Smelly House: Host Mom Hates Air Fresheners

by cv harquail on September 11, 2014

Attention readers: This second post about smells and host parents is absolutely unrelated to the previous post.  The Au Pair in the first post and the Au Pair here are not the same person, and the host parents aren’t the same people. It was coincidence that TACL brought up this issue last week….I already had the post from the au pair on the docket.thread

What does this tell us? That smelly houses may be more common that we thought!!

From TACL:

At the risk of hijacking this thread, I’m dealing with a new AP who is obsessed with odor.

I know my house doesn’t smell great all the time – especially this week where my usual September crunch month at work and my stupidity in agreeing to be PTA president giving me a crunch month at school collide. Housework has suffered. I suffer from exzcema use non-scented soaps and detergents (and wear non-latex gloves when I have no choice).

I have made it clear to the AP that I suffer from allergies, but keep them in check by controlling my environment as much as possible.

So last night, on the way to a work event, what do I find? an air freshener in the au pair car (which we took so she could have access to the one vehicle in which The Camel can sit). The scent was overpowering. Do I say something? A no-air-freshener-in-the-car rule is definitely going into the next AP handbook!


hOstCDmom September 5, 2014 at 8:27 am

Absolutely – it is YOUR car that you permit the AP to use, not “the AP car”.

If the air freshener bothers you – on any level, but particularly when it impacts your health or that of your kids, it is perfectly appropriate to say something polite but firm — “I realize you might not have known this, but we can’t have any scented air fresheners in my home or car due to my allergies, thus I removed the air freshener from the Honda” (I would try to come up with a new name for the car the AP uses — either a nickname, or it’s make/model, to avoid referring to it as “the AP car” or “your car”, which might seem a subtle point, but I do think impacts an APs (or anyone’s!) feelings of entitlement/ownership/control/possession.

If she were using an air freshener in her room, that might be a more grey situation, but at the end of the day it is the room in YOUR house that you set aside for her to occupy while being your AP, not “her room”, and in the same way that she can’t paint it, change the furniture, open the windows when the central AC/heat is on, etc. if her use of an air freshener in there impacts your health (i.e. due to air circulation through the central air/heat system) then you state that, and inform her that she may not do so.

WarmStateMomma September 5, 2014 at 9:19 am

It sounds like the Camel’s car, since it’s available for the person responsible for her care (AP during her shifts, HPs the rest of the time).

As far as smells in the bedroom – one of my exchange students left his own scent (no cologne, so I’m not sure what it was) that lasted in that room 2 years after he left. I don’t think the AP should be leaving that sort of thing for her successors (or HPs) to deal with.

TexasHM September 5, 2014 at 9:00 am

Agreed, I think you are well within your rights to ask that it not be in the car. Its your car and your health issue. I think its the same as smoking. If smoke bothers you and you ask no smoking in the car would we be having this conversation right now? Just because it smells pleasant (supposedly) its no different. An unwanted scent is an unwanted scent.
I struggle with this as well but more in regard to perfume usage. I am allergic to perfumes and my daughter has sensitive skin so we use free and clear detergents, honest kids shampoo/body wash, don’t have any air fresheners or scented candles, etc but I can’t police APs personal perfume use. Its been an issue with all 3 of my APs!
Luckily, they don’t wear it usually when working or mucking around the house but boy, the minute they dress up to go somewhere I about choke when they step out in the hallway. Then everyone gets in the car and I about suffocate but I don’t feel like I can tell her she can’t wear perfume in her free time outside the house you know? All this is in our handbook (except don’t bathe in perfume before going out) but for now this falls into the accept it category of the fix it, accept it or rematch equation that Angie host mom uses. :)

NBHostMom September 5, 2014 at 9:36 am

If this were me, I’d remind her about the no scent policy and clarify this extends to the car. One alternative you might want to offer for the car is a lava rock odor absorber bag, as long as they don’t cause you issues. They work great, like little “smell sponges”…. If she’s trying to mask a smell in the car (i.e. last nights McDonald’s) , this might actually work better:

Returning HM September 5, 2014 at 10:34 am

We actually have a no heavy cologne/perfume/incense rule after our first AP back in 2005 left everything so saturated with perfume that it took weeks to air out. I am very sensitive to smells, and I couldn’t stand to be near her room (or her, really – and my children started to smell of her too, particularly the baby). Anyway, to your point, I would absolutely not tolerate an air freshener in any of our cars. I can’t stand the smell of them – they make me nauseated – and this isn’t even half as good a reason to ban them as your allergies.

