Why Do Restrooms Smell Bad?

By Amy Milshtein

Why Do Restrooms Smell Bad?

Nothing puts people off faster than a foul-smelling restroom. Using a restroom away from home always involves a certain amount of uncertainty. A clean, fresh-smelling space eases doubt immediately. In fact, studies show that a well-maintained restroom broadcasts a well-maintained organization, where management cares about their employees and customers. 

But when a customer opens the restroom door and is hit with a nose-wrinkling combination of urine, mold and chemical air freshener they lose trust…and you may lose business. A survey conducted by Opinion Research Corporation found that 69% of respondents would not eat at a restaurant with an unclean restroom and 39% immediately left an establishment because the restrooms smelled like urine.

So why do restrooms smell bad and what can you do to fix it? 

Making a Stink

There's the obvious reason a restroom smells bad—feces stinks. Offensive as it is, this shouldn't be the culprit. If your ventilation system is in good working order, this odor dissipate quickly. If it doesn't, check your HVAC system. 

If your restroom still smells, especially right after cleaning, there's other likely causes.

  • Mold and mildew build up: If your restroom smells musty check floor drains, the obvious place for mold, first. Be aware that mold and mildew can also grow in and around light fixtures and drywall ceilings. 
  • Five O'clock Shadow: Do your baseboards look dingy right after mopping? If so, they probably smell bad too. That's five o'clock shadow caused by dirty mop water splashing up against the walls during cleaning. The water dries but contaminants stick around looking bad and smelling worse.
  • Dirty grout: This is the big bad when it comes to restroom odors. Robust, non-porous and design-forward tile is a great material for restrooms. The grout between tiles, however, is a porous sponge. Urine finds its way into the grout, from splashing, bad aim or tracking on shoes, and soaks right in. There it sits, providing a rich food source for malodorous bacterial. 
  • Chemical air freshener: Business owners may try to mask unpleasant restroom odors with a spritz of chemical air freshener. Not only does this not fix the underlying problem, it adds another layer of smell creating an unpleasant potpourri of stink. 

Clearing the Air

Mold and mildew are common restroom odor offenders. The warm, damp environment gives the spores a perfect place to grow, thrive and give off that tell-tale musty smell. Clean mold with a bleach solution and stiff brush. Rinse with clean, fresh water. Increased ventilation and drying wet surfaces thoroughly after cleaning keep mold and mildew from re-growing. 

If your restroom smells like sewer gas check the drain trap underneath the floor. This device uses water to block gas from entering the space. Fixing this is as easy as pouring a cup of water down the drain. Do this every two weeks on a set schedule to keep the trap from drying out. 

Cleaning to Remove Dirt and Odors

Cleaning tiles and floors completely is the only way to fully remove bad odors. Traditional mops, buckets and rags, however don't do the job. In fact, daily cleaning with a string or microfiber mop can actually make the problem worse as rough-textured grout acts like a little squeegee, pulling dirty water out of the mop and onto itself. 

A study, reported in Cleaning and Maintenance Magazine, proves the point. Researchers measured the amount of creatinine, a substance excreted in urine, left on a tile and grout restroom floor after cleaning with a new string mop, a new microfiber mop and a high flow fluid extraction system, also known as a spray-and-vac. Plain water with no chemical cleaners were used with all three methods. 

The mops, both string and microfiber, only removed a disappointing 38% of creatine from the grout and 75% from the tile. The spray-and-vac removed an impressive 98% of creatine from both the tile and the grout. 

Spray-and-vacs have other odor-fighting advantages as well. They don't splash dirty water, so there's no stinky five O'clock shadow and they leave the floor completely dry, inhibiting mold growth. 

Click here to find more ways to remove odors and clean restrooms right. 

Amy Milshtein

Amy Milshtein

Amy Milshtein covers design, facility management and business topics for a variety of trade publications and consumer magazines. 

Her work has won several awards, most recently a regional silver Azbee Award of Excellence.

She lives in Portland, OR with her family and Clyde, a 15-lb tabby cat. Once an avid hiker, these days she finds herself on the less-challenging -but-still-exciting 'creaky knees' trails.

Ask Icky - 5 O'Clock Shadow

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