Getting Rid of a Healthy But Stinky Fish Oil Smell

If there is anything experts agree on about fish oil, it's that the odor of liquid fish oil is potent and not pleasant. In countries where fish oil is part of the daily breakfast routine, it is typically highly refined and scented with lemon, lime, or cherry. But as I also experienced during my brief sojourn with a fish oil fanatic family in Denmark, when you spill fish oil, you really want to get it out of your clothes fast. Even the highest quality fish oil leaves your clothes reeking of eau d' cod livers. Of course, if you use fish oil capsules, this problem does not come up very often. But whatever the source of your fish oil stain, here is what you need to do.

  1. Before you do anything else, if you spilled cod liver oil, put the cap back on the bottle. You don't want to spill even more. Or if you spilled oil used to pack salmon, sardines, or tuna, set the container down on the container before you start to clean your clothes. Don't spill even more!
  2. If you are taking fish oil for breakfast, you spill it on your shirt or blouse, and you have time, change! Don't try to decontaminate fish oil odor in the office restroom if you don't have to. Place the soiled garment somewhere the fish oil spillage won't mingle with other dirty clothes in your clothes hamper.
  3. If you are taking fish oil for breakfast, you spill it on your shirt or blouse, and you don't have time to change, grab lemon juice, seltzer water, or an ice cube. Pinching the soiled area of clothing between your fingers so you don't spread the fish oil, dissolve as much fish oil as you can, and blot dry with a clean cloth or paper towel. You may have a linger fishy aroma even after you do this, but it's a serviceable level of emergency garment care.
  4. Neutralize fish oil odor with vinegar. You don't want to do this with clothes you are still wearing, 'lest you smell like a pickled herring factory all day. Use vinegar to presoak the stain and then launder the garment as usual. Or if you don't have vinegar handy, use liquid laundry detergent to presoak the stain for 10 or 15 minutes and then launder when convenient.
  5. If you spill fish oil all over a garment, soak the entire garment in a mixture of about 20 parts water to 1 part vinegar for 10 or 15 minutes, and then launder as usual.
  6. If you have access to a clothesline, hanging out your garments to dry in the sun will help them smell great. This is especially helpful if you have contaminated everything in your clothes hamper with fishy smell before you had a chance to wash.

Of course, different situations require slightly different handling. Here are some frequently asked questions about getting rid of fish oil stains.

Q. I've heard that eucalyptus oil is good for getting fish oil stains out of jeans, but I don't want to buy a bottle of eucalyptus oil just in case I spill the sardine juice. Is there an alternative to eucalyptus oil?

A. Wow, alternatives for alternatives. If you have Listerine, use that to presoak the stain, but just apply Listerine to the stain, not a larger area of your jeans. The mouth wash is about 20% alcohol, which dissolves the fish oil. It's also formulated with essential oil of eucalyptus. Allow the spot to soak for up to half an hour, and then rinse just the spot you have pretreated under running water. This rinses the fish oil away. If you plop the pair of jeans in the washer, though, you will just spread the fish oil scent all the way through your jeans.

Q. I was playing with a fish oil capsule and it exploded on my silk evening dress. I had to go to my function so I didn't get it taken care of before I sent my gown to the cleaners. What should I have done to get the fish oil out of silk?

A. Thank you for your question. I can honestly say I would have never thought of this issue on my own. Two approaches will probably help. One is to apply a light spray of a fabric deodorant like Fabreze to the inside of the garment underneath the stain. You don't want to spray so much that the Fabreze begins to drip through. This will help with odor although it won't help with the stain. Another is to sprinkle a little talcum powder or baby powder or even face powder on the spot, and then blot up the oil. This will work on light colors, but not blacks or blues. These are strictly emergency fabric treatments to let you get to your function. It is important to get the garment to the dry cleaners as soon as possible for professional cleaning!

Q. Will these tips also work with other kinds of oil, like olive oil, mayonnaise, and melted butter?

A. Olive oil and melted butter, yes, mayonnaise, not so much. When you spill any kind of fatty food on fabric, the first thing to do is the scrape off the excess. Then you can use any of the techniques used for removing fish oil for removing olive oil or melted butter, but because mayonnaise is made with egg (protein), you can get it off just with water if you treat it as quickly as possible.

Q. What can I do if my clothes smell like fish oil even when I haven't spilled it?

A. I would investigate the possibility of a condition called trimethylaminuria. It's supposed to be rare condition, but I've had several readers tell me about their experiences with it, so I suspect it's underdiagnosed. Trimethylamine is produced by the symbiotic or "friendly" bacteria in the colon. We need these bacteria to defend us against infectious bacteria, to make vitamin K, and to help prevent hormonal imbalances (by breaking down estrogen and testosterone recycled by the liver so they don't find their way back into the bloodstream). Most of us have an enzyme that breaks down the trimethylamine that these bacteria make as they digest their food. About 1 in 100 people has one defective gene for making this enzyme.

About 1 in 10,000 people has two defective genes for making this enzyme. The mutation is more common in South America and India than in other areas of the world. When people who have two defective genes for the enzyme that breaks down trimethylamine, they tend to emit various kinds of odors all the time.

The more trimethylamine builds up, the "fishier" they smell. When people who have just one defective gene for the enzyme that breaks down trimethylamine, they are only likely to have bizarre body odor when they eat vegetables that interfere with the small amount of the enzyme their bodies can make. These people smell like fish when they eat broccoli.

Can you guess the solution for this problem? Don't eat broccoli! It's also a good idea to avoid other vegetables that contain the chemical indole-3-carbinol, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, and watercress. If you have just one gene for this condition, that may be enough to avoid fishy odor. If you have two, it may help at least a little.

The worst cases of trimethylaminuria seem to be helped by restricting consumption of foods that are especially rich in the amino acid choline, especially sausages, organ meats, eggs, and, of course, fish. It also helps to avoid the vegetables which are problematic in milder cases. I am currently working a person who has trimethylaminuria to see if certain supplements help. I'll let you know what we find out as she tries different combinations. Comments and questions are welcome. Please allow at least 72 hours for a personal reply.

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