Everyone poops. It’s a fact of life (and a great children’s book). But that doesn’t diminish the embarrassment many of us feel about the odor that our No. 2s leave behind, especially if you find yourself with the need to loosen your load at your significant other’s apartment (or worse, at their parents' place). Like biting our fingernails or singing in the shower, our bowel movements are something we’d like to keep private.
The good news is it’s totally normal for your poop to smell. We have the many sulfurous compounds that end up in stool to thank for the stinky scent. There’s even scientific evidence to suggest that evolution has primed us to be disgusted by the smell of fecal matter as a way to avoid infectious diseases. Evidence that disgust evolved to protect from risk of disease. Curtis V, Aunger R, Rabie T. Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 2004 May 7; 271(Suppl 4): S131–S133.
Certain foods, including Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, red meat, and eggs, lead to particularly smelly poops, says Dr. Anish Sheth, a gastroenterologist and co-author of What’s Your Poo Telling You?.
Most of the time, a bad odor doesn’t raise any red flags, but it can be a warning sign of a food intolerance, such as celiac disease or lactose intolerance. In rare cases it can also signal serious conditions including intestinal infections and bleeding of the gastrointestinal tract, Sheth says. “If you notice persistently pungent stool, it's time to start thinking if you’re digesting things properly, of if you should modify your diet,” he says.
There are a dizzying number of products on store shelves that claim to cover up these smells, usually marked “odor eliminating” or “odor neutralizing.” Scientifically speaking, those two terms mean the same thing, says Jenna Arkin, a chemist and product development director at Earth Friendly Products. But there’s limited oversight over the use of these terms, so it’s best to do some detective work and look at the product ingredients. Don’t be surprised if you don’t see any ingredients—companies aren’t mandated to include them on these types of cleaning products. To become a label sleuth, Arkin suggests looking for products that include enzymes (a way to speed up nature’s process of biodegradation and break down the smelly molecules) or essential oils.
Because there are so many products and tricks when it comes to covering up poop smells and so little science-backed research on the subject, we decided to be the guinea pigs. We tested out seven common methods to eliminate bathroom odors to find what you should use next time you find yourself in a stinky situation.
If we were giving an award for clever commercials and packaging puns (with varieties like Royal Flush and Déjà Poo), Poo-Pourri would take the cake. The spray is super easy to use: Just spritz the toilet bowl a few times before you pop a squat. Poo-Pourri uses essential oils (though the packaging isn’t transparent about what else is in the bottle) to create a barrier between what ends up in the toilet bowl and the smell that permeates the room. We were surprised how well the product works, but it's almost too good. The first time we used Poo-Pourri, the bathroom smelled like a field of flowers—far from the inconspicous scent we were hoping for.
2. Just a Drop
This odor eliminator works just like Poo-Pourri and its small size means you can hide it in most pockets. Squeeze a few drops before sitting on the toilet and say sayonara to your worries of smelling up the bathroom. We couldn’t believe that one drop (OK, we actually used two or three) could actually make any poop smell disappear. The concoction is made from plant extract, disinfectant, and fragrance. Just a Drop was much more subtle than Poo-Pourri, but it did leave our bathroom smelling a little like a sterilized hospital room.
The company’s Air Effects products use fancy chemical reactions to break down stinky molecules to the point where you can’t smell them anymore. The product works well, especially considering the fact that you don’t need to spray it before you go. The one downside is the scents like “morning herbs and mist” and “clean splash” leave a vaguely chemical scent lingering in your bathroom.
4. Essential Oils
These natural beauties work wonders when combined with rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle. Essential oils come with all sorts of fascinating properties. Take cedar oil, for example. “When the fog rolls in, cedar trees retain anti-fungal properties,” Arkin says. “The oils can do the same thing right in your bathroom.” Pick your favorite scents (we love lemongrass and jasmine) and say bye-bye to any unpleasant odors.
We've heard plenty of people mention the trick of lighting a match and dropping it into the toilet before you flush to cover up bad smells. But the science behind this is bunk, Arkin says. We also tried incense matches, which add a nice odor to the bathroom but only temporarily mask the pesky smells.
6. The Kitchen Sink
OK, this bizarre technique, which we found on Reddit, doesn’t have a specific name. It calls for filling up the sink with water and then adding a squirt of something easily found in the bathroom (like shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, or mouthwash). The thinking behind this DIY trick is you’re reintroducing a common bathroom smell that will hopefully also cover up the foul odor. If you’re in a pinch, this technique is worth a try, but it doesn’t eliminate odors (and you might have to explain why it sounds like someone is taking a bath).
7. The Courtesy Flush
This technique calls for flushing every time you hear a splash in the toilet bowl. It’s far from environmentally friendly, but it can reduce the smelliness of the bathroom. But there’s a good chance you’ll find some lingering smells, since this technique doesn’t do anything to eliminate the sulfurous gases that are released into the air.