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How to remove cigarette smell and stains from walls

Best way to get rid of cigarette odor from the walls and ceilings while painting

Did you just buy a home that smells from cigarette smoke?  Sometimes it’s so bad that it’s hard to breath.  And, those nicotine stains on the walls can almost make you sick to your stomach.  (You’ll especially notice them after the paintings are removed).  Of course, we don’t really know the long-term effects of third-hand smoke, but when it comes to our health, I operate under the principle of better safe than sorry.  Either way, most non-smokers want that nicotine smell and those

how to remove cigarette smell and stains from walls

So, I’ve put together some tips on how to eliminate cigarette smells and stains on the walls.  The good news it is that it’s not difficult to do (if you use the right products).  The bad news is that it’s just tedious and time consuming.  This is definitely a job you can do yourself.  But, the real question is whether you have the time, whether you want to do it as well as any concerns you may have with your health.


Please note that this article may contain affiliate links.  You can read my full disclosure at the bottom of the page.


What won’t work:

How to remove cigarette smell and stains from wallsBefore I get started, I wanted to note something important that some people don’t realize.  Painting by itself will NOT solve this issue.  Painting may camouflage some or even all of the stains (if you use a dark enough color).  BUT, it will NOT take care of the odor.  Paint is porous, so the nicotine smell will permeate through the paint.  Instead, you need to remove the surface odor and then seal in the remaining odor with a primer.

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4 Basic steps to remove cigarette smell in walls:

1.  Air out the rooms before starting

The more you can aerate the area and remove the smell in other surfaces (e.g. carpets) before you start, the easier this job will be.  And, it will be a bit more pleasant and easier to breathe.  I have several tips below that will guide you through this.


2.  Clean the walls with a TSP cleaner

how to remove cigarette smell from walls | removing smoke odorTSP stands for TriSodium Phosphate, and it’s a powerful cleaner used before painting.  It removes dirt, grease, grime, soot, and chalked paint.  It’s also specially formulated to control lead paint dust (which come in handy if your home was built before 1978).  We use Savogran in the powder form, but it’s also available in a liquid form.    We then add Simple Green to it. Simple Green is a multipurpose cleaner so it makes the room smell a bit better and cleaner as the work is being done.  More details below on the ratios.

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how to remove cigarette smell from walls | removing smoke odor cover stain primer3.  Prime with an odor sealing primer

This is a “MUST HAVE.”  If you don’t prime the walls with an odor sealing primer, the smell will permeate through…even if it doesn’t happen right away.  And, you’ll have to go back to square one.  Don’t skimp here.


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4.  Paint, as usual

Use the same process for the ceilings, base molding, doors and all other trim.  This is rather simple; but, it is time consuming and tedious.


Preparation BEFORE you start removing cigarette odor from walls and ceilings

  • Open the windows and run as many fans as you can.  It’s ideal to do this for a few days.  (I understand that this may not work very well in winter if it’s extremely cold, but this will help make the air more breathable).


  • Remove the carpeting and ALL fabrics.  Yes, carpet (and all fabrics for that matter) capture the nicotine and the smell.  You’re welcome to clean it all you want, but I can guarantee you that you won’t get it out.  And, most methods you’ll find will only get some of it out, and then camouflage the smell.  That wouldn’t be good enough for me, especially if you kids or pets.  Dump it all…and the carpet padding.  It will make a huge difference!  Trust me.  If you have any other fabrics in the house (e.g. drapery, window treatments, etc.), dump it.  If your budget is limited, leave these areas bare until you can afford to replace it.  Hint:  If you can’t afford carpeting, get a cheap area rug until you can fully cover the area.  (See:  Gray area rugs for less than $200 for some ideas).


  • Get an air purifier.  This can really help.  I’d wait to use it until after you air the place out with the windows and fans.  After that, start running the air purifier.  And, make sure you have extra filters.  Keep it on throughout the cleaning, priming and painting process.  (See:  Best and most affordable air purifiers).


  • Gather/order and prep your materials.  You’ll want to wait a few days anyway to let the place air out, so you have time to order them online.