Absolutely tell her she can’t use these in your car. There are lots of natural, non-toxic, odor absorbing products that do not emit any smell themselves. We have a rabbit and we use one by his cage, so I know this for sure. Your local hardware store will have them, as weill amazon if you google.

I also agree with hOstCDmom that changing the semantics of the car is an important move (we refer to our cars by color in the case of two since they are the same make and the other by its make). This will help reinforce that it’s your car that the AP has the pleasure to use.

dorsi September 5, 2014 at 10:41 am

I wonder what would inspire a young person of limited means to take the time and expense to go buy an air freshener. The first thing that comes to mind is masking cigarette smoke.

Taking a Computer Lunch September 5, 2014 at 12:17 pm

No, in this case cigarette smoke is not an issue – believe me, I’d really know it if it were. And I had the car detailed just before she arrived, so it was cleaned inside and out (much better than the van, which still smells like a child left a bottle of milk that rolled under a seat).

This is not the first time I have hosted an AP who has complained about odor, whether it be the house (two cats, a teenage boy who doesn’t bath enough, the Camel drools, we cook with garlic every day – you name it) or the car. One AP gave the Camel a bath and changed her clothes every day for a month, because she wanted her to smell clean when she cared for her after school. So be it.

What bothers me, I guess, is the proprietary nature of placing an air freshener in a car. To me, it says, “This is mine,” rather than “This is mine to use while I am here.”

This particular AP has wanted scented detergent and dryer sheets, neither of which we purchase or use, as well as other scented products. Clearly for her, a fresh scent is important.

But here’s the bottom line. Everyone’s house smells different. The first time you walk into a friend’s house, you notice the odor – whether it’s pleasant or not, it’s different from your own home. To the occupants of the house, that smell is “home” (unless of course, a child leaves an open bottle of milk on a counter).

Do I clean my house regularly? Yes. Do I stay on top of it? No – I’m a working mother who totally understands why my own parents’ room was such a sty – it’s where everything gets thrown when one cleans up! Am I tidy? No. Do I think the house and car smell? From time to time.

So thank you all for tips on how to say politely, “take the air freshener out of the car.”

WarmStateMomma September 5, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Something crawled into our car and died. The car detailer – who also does crime scene clean ups – confirmed it’s the smell of death but couldn’t find the body. Thanks to the summer heat, the smell was wretched. A family who parked a few spots away from us at the pool couldn’t stop talking about the stench of death. Three weeks later, the smell has been downgraded to “horrible” and my daughter can say “stinky” in English and Mandarin.

The AP had nothing to do with this – it was a freak occurrence – but hopefully it puts the car air freshener into a more positive perspective. :)

Should be working September 5, 2014 at 12:10 pm

This might be spun as a positive if it helps the conversation: You are delighted that she cares about cleanliness and you are fine (for instance) with paying for interior car-cleaning once a month?

Our “au pair car” really did smell bad a few APs ago: old history of milk and dog and some other things. I sympathized with our fastidious AP who had to drive around in it. We paid for it to get detailed, which helped a little.

Should be working September 5, 2014 at 12:12 pm

As my daughter becomes a teen I’m having to deal with lots of heavy, gross, candy-flavored perfumes and shampoos and lip gloss. Ugh, gives me a headache. But I also have a rule for AP and daughter that nail polish must be applied OUTDOORS and the person with those nails must remain outside until the nails are dry.

And then my husband comes home and sprays coyote-urine deer-repellant all over the garden, and every one of us loses our appetite, it’s really musky, nasty stuff.

Angie host mom September 11, 2014 at 1:49 pm

You could do the passive – aggressive thing and just paint something nasty smelling on the air freshener.

