How can I be exposed to thirdhand smoke?

Thirdhand smoke is the chemical residue from tobacco smoke. It is also called “tobacco smoke residue” or “stale tobacco smoke.” The chemicals in thirdhand smoke are toxic to humans, especially children. It can linger for years in dust and on household surfaces. It can also become embedded in carpets, furniture, clothes, and building materials. It is difficult and expensive to remove.

There are a few different ways people can be exposed to thirdhand smoke:

Through Touching

People can be exposed to thirdhand smoke when their skin comes in contact with a polluted surface. Such surfaces could be the steering wheel of a car, clothes, a blanket, a table, a toy, or a chair. From a polluted surface, thirdhand smoke chemicals can stick to your skin, enter your blood stream, and circulate through your body, where they may harm your DNA, immune system, and cardiovascular system. If you think you have touched surfaces contaminated with thirdhand smoke, wash your hands immediately.

Through Breathing 

It is possible to breathe in thirdhand smoke chemicals and particles suspended in the air. Thirdhand smoke can be released from clothing, furniture, carpets, walls, or pillows. When this chemical release happens, we can sometimes smell stale tobacco smoke – but not always. When you smell stale tobacco smoke, it is not just a foul odor. It is a mixture of toxic chemicals that enters your body through your lungs.

Through Entering the Mouth

People can swallow thirdhand smoke when they put objects polluted with thirdhand smoke (e.g., toys, cups, utensils, fingers) into their mouths. Young children are at the highest risk of swallowing thirdhand smoke because they put many objects in their mouths, particularly when teething.

Have more questions about Thirdhand Smoke? Learn more here.

Updated August 2022


Matt GE, Merianos AL, Quintana PJE, Hoh E, Dodder NG, Mahabee-Gittens EM. Prevalence and Income-Related Disparities in Thirdhand Smoke Exposure to Children. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(2):e2147184. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.47184

Matt GE, Quintana PJ, Zakarian JM, Fortmann AL, Chatfield DA, Hoh E., et al. When smokers move out and non-smokers move in: residential thirdhand smoke pollution and exposure. Tob. Control. 2011; 20. e1 10.1136/tc.2010.037382.

Jacob P, Benowitz NL 3rd, Destaillats H, Gundel L, Hang B, Martins-Green M, et al. Thirdhand smoke: new evidence, challenges, and future directions. Chem. Res. Toxicol. 2017; 30:270–294. 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.6b00343.

Tang X, Benowitz N, Gundel L, Hang B, Havel CM, Hoh E, Jacob P, Mao Jian-Hua, Martins-Green Manuela, Matt GE, Quintana PJ, Russell M, Sarker Altaