How to Get the Musty Smell Out of a Wool Oriental Rug

When it comes to Oriental rugs, the older, the better. That's why the highest-valued of these carpets often come with odors that reveal their age. It's a problem that may leave buyers wondering if it's worth living with a piece of history in their home. Those owners who love accenting their homes with their rich colors and designs eventually wonder how to get the musty smell out of a wool Oriental rug.

But before you spot treat one of these Near East antiques, it's important to understand the work that went into them. Early weavers worked intricate patterns and designs into the carpets to tell a story about nature's universal harmony. Prior to the 1920s (when manufacturers began mass producing Oriental rugs), artisans knotted the floor coverings by hand, often taking years to create just one masterpiece.

Some rugs, typically found on display in world-class museums like the Louvre and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, date back to the 13th century. The most expensive Oriental rug ever sold, a circa-1600 Persian carpet featuring a "sickle leaf" design, went for nearly $34 million at Sotheby's New York in 2013.

Group of turkish carpets.
credit: foto-ianniello/iStock/GettyImages
How to Get the Musty Smell Out of a Wool Oriental Rug

What Causes Bad Odors in Wool Rugs?

Even if you don't have a bona fide antique underfoot, anything made prior to the 1970s (when reproductions became the norm) is valuable in its own right. That said, the reason Oriental rugs are so durable and can last for hundreds of years is due to their sturdy animal fiber content. This is the same reason they can sometimes stink. Wool comes from sheep; when a wool rug gets wet, it can smell like a wet animal. The longer the moisture lingers, the more likely it is to develop into mildew, causing the foul odor.

If you're trying to get the musty smell out of a wool Oriental rug, there are a few tactics you can try.

1. Leave It Outside in Sunlight

Even if your carpet feels dry to the touch, moisture may be lurking beneath the surface. Thankfully, the sun's ultraviolet rays are natural antibacterial agents that can help nix bad odors if bacteria are to blame. Leave the rug out on a sunny day and bring it in before nightfall to avoid dew collecting on it. Repeat the process for several days if necessary, making sure each side gets equal time in the sun.

2. Dry It Out With a Fan

If leaving the rug outdoors isn't an option, point a floor fan towards the carpet one section at a time, starting at the edges and working inward.

3. Apply Baking Soda and Vacuum

If odors still persist after it's dry, sprinkle a thin layer of baking soda on the carpet and allow it to sit for a half hour or more before vacuuming. Modern vacuum cleaners may be too harsh on older carpets, so experts recommend using a carpet sweeper instead. If you only have a vacuum on hand, set the beater bar high to make it gentler on carpet.

4. Treat It With Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil, another natural antiseptic, may do the trick. Mix two tablespoons of tea tree oil and one cup of water in a spray bottle, shake well and then spritz the rug's entire surface. Allow it to dry then flip it over and repeat the process on the other side.

5. Cover It With a Layer of Cat Litter

Yes, really: Clean, unscented cat litter is a powerful odor absorbent. Move the rug to a low-traffic area of your home (like the garage or basement) then sprinkle a generous amount of litter over the entire surface. Be extremely careful not to step on the rug afterward—doing so could grind the litter deep into its fibers. Let the rug sit for a couple of days, then take it outside to shake the cat litter off.

Finally, if all else fails, you can purchase a high-capacity moisture absorber (also called a room refresher) from a home improvement store. These machines are specifically designed to eliminate musty odors. And if that doesn't work, it may be time to weigh the costs and decide whether investing in a professional carpet cleaner is worth it to save your wool Oriental rug.