(not serious)

NJ Mama September 11, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I don’t know if it was b/c I read the first “smelly house” post on my commute home last night, but when I walked through the door of my house the first thing I thought was, “Hmm… smells a little funky in here.” :) I think it was b/c the kids had eggs for dinner.

TACL – I will repeat what others have said. You and your daughter have health conditions. You have every right to ask her not to keep air fresheners in the car or the common areas of the house. But yes… it’s an awkward convo to have. And a really difficult one to resolve if the AP is having problems with it.

I have experience from the other side. I have never had any of my au pairs complain about the smells in our house (although who knows what they really think — I try to keep the house clean but it’s hard for us working parents!) I did, however, once have a European au pair who was … well … quite smelly. It started out OK, but it got progressively worse. Looking back on it, I really think it had more to do with the fact that she was incredibly homesick and depressed, and as she got more depressed she took care of herself less. (She ended up going home after about 2 months). As the weeks went by it just got worse and worse. She would only shower maybe twice a week, but even when she did it didn’t make things better. Her room smelled. I spoke to the area director about it, and she chalked it up to one of those cultural differences that we sort of have to get used to — she said there are people from other countries who didn’t shower as much as we do and certainly didn’t do laundry as much as we do. That’s the way it is.

Still, it was really really hard to explain to the kids. But because the AP was homesick and depressed I asked them not to make a big deal of it, and they were good about that. But I also think it became hard for the kids to bond with her (and therefore made her more homesick and depressed). One thing I did raise to her was her breath. Again — SUPER awkward, but I said something like, “This is really awkward, and I don’t want to offend you at all. But the kids say that your breath is a little smelly in the morning when you wake them up for school. I can see you’d rather wait until after breakfast to brush your teeth but, how about you chew some gum in the morning?” And I gave her a package of gum. I tried to make a joke about it, and she sort of laughed. But ugh.. it was awful. Just so tricky on so many levels.

Tristatemom September 11, 2014 at 2:30 pm

I posted in the other post about my “smelly AP.” We also had the issue with bad breath, little showering, and, I suspect, depression. She didn’t start of smelling but as the year went on it became worse and worse.

NJ Mama September 11, 2014 at 3:51 pm

I felt so helpless about it at the time on so many levels — worried for her, worried for my kids. It was a tough time for sure.

Should be working September 11, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Actually I’ve wondered about this in the other direction. I hate to brush my teeth before my morning coffee, so I try to not talk to AP first thing and make a beeline for the coffee instead. But maybe it’s gross to her. I even don’t like to wash my face or anything. It’s coffee before all. How bad is that??

Tristatemom September 11, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Sorry, forgot to add one more thing. My current AP, who is verly clean, told me somewhat offended that CC stressed at orientation that all APs please shower as many HF complain about offensive smelling APs.

WarmStateMomma September 11, 2014 at 3:13 pm

It’s surprising how often the agencies can be inept at communicating cultural differences. We had one LCC tell us that APs from a specific country should be treated like they had autism because they take your words literally. I can’t imagine what other pearls of wisdom they’ve shared.

The CC orientation people could have told the APs that most Americans shower daily and suggest the APs consider doing so as well even if it’s not the custom in their home culture.

NJ Mama September 11, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Didn’t someone post on this site recently that the au pair was offended b/c the family and kids didn’t shower more than once a day? Jeez… just tough all around!

WSM – I think you are right that maybe the agencies should be covering these issues a little better during the orientation — or better yet, before the APs arrive. My new au pair said she felt a lot of the girls didn’t speak English well enough to understand a lot of what was said during orientation.

Piggeldy September 20, 2014 at 12:00 pm

This is not only true for au pairs but for orientation for all different kinds of exchange programs!

We currently have an Indian exchange student (in a Ph.D. program!) who smells so bad. His supervisor had a talk with him. His co-supervisor had a talk with him. His office mate had a talk with him. One of his ‘friends’ had a talk with him… after 2 3/4 years we have now finally given up. He has his own office (the other guy moved out, after trying air fresheners and keeping the windows open 24/7) and meetings are held with open doors and windows. We have tried to solve this in the direct way associated with this country without offending him, we have no idea what else to do. Seven more months to go. His final visa extention ends in March.

