Removing the Smell From Your Cooler

remove the smell from your cooler

Last Updated by Brandon F. on July 31, 2019

Almost all of us have probably forgotten to clean out our cooler from a previous camping trip, a day on the lake, or a tailgate party.  And while forgetting to empty some melted ice or bottles of water probably isn’t a huge deal, leaving food or other types of open containers inside your cooler for extended periods can result in some major stink!

In this article, we will discuss some methods that you can use to help remove the smells of rotten food, fish remnants, or stale beer from your cooler. 

Before we get into our tips, we wanted to make one thing clear.  As far as we know, there is no fool-proof method for completely removing the smell from your cooler in all scenarios.  This is particularly true if you happened to leave dairy products, meat, or certain types of produce in your cooler for long periods.  These smells will literally “soak in” to the walls of your cooler.  This can make it extremely difficult to completely remove the smells in short order.

But with patience and multiple cleaning cycles, you should be able to offset a vast majority of the smell.

So let’s begin!

Allow your Cooler to “Air Out” for a while

When you first discover that you accidentally left some items in your cooler, the first thing you want to do (after throwing away the rotten items, of course!) it to open the cooler lid and all it to air out.  Place the cooler in an outside area that has plenty of air circulation.

We have found that simple air circulation over a couple of days will do wonders for helping to remove the odors.  Also, it seems that the first couple of days after removing the items, standard cleaning methods don’t seem to be as effective.

Apply a bleach mixture

After you allow your cooler to air out, you then want to hit it with some bleach.

A lot of people add bleach to their cooler and expect it to remove all of the odors.  However, that usually isn’t what happens.

Bleach is used to kill off any remaining odor-causing bacteria or organisms that are growing on the walls of your cooler.  But as an odor-fighter, it won’t do much.  Think of bleach as a way to stop the odors from becoming worse since you are killing off the bacteria that is causing the odors. 

But for actually stopping the odors that are already present?  There are better options that we will get into in the next sections.

We like to use a bleach-water mixture.  We do around 1 part bleach to 4 parts water.  We will put this solution into a spray bottle and generously spray all the walls and the inside lid of our cooler.

Some people will simply fill the cooler up with the bleach compound.  We have found that this approach isn’t any more effective than the spray bottle method.  You also run a risk of having the solution leak out of the cooler and leak onto the ground.  Then you have to deal with the aftermath of bleach getting on your grass, concrete, deck, or wherever else you have stored your cooler.

Also, it is worth mentioning that the bleach application is best used on white hard-sided coolers.  A cooler that has a colored inside may fade some due to the bleach.  Also, any sort of soft-sided cooler will be much more prone to color discoloration from the bleach.

We will let this bleach compound sit for about 8 hours.  We will then hit the cooler with a heavy spray again and repeat this process for 2 to 3 days.  We will continue to keep the lid open during this process.

Scrub the hard-to-reach places

Most of us should know this tactic from taking a bath or shower.  It is important to make sure you pay attention to those hard-to-reach places of your cooler where a simple spray may not reach.

This can include grooves where you slide your cooler dividers or ice packs, the inside hinge cavities between the body of the cooler and the lid, and the hole where the rod for the lid slides into.  These areas can be breeding grounds for bacteria and will oftentimes be missed in a typical cleaning session.

We like to get an old toothbrush or q-tips for this process.  Dip your toothbrush or other cleaning device in your bleach compound and generously scrub the area of concern.  Continue this process whenever you go about spraying the rest of your cooler with the bleach compound.

Apply Odor Absorbers

At this point, you should have killed off just about all remaining bacteria that are producing the smelly odors.  However, there will still likely be some lingering odors that have absorbed into the walls.

Now is a good time to go in with an odor absorber.

An odor absorber is something that will “soak up” the smells.  You likely use two of the most common ones around your house already: charcoal and baking soda.

Charcoal canisters are commonly included in air filters, fish tanks, or pool cleaners.  They are great at allowing air or fluid to pass through them while catching microscopic odor-causing particles.

And just about all of us likely have a box of baking soda in the back of our fridge.  Many cat litters also will have baking soda mixed into them because of its great ability to fight odor.

Fill up your cooler with baking soda/charcoal.  At this point in time, we actually prefer to close the lid.  This is because the charcoal and/or baking soda may exhaust some of its absorption ability on “outside” smells that are passing through the air.  You want to make sure that it focuses on the smells that your cooler is emitting, not outside air.

We will let the odor absorbers rest in the cooler for a couple of days up to a week or more depending on the size of the cooler and the smell.  If you have an extremely large and stinky cooler, you may need to do multiple cycles.  This will require emptying the exhausted odor absorbers and filling it up with a fresh batch.

When you can open your cooler and not immediately smell the pungent rotten odor that was there before, you are on the right track.

Go in with some Soapy Water

After the odor absorption process, we have found that going in with a soapy water compound is a good next step.  This seems to fight off most of the remaining odor that has survived the onslaught of baking soda and charcoal.

We like to use a hand/dish soap such as Dawn.  We will mix one part soap to 5 parts of water and fill it up in a spray bottle.  We will then spray it all over the inside of the cooler and let it rest (with the lid closed) for a day or so.  After this, we will generously spray the inside with a water hose and allow to air dry.

Using soapy water as the first line of defense doesn’t seem to do much.  You really need to go in with something more heavy-duty such as bleach and then follow through with an absorber before the soap application.

Finish it off with some aromatics

Following the soap step, we like to finish things off by generously applying some strong aromatics.  This is something such a lemon juice or vinegar.  This doesn’t do much to fight the remaining odors but rather it helps to mask them.  It seems that cooler walls (particularly on thicker hard-sided coolers) will still occasionally emit a burst of rotten smell for months after cleaning.  The lemon juice acts as a sort of perfume that will help mask these small bursts.

The best line of defense is proper cleaning etiquette

While there are methods for helping to remove the smell from your cooler, the best method is to never allow your cooler to reach that point, to begin with.

Aim to always remove items from your cooler promptly.  This is especially true if you plan on leaving your cooler outside in hot climates.  The high temperatures that occur in the summer months and in warmer climates can help to catalyze the spoiling process. 

Try to make sure that any items that you plan on storing in your cooler are in sealed containers.  If this isn’t possible, consider bringing some large ZipLock bags that you can store the open items in.  We like to wrap items such as meat or cheese in a tight seal of Saran wrap and then double layer inside ZipLock bags.  This provides multiple layers of protection between the food and the outside air.

We hope that this article was of assistance to you.  If you have any other tips or tricks that you have discovered to help keep your cooler smells in check, feel free to reach out to us and let us know!

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