How to clean the walls with cigarette odor

how to remove cigarette odor from walls and nicotine stainsFirst, you want to prep the materials.  We generally use an empty 5 gallon bucket (or a large bucket) and use Savogran TSP cleaner.  We use the powder (as it’s less expensive…and goes further) and mix it with warm water so that it dissolves.


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how to remove cigarette smell from walls | removing smoke odor - simple green sprayWe then add in 2 cups of Simple Green.  Simple Green helps reduce the grime, and importantly adds a fresh clean scent to make the job a bit more pleasant.

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Next, you will take the cleaning solution and with the sponge (or a rag), wipe it on and clean the wall.  You will usually need to scrub the walls.  Let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes.


Then, wipe it off with a 2nd clean sponge with clean warm water.  Note:  You will need to clean and wring the sponge in warm water often, so that it remains clean.


Do one whole section at a time.  Then move on to the next section.


The thing that makes this tricky and time consuming is that you will need to do the top portions on the ladder, and you may need to keep moving the ladder.  So, for each wall, you may do this in 2 sections (the top half and the bottom half).  So, for a typical 4 wall room, such as a dining room, you would do the walls in 8 sections.  Plus, don’t forget the 5th “wall”…the ceiling, so really it will be 9 sections.


It takes lot of time…and a lot of elbow grease.  Note: you still may have some stains left on the walls, and that’s okay.  Your goal is to get the whole top layer off, as that’s what’s causing most of the smell.  If you have some stains left over, they will get sealed and covered with the primer.  See below, as you will need a strong and effective primer.


Then, rinse and repeat…room by room.


Oh, and be sure to rub and clean all areas, including the doors and trim.  More details on this in a bit.

WAIT ONE DAY after you have completed this steps (as well as ceilings, doors, trim, etc.).  The walls and ceilings need to be dry before you prime.


How to clean the ceiling with cigarette odor

Don’t forget the ceilings.  Yes, smoke rises.  Ceilings should be done in the same manner.  Be sure to apply proper pressure.  And, of course if you have high ceilings, this will be less fun and take some more time. (Make sure you have a ladder that goes high enough.


How to prime the walls with cigarette smell

DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.  If you do, you will probably need to go back to step one.  The most important purpose of the primer (in this case) is to seal in any remaining odor.  Just painting without a primer will not suffice.  The second most important function is to cover up any remaining nicotine stains.


While I’m on the topic of primer, I’ll give you a few other benefits that primers provide.  They seal the wall so that you have a much better surface for painting as they provide better adhesion.  They will make your paint color look better (and more saturated).  They will help your paint last longer, and you will extend the coverage of your paint (so you don’t need to use as much).  In addition, a primer will help smooth out your walls and camouflage imperfections a bit.


how to remove cigarette smell from walls | removing smoke odor - cover stain primerDo not skimp on your primer when you are removing cigarette odor.  And, avoid buying one of those Paint & Primer in one options.  These are like 2-in1 shampoos/conditioners…they don’t do a good job at either.


A great primer that we use and recommend is by Zinsser.  They have both oil and latex options.  If you have a lot of stains, I would use the oil based product as it’s stronger.  You will have less stain bleed through with the oil based version.  The downside is that the oil based primer is that it smells and takes longer to dry.  But, the smell will evaporate.  If the nicotine stains aren’t so bad, then go for the latex version. Note:  Kilz is another option, but we have just found Zinsser to be more effective in sealing and blocking the odor.


BEFORE YOU PROCEED, after the primer dries, check to make sure all the nicotine stains are covered.  If they aren’t, you’ll want to do another coat before proceeding.  If the stains are bleeding through the primer, they will bleed through the paint.  Note:  If you do a 2nd coat of primer, you have the option of tinting it with your paint color.  (Generally, you need to wait 4 to 6 hours for the latex version to dry and 24 hrs for the oil based primer to dry).


Do not forget the base molding, doors and trim

All of these areas absorb the cigarette smell.  If these areas are painted, then simply follow above steps as you would for the walls.  If they are wood, you will need to add an extra step to first lightly sand all of the wood trim.  If you don’t, then the primer will not adhere properly.