It’s body odor, not “different diet” body odor but “not enough personal hygiene” body odor PLUS every single piece of clothing he is wearing smells unwashed / badly washed / badly dried. He has been gifted shower gel and deodorant in the department Secret Santa. He has been shown how to use the (new) washing machine in his flat, his supervisor even bought laundry detergent and fabric softener. He was told where to find the dry cleaner and laundromat (just in case). And we know that he can smell good – any time he goes home to India to visit his family he comes back smelling clean (as do his clothes)! It is ridiculous.

This is a student who went through a six months language & cultural training course IN COUNTRY! Plus, we are in one of the European “only shower twice a week” and “no leg shaving” countries ;) Nobody in that course bothered to tell their students how about the country’s cultural peculiarities in personal hygiene or how to use a washer/dryer? Why not? It is so much easier to approach these subjects in a larger group (where everybody can at least pretend that this not aimed and them) then in a 1:1 setting.

Julie September 12, 2014 at 1:21 pm

We do talk about hygiene at training school because it’s very different for each country and au pair and goes both ways. Some au pairs from Latin America shower 2 times a day (and then host families may complain about use of water) or we have au pairs that really do smell and it can be a big problem. I’m an LCC (and host mom) and I give tips for a good year and include the following “SHOWER OR BATHE REGULARLY. Most Americans value cleanliness as a virtue. Families expect that their Au Pairs will bath or shower regularly and change into clean clothes daily. Don’t forget deodorant.” It’s tough–you don’t want to offend, but it is a necessary topic to cover!

DowntownMom September 12, 2014 at 8:24 pm

Julie, it is great that your agency does this! We have felt awkward dealing with smelly APs. What I don’t understand is that a number of APs haven’t minded going without a shower around us for days. Imagine asking whether the AP got her hair wet in the pool and the answer is no! A ponytail doesn’t help after a certain point… They will shower and dress up to the nines when going out with other APs though!

OpinionatedHM September 11, 2014 at 4:42 pm

So I got into the van with the AP a while back on our way to get the kids to go somewhere. As soon as I sat in the drivers seat I was hit with the horrible smell of one of those dangly car fresheners from the car wash. My immediate response was “wow, what is that smell!” I spotted the freshener tree thingy in the cup holder and immediately chucked it out the window of the car. Then I looked at the AP and said, “wow, you don’t have to take the air freshener when you get the car cleaned, you can just tell them no thanks”. She looked at me and said “I asked for it” Ooops.

The good news is that this led to a conversation about the smell in the car. A relative had spilled a full venti latte on the carpet the year before (ugh), we had it professionally cleaned but apparently the smell had come back with the summer heat. I immediately scheduled a deep clean of the van carpets. I also restated our no scented products policy and told her next time a smell bothers her, please tell me and we will try to resolve it quickly without resorting to masking it with yet another smell!

Like a few other posters here, we are a skin sensitive family (massive hive outbreaks for DH and DS) and I have a very sensitive nose. Everything we use is unscented/sensitive skin whenever possible. While the initial exchange regarding the scented car freshener was pretty awkward, after reading TACL’s dilemma I’m so glad I experienced it as a immediate visceral response in front of the AP. If I had been on my own, I might have agonized over how to talk with her about it. Instead, it was all handled on the spot!

My advice in this situation is to address it directly and soon. It’s usually awkward but time won’t make it less so. I also find that an AP’s ability to recover from awkward conversations is an excellent barometer for how successful the year will be. Restate your no scent policy and let her know that it also applies to the vehicles as they are shared. Find out if she was trying to mask an odor she doesn’t like or if she was just trying to introduce a scent she does like. You might be able to offer an alternate solution.

(For those of you concerned about possible littering, the freshener was tossed onto our driveway and picked up and thrown into the trash later) ;-)

Taking a Computer Lunch September 12, 2014 at 6:48 am

Wow! She put an air freshener in the family mini-van?! That takes chutzpah. Great reaction!

