a clean, wet rag or cloth.

One Thing to Just Avoid

Don't buy used underwear, okay?