We’ve all been there. You open the refrigerator door to grab a carton of milk from the shelf, a cucumber from the crisper or a container of leftovers and you’re assaulted by an unpleasant and unidentifiable smell. Refrigerator odors are not only off-putting to you, but can be embarrassing when company is over.
It’s time to do a deep clean and get your refrigerator smelling fresh again.The good news is that there are many things you can do to keep your fridge smelling fresh. Some strategies will help you prevent food smells from occurring, while others will help get rid of them once they’re there.
Keeping your fridge clean and fresh involves proper food storage, regular cleaning and refrigerator maintenance. Knowing where and how to store different types of food will help prevent foods from rotting or being forgotten which is when odors often develop. Our tips for cleaning includes maintaining this key kitchen appliance to save you from those wafts of mystery odors when you open the fridge.
Below we share tips for food storage, refrigerator cleaning and maintenance to keep your fridge clean and odor-free.
Where is the smell coming from?
As small as a refrigerator is, it can sometimes be uncanningly hard to identify where or what the smell is coming from. There’s a good chance the odor is that of meat, dairy, veggies or other foods that have spoiled. The smell may also come from food that has not spoiled but has spilled and stuck onto the shelves or bottom of the crisper.
And in some cases, the smell is not food-related at all. In some instances, there’s a mechanical issue with the appliance that is causing the odor. Or odors have developed while the refrigerator has been off due to power outage, flooding, etc. 
How do I prevent my refrigerator from smelling bad?
Preventing odors before they begin is a great strategy for a fresh-smelling fridge. You can be proactive in storing food properly so it doesn’t rot, cleaning regularly and servicing your refrigerator when necessary.
How do I store my food to preserve freshness?
Knowing where and how to store different foods in your refrigerator can help reduce food spoilage – the cause of many foul fridge odors.
Crispers are perfect for storing vegetables. When you bring produce home from the grocery store or market, unbag the vegetables and place them in baskets in a lined crisper. Vegetables rot quicker when left in plastic bags. Pay attention and plan for when you will use your vegetables, as some veggies last longer than others.
Most fruit, especially once ripe, can go in a low humidity drawer, if you have one. Produce that should not be stored in the fridge includes potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic.
Raw meat, on the other hand, should be left in a bag and placed on the bottom shelf of the fridge where it’s coldest and where liquid from the meat will not drip onto other contents or parts of the fridge. Dairy and eggs should also be stored in the lowest area.
The compartments in the refrigerator door are one of the areas that are the least cold. They’re suitable for things like condiments, oils, peanut butter and water.
Any cooked food that you’re storing should be put in a container with a lid, and opened bags should be sealed closed with a clip. There are kitchen clips made for this or you can use a clothespin or binder clip.
What refrigerator features or settings will help keep my food fresh?
To help keep food fresh and avoid moldy, mushy or smelly messes in the fridge, make sure your refrigerator’s temperature is set between 37 and 41 degrees.
Pay attention to the consistency of the temperature throughout the fridge. If foods in a particular area of the fridge don’t feel as cold, the fridge may need servicing.
If you’re in the market for a new refrigerator, consider buying a dual-evaporative one. These types of appliances have separate chambers for the fridge and freezer resulting in more consistent temperature and humidity. That in turn leads to food lasting longer and odors not transfering from the fridge to the freezer.
Air flow vents also help keep the temperature and humidity constant throughout the fridge.To combat humidity as a whole, it’s a good idea to invest in a good small room humidifier or an air purifier for your home.
Modern refrigerators have additional features like sensor cooling which adjusts refrigerator temperature based on the external environment and power cooling which quickly brings groceries down to a cool temperature to preserve freshness. All or any of these smart features will help preserve your food and avoid waste as well as stinky odors. 
How do I clean my refrigerator?
Maintaining a regular schedule of cleaning will also help keep your fridge smelling fresh. Like any household chore, it may seem daunting, but the more frequently you do it, the easier it will be.