I think that I will remind AP #10 that the small car is hers to use during her AP year, not “her car.” There’s a reason we call it “the au pair car,” and not “X’s car.” I think, also, I will tell her that as long as air freshener in the au pair car, that DH and I will take the van when we go out (which will leave her stranded, as The Camel can only sit in the van), unless she decides to remove the air freshener and air out the car. On the occasions where we must use both vehicles, then I will ask her to remove it from the car the night before. That way, I’m not telling her what to do – she can decide which is more important to her – to have the freedom to go on outings with The Camel or to be stuck at home but have a car with an odor she enjoys.

Host Mom in the City September 15, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Just to offer that there may not be any “claiming of the car” meant by putting the air freshener in the car – I am totally confused by the references to chutzpah and the notion of claiming something as your own by putting in the air freshened. And in an American host mom. Seriously it would not occur to me at all that it would take any level of presumption to ask for an air freshener to be included in a car cleaning service in someone else’s car.

While I completely agree with you that if you don’t like the scent or are allergic to it or just don’t want it in there, you are more than entitled to take it out or say you want it out. But I wouldn’t take it as a personal affront or any indication other than plain and simple liking the scent.

Host Mom in the City September 15, 2014 at 12:12 pm

That is, I’m an American host mom.

Lauren September 13, 2014 at 7:52 am

We had one au pair who wore so much perfume I could hardly stand to be in the same room as her with my pregnant nose, and then the baby smelled like it. I didn’t get to smell that beautiful newborn smell because I couldn’t work up the nerve to talk to her about it! After that I made a strict “no scented products” rule and told prospective au pairs this during our first interview and asked if it would be a problem for them to use all unscented products all year so they knew we were serious. In the end we do have a few lapses or attempts to sneak in a fruity bath wash but that doesn’t bother me at all given how hyper concerned the more recent ones are. My house, my kids, my car, my rules. If they don’t like it they don’t match with us.

QuirkyMom September 15, 2014 at 2:38 pm

I should have thought to mention this in interviews, but I’m so glad this thread came up as we are about to match and I am frantically re-working our handbook! I’ve just added “no perfumes or strongly scented bodycare products” as well as “no scented candles or air fresheners” to the handbook and cross-referenced the rule on the car page (i.e. no car air freshener) and the laundry page (i.e. no scented detergent or dryer sheets for your own laundry).

We have had one au pair who loved air fresheners, scented candles, etc. and another one who uses some mainstream hair products that smell terrible to me. It’s really awful to have to ask someone to stop using a body care product but especially first thing in the morning when I come downstairs and au pair is in the kitchen freshly showered, it triggers insta-headache that can develop into a migraine.

ILHostMom September 16, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Our first Au Pair wore gobs of cheap perfume. I tried to ignore it, but then I realized I kept having repeated headaches, and no matter how hard I tried I could smell that cheap perfume everywhere I went. Finally I figured out that the smell was on the seat belt, then rubbing onto my clothes when I drove the car. Then she proceeded to put a DOUBLE air freshener in her room. The relationship was already bad so I had no problem telling her we had to be a “perfume free” home. I now include this in the handbook and specifically call out that I am extremely sensitive to smells and that the Au Pair should not be offended if I point out something that is bothering me smell-wise.
On the flip-side, our second Au Pair didn’t wear deodorant and even though we absolutely adored her we could not deny the fact that sometimes she just smelled rank. Beyond just our family, I thought I’d be doing her a favor to suggest she wear deodorant. So, I bought her some, gave it to her, told her it was hotter here than Northern Europe, and everything was blissful after that!

In the Throes of Rematch September 20, 2014 at 12:02 pm

I’m really sensitive to scents as well. I wouldn’t be thrilled that AP took it upon herself to choose a scent for my car. I could be more flexible with AP car since I rarely drive that, I guess.

AP1 (who we loved) left her room smelling like the inside of Bath & Body Works. AP2 didn’t comment on it, but we discovered she loved B&BW just as much. AP2 is out the door and we’re waiting for AP3 to arrive. I had the windows open for days and days but the smell still lingers. I’ve washed all the linens, scrubbed the surfaces …

I still get an instant headache in the AP bedroom.

If we had a secret smoker with any AP, I’d know in a heartbeat.

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