How to Get Rid of That Bad Smell in Your Refrigerator and Freezer

Plus, learn how to prevent that stale, sour odor from returning for good.

We've all been there: You go to grab a can of sparkling water or a late-night scoop of ice cream and (bam!) you're hit with a terrible stench when you open the fridge or freezer door. No matter how clean you keep your home, if you aren't giving your fridge the same attention you give other spaces, stale, sour odors are bound to happen. The good news? Getting rid of that nasty smell isn't difficult—but you need to start by identifying the odor's cause, whether it's a forgotten piece of produce or poorly sealed containers. Then, prioritize keeping your fridge and freezer fresh by making a few minor changes to your maintenance routine.

Why Your Refrigerator or Freezer Is Smelly

There are several possible causes of bad odors in a fridge and freezer, says Alicia Sokolowski, the president and co-CEO of AspenClean.

  • Spoiled food: When food goes bad, it can produce unpleasant smells that can spread throughout the fridge.
  • Spills: Food or liquid spills in the fridge can create a breeding ground for odor-causing bacteria.
  • Mold: Mold can grow in the fridge, particularly in moist areas or in food.
  • Dirty fridge: If not cleaned regularly, your fridge can become dirty and develop odors.
  • Absorbed odors: Certain foods—such as onions or garlic—can leave a strong odor that other foods in the fridge can absorb.
  • Faulty fridge or freezer: In rare cases, a bad odor could be a sign of a problem with the fridge or freezer, such as a malfunctioning compressor or a defective seal.
  • Poorly sealed containers: If food is not stored in airtight containers, smells can escape and permeate the fridge or freezer.
  • Faulty defrost system: If the freezer's defrost system is not working properly, frost can build up and cause odors.
Refrigerator/ Freezer in modern kitchen
KatarzynaBialasiewicz / GETTY IMAGES

How to Deodorize Your Refrigerator and Freezer—and Keep Them Smelling Fresh

Following these five steps will help you identify and eliminate that bad smell in your fridge and freezer (and prevent it from returning).

1. Empty the Refrigerator and Freezer

To get rid of that stench in your fridge and freezer, it's time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. The first step is to empty the shelves and drawers, so have a clear view of your fridge surface, says Anne Ruozzi, the co-founder of After everything has been removed and placed on your counter, begin auditing and cleaning.

Deep-cleaning the fridge
Pavel Muravev / GETTY IMAGES

2. Clean the Refrigerator and Freezer

You may have read about a few fridge and freezer deodorizing shortcuts, which call on ingredients like apple cider vinegar, charcoal, or coffee grounds. If you really want to remove that smell, skip them—nothing works as well as a thorough clean.

To start, spray interior surfaces with either a mixture of water and vinegar or a plant-based all-purpose cleaner and wipe everything down with a warm, damp microfiber towel, says Ruozzi. Start at the top and work your way down; be sure to hit the shelves and drawers and don't forget about the sides and back of the fridge. "If your shelves are removable, washing them with mild soap and warm water in the sink may be more effective," she says.

3. Inspect All Food

Your fridge and freezer might be sparkling and bacteria-free, but the work isn't done—so don't just put all your food back in its designated spot. Instead, do a health check on every item, including condiments and other mainstays, like butter. This step is critical: Odors in a fridge or freezer happen for a lot of reason, but one of the primary sources is the food itself, says Morgan Eberhard, a senior scientist at Dawn. This isn't always a sign of spoilage: Some foods simply emit pungent smells—including garlic, raw fish, and stinky cheeses—even when stored correctly inside the fridge.

But spoiled food does smell worse. "Even when refrigerated, food items start to decompose over time. As food spoils, microbes such as bacteria, yeasts, and mold grow and feed on the decomposing food," Eberhard says. "These microbes produce odorous chemicals themselves (think of the smell of mold), and the food produces odors as the microbes decompose it."

If your food has gone bad, throw it out or place it in your compost. Also, check expiration dates so you can toss and replace if needed. Moving forward, whenever you see food on its last leg, remove it from your fridge stat—and clean up afterward, too. "What often gets missed is any leakage or seepage of the food item onto the refrigerator drawer or surface," Eberhard says. "That leftover gunk will continue to decompose and cause odors."

4. Make a Cleaning Schedule and Check the Temperature

Deep cleaning your fridge and freezer is a chore. Rather than waiting for smelly motivation, clean out your fridge each week to prevent odors in the first place, says Shantae Duckworth, a professional home organizer. In addition to ensuring your kitchen is smell-free, this also gives you time to plan your next week of meals; as you throw out old food, create a shopping list for that upcoming trip to the grocery store.

During this weekly ritual, check that your fridge's temperature is set to 40 degrees, Ruozzi says. "If the temperature rises, you risk bacteria multiplying in your fridge, which is the leading cause of foodborne illnesses like salmonella, E-coli and listeria," she explains. "Fewer bacteria means fewer unpleasant odors, too."

As for the freezer? Duckworth recommends defrosting and cleaning it every six months. "This gives you a chance to check out frozen food that you may not eat or has freezer burn, which can also cause odors," she says.

5. Add an Opened Box of Baking Soda

In between cleanings, place an opened box of baking soda in your refrigerator. "This will help neutralize some mild food odors floating around in your fridge," says Eberhard. "While this might keep you from smelling them as much or as soon as you would otherwise, removing the source of odors, especially those from spoiling foods, is always the best approach."

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