So, clean then lightly sand.  Then clean again, prime with oil based primer, lightly sand again.  Then, add the 2 coats of paint (just as you normally would.)

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Paint the walls

Paint the walls after you remove cigarette smell and nicotine stainsThe good news is that this step is the same as it normally would be.  Just paint wall and trim as usual (with 2 coats of paint).  You do not need to buy special paint, different colors or finishes…Choose what you like.


My recommendations on paint brands would be Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore.  Flat finishes are most stylish (and show imperfections in walls and painting less).  See below articles on some suggested paint colors.

Paint Samples

Now, let’s talk about samples…

It’s always best to test the paint colors in you own home and own lighting. The colors do look different pending your lighting and can even look different room to room.


You can definitely go to your local painting store to buy some samples (and a brush…be sure to paint with 2 coats), but I have a MUCH EASIER way for you. Check out SAMPLIZE.


paint sample from sampize


Samplize offers 12” x 12” peel and stick paint samples that are EASIER, AFFORDABLE and more ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY.


Here are a few reasons why I recommend Samplize to my clients:

  • Samples come right to YOUR DOORSTEP in 1-3 business days, pending on location
  • At $5.95, they’re more affordable than the samples/brushes/foam boards than traditional samples…and of course easier and way less messy
  • If you keep the samples on the white paper, you can move them from wall to wall and room to room


They are amazingly accurate as they are made with 2 coats of real paint, so they are color correct.


Visit the SAMPLIZE website HERE.


Related articles:


How to eliminate cigarette smells and stains from walls

8 thoughts on “How to remove cigarette smell and stains from walls”

  1. Christina Robinson

    Thank you so much for this posting! I just bought a small home with a cottage in the back im renovating. The previous tenants smoked in house. Ive already painted and
    I made a few mistakes. I didnt clean the walls first, Painted kilz (two coats on ceiling) then painted with water based paint. A couple days later the place sinks sooo bad. Can i as you said “start over” and Paint on top of the exisiting paint the Zinsser? on other sites the next step they recommend it go with an oil based paint for the final layer. do you recommend this also. Any help would be deeply appreciated

    1. Yes, you can. Zinsser is oil based. I agree, you need the oil based to seal it in. Make sure you get an oil based product (Zinsser and many others use both. Also, you may want to try running an air purifier and air the place out for a bit before starting again. I hope that helps.

  2. For lighter odors painting is an option with a sealant as mentioned. For situations where the contamination is too bad, meaning 20 plus years of smoking or more you will need a specialist to help remove the source of the contamination before painting. This will ensure no bleed through and no possibility of needing to repaint. BioSweep technology is the fastest solution to help with these more complicated jobs. Great article, keep up the good work.

    1. Yemi – Yes, when the odor is super strong and deep, it’s often best to hire a professional as they have better equipment and more experience. They will do it better and faster. and, it’s healthier this way, too.

  3. Dear Flooring Girl,
    I bought a 550 square ft condo. The real estate agent flipped it knowing that the walls had nicotine (according to the maintenance man), and the pipes on the fan coil unit where not insulated leading to mold. Unfortunately I didn’t have a home inspection because it “looked” so good, and it came with a home warranty. Anyway, after paying for mold remediation, and a new fan coil unit, the condo still smells and I get a sore throat and red eyes. I am leaving my sliding glass door cracked open. What professional can tell me if this smell is covered up nicotine, mold, or some other toxin? I am distraught. Any advice would be helpful. Thanks, Celia

    1. Celia – Oh gosh, I’m so sorry to hear this. You would probably want to hire an inspector from an indoor air quality company to test for you. It should be someone independent who does not do the work so that there is no conflict of interest. Alternatively some home inspectors may be able to help, but honestly, you really need a specialist here, especially as this is impacting your health.

  4. Home was smoked in by 2 chain smokers for 50 years. Cleaned the walls, ceiling multiple times, removed all carpet and drapes, smell lingers.

    Would applying 2 or more coats of this odor and stain blocking paint provide longer protection???

    1. I would think that would help. But, be sure that you have all surfaces taken care of…including ceilings and floors. If this still doesn’t solve it, you may need to hire a professional company such as servpro.

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