In 2018, cleaning expert Jolie Kerr sent a bunch of vintage clothing she had recently purchased to the Procter & Gamble labs for testing. “Here’s what they found: 12 of 18 of the key malodor molecules that contributed to the bouquet of that vintage smell were derived from body soils, which is a gentle way of saying your skin, your sweat and your oils,” she wrote in the New York Times. The remaining six compounds were environmental contaminants “like car exhaust, gasoline, dry-cleaning solvents, food and perfume.”
All of which is gross. I know because I’ve braved those smells. In fact, most of the coats in my closet and every single leather jacket I’ve ever owned has been held captive by that malodor at one point or another. Once, I purchased a coat that had such a strong odor that, after gagging my way through dinner, I immediately returned it to the thrift store for a quarter of the price I’d bought it for. And that was even after I’d let it hang outside overnight.
“Personally, I like the smell,” says Nicole Bernstein, owner of Starday Vintage, Hollywood’s premier second-hand store. “Or I think I’m immune.” But since Bernstein knows her customers aren’t likely to feel the same, she can personally vouch for a number of de-stink-ifying techniques. “For leather or jackets and coats that can’t be thrown in the wash, I’ll put 70-percent isopropyl alcohol in a spray container and mist the jacket from about a foot or so away,” she explains.
The alcohol evaporates quickly, but it’s still capable of deodorizing both the inside and outside of the jacket. “Mothballs sort of help, but they leave their own smell,” Bernstein says. “Sometimes a bit of sunlight helps, too.”
If the jacket or coat isn’t colorfast — i.e., the color or dye will bleed if it gets wet — Bernstein recommends white vinegar instead of alcohol. “It won’t affect the colors as much,” she tells me. The only drawback: “It doesn’t evaporate as quickly as alcohol.”
According to Jillian Felice, a thrifting YouTuber, “Using a Lysol fabric disinfectant spray on the inside and outside of the item will dispel at least 70 percent of the smell that comes with vintage clothing.” Similar to the alcohol spray, “you want to hold it at about a 1 1/2 to 2 feet away to avoid damaging the item with spots.” After which, she suggests hanging the garment in a ventilated area to let it air out.
If you find that your leather jacket is stiff after you’ve applied a disinfectant spray, Bernstein recommends using leather conditioner to smooth things over. “A little bit goes a long way,” she says. “You can massage it in, and it’ll feel like the leather is brand new.”
And while it probably won’t smell like new, too, it won’t smell like a mix of body soils and car exhaust anymore either.