Restoring Smoke-Damaged Clothing

Homeowners have several misconceptions relating to smoke odor in clothing and other household fabrics. First, they believe that closed closet doors or closed drawers provide protection against smoke residue and odor in a moderate-to-heavy smoke damage situation. That simply is not true. 

Second, they believe that polyethylene plastic coverings provide minimum protection from soot-residue contamination, while coverings actually decrease the probability of severe odor in a garment. The fact is that rapidly expanding air in a fire situation easily penetrates into clothing even when plastic covers are present. As air cools and fresh air circulates throughout the home, including closets, garments covered by plastic with odor inside are not subject to the normal airing-out process. Therefore, the malodor has an opportunity to thoroughly penetrate the garment. To compound the problem, the plastic itself actually attracts and retains odor to a considerable degree and, for this reason, it must be removed and disposed of as soon as practical.

Clothing is a highly personal item that is worn in close proximity to the body. Therefore, it is subject to considerable scrutiny by its owner. Additionally, as the person wearing a garment warms up and humidifies the garment with perspiration, residual smoke odor is amplified and can become readily apparent. For these reasons, smoke odor deodorization efforts on clothing should be carefully applied to be most effective.

One of the best ways to get insureds occupied and to take their minds off the disaster they have suffered is to get them busy separating garments into four categories:

  • Disposables: Restorers should have insureds separate and dispose of all worn-out or outgrown clothing that probably should have been thrown away years ago. This saves the insurance company money, which might be appreciated by insurance company representatives, and minimizes deodorizing problems by reducing the quantity of clothing being processed. Even more important is the fact that older clothing is the most likely to come apart and become a point of contention with insureds.
  • Immediate Needs: The second category includes a few garments for each family member’s immediate needs. Restorers should expedite processing of these garments in order to reduce expenditures for immediate clothing needs.
  • High-value Items: The third category includes all high-value items (i.e., items you need to identify, list and hand-carry to the dry cleaner so that there’s no possibility of their getting lost in the shuffle). Examples include furs, leathers or formal wear. Identifying and handling these items individually prevents financial liability for the restoration company.
  • Routine Cleaning: Finally, the fourth category includes all other garments insureds wish to have cleaned using normal procedures.


Clothing should be cleaned as quickly as practical. Again, cleaning is basic to thorough deodorization and actually results in saving more clothing, due to rapid neutralization of discoloring acid soot residue. Many restoration schools in the past have taught that clothing must be deodorized prior to being dry cleaned with chlorinated solvents (perchloroethylene), while the decision is optional when petroleum (Stoddard) solvents are used. The impression conveyed is that somehow chlorinated solvents actually set the odor in clothing. Since most dry cleaners use chlorinated solvent and since deodorization prior to cleaning is a more prolonged and expensive process, the question is, “Just how valid is this information?”

Extensive testing by cleaning firms having access to both chlorinated and petroleum systems indicates that there is no appreciable difference in odor retention when deodorizing occurs after cleaning, other than a significant reduction in the time required for complete deodorization to occur. Also, dry cleaners have solvent-based deodorizing compounds that can be added to either type of cleaning solution.

Moreover, if restorers leave acid soot residues on clothing for the time necessary for odor removal to take place first, then that residue can discolor the garment to the extent that salvaging it may not be possible. Also, restorers should recall that clothing with the majority of malodorous residue removed is much easier and faster to deodorize. Thus, clothing required for the family’s immediate use can be returned sooner.

Naturally, restorers should anticipate somewhat higher charges from the dry cleaner for cleaning garments with high levels of NVR (non-volatile residues) present in moderate-to-heavy soot-damaged clothing. Elevated levels of NVR require more frequent solvent filtration or distillation, which is a rather expensive procedure. Failing to monitor and clean NVR from the solvent bath results in contamination of future loads of clothing run in unfiltered solvent.

After cleaning, clothing with residual smoke odor should be placed in a confined area, such as an ozone room, and subjected to ozone gas for 24 to 48 hours. Continuous forced air circulation is a must, since ozone gas is heavier than air and tends to build from the floor level upward. Normally, restorers should locate ozone generators outside the chamber or well above floor level so that fresh air may be obtained for the generator. Restorers should ensure that no clothing is damp during exposure to ozone deodorization, since ozone gas can oxidize dyes which, in turn, can result in color loss.

A follow-up, or even an alternative to ozone deodorization in light odor situations, is thermal fogging with solvent-based deodorants. Thermal fogging procedures produce more rapid results, depending on malodor composition, and has the secondary advantage of leaving a light, pleasant residual fragrance in the garments being deodorized. Like ozone gas, the thermal fogging techniques require a confined airspace for application. Restorers should allow the fog to remain in continuous contact with the clothing for 20 to 30 minutes prior to thorough aeration. 

A word of caution: If insureds express concern about severe chemical sensitivities or allergies, restorers should stick to ozone only for deodorizing anything as intimate as clothing. However, continuous ozone deodorizing for more than 48 hours can oxidize natural rubber in the elastic used in some clothing. 

Should residual odor remain, subject it once again to ozone gas for another 24 to 48 hours, with plenty of ozone circulation throughout clothing fabrics.

A very light, non-confined thermal fogging of clothing, upholstery, draperies and other fabrics just prior to delivery may be appropriate to create a positive impression on odor-sensitive customers with whom a restorer is dealing.

Clothing and fabrics: Probably one of the most challenging and important smoke and odor restoration projects a restorer must undertake. 

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