One of the most important things to do on a regular basis is to remove any old food. This includes foods that are past their best before date, wilted vegetables, rotting fruit and moldy leftovers. If you’ve labelled and dated your leftovers, it will be easy to identify older meals that should be tossed.
With any potential odor-causing foods removed, you can now clear your shelves, crisper and door compartments. Once clear, they should be thoroughly wiped with a suitable cleaning solution. Vinegar and soapy water work well. For a more thorough cleaning, turn off the refrigerator, and vacuum as well.
To help ensure your fridge remains clean afterward, you can line your shelves and crisper so any spills or leaks do not end up sticking to the shelves.
While you’re at it, this is the time to clean out your freezer as well. Empty any food contents and turn off or unplug your unit to defrost and allow any ice build-up to thaw. Then go through the same process of removing and cleaning shelves and all sides of the freezer.
How do I remove odors from my fridge?
Despite your best efforts to prevent refrigerator odors, you may catch the odd whiff of food gone bad. So how do you get rid of odors once they’re there?
Start by surveying all areas of the fridge and identify any foods or spills that may be causing the smell. Once you’ve thrown out old food and cleaned any messes, you can freshen with baking soda – an old tried and true solution. Put some baking soda into a bowl and place in the fridge for 24 hours to absorb odors.
After a day you can remove the bowl and should find your fridge smelling fresher than before. Instead of baking soda you can also use coffee grounds to remove odors. Do the same thing – put coffee grounds in a bowl and place them in the fridge to absorb odors.
It’s also possible that the odor is not coming from food, but from a malfunction in the appliance.
How do I know if my fridge is malfunctioning?
Ideally, our appliances have a long life of effective operation that helps us in our daily lives. But occasionally, appliances malfunction and require big or small fixes.
You’ll know your fridge is not working optimally if:
- your fridge is no longer (as) cold,
- your fridge is always running,
- your fridge is leaking,
- there’s a ton of ice build-up in the freezer
How do I fix my fridge if it is malfunctioning?
If your fridge is not working properly, you should look into the problem regardless, but especially if there is a persistent bad smell coming from the fridge. It is possible that the odor is a result of the malfunction.
Some refrigerator problems can be fixed without servicing, and some refrigerator problems will require the expertise of a professional.
If your fridge isn’t as cold as usual:
If your fridge isn’t as cold as usual first check that the temperature setting hasn’t been moved. Your fridge should be set between 37 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
If your fridge is noisy and constantly running:
If your fridge is noisy and constantly running, it’s possible the external condenser coils beneath the fridge need cleaning. Unplug the unit, remove the grill covering the coils and vacuum any dust and debris that has collected in the area. We bet you didn’t even know you could use a vacuum to clean your fridge.
If you are on the hunt for a vacuum, you read our reviews of the best cordless stick vacuums to find one that’s well suited to your unique needs.
If your freezer has excessive build-up:
If your freezer has excessive ice build-up, this is also an easy fix. Check and clean the seal on the freezer door to make sure it is closing properly. Make sure, too, that you don’t have a lot of food against the back wall of the freezer as this will block air flow and cause frost build-up. Leaving the freezer door open is also a no-no as it raises the humidity level inside the freezer resulting in ice build-up.
If your fridge is leaking:
If your fridge is leaking, it could be caused by a blocked drain or a clogged water supply. If you’re handy enough you can flush the drain and try to remove any debris blocking it. You can also close the water valve, look for any breaks in the water supply line and replace it if necessary.
Any other tips to keep my fridge smelling fresh?
With all of these tips, you should have a good sense of how to prevent refrigerator odor and how to get rid of it. Taking time to store food correctly and making a habit of regular cleanout, will go a long way in ensuring your fridge is odor-free. And doing a little every day somehow makes the chores less daunting versus having an enormous clean out to deal with.
Funky fridge smells may be embarrassing and off-putting but they are easily dealt with using all the answers above. As a final touch, you can add a pleasant smell to your fridge by placing cotton balls soaked in vanilla, a lemon half, or an orange peel inside your fridge. Just remember to remove the lemon half or orange rinds before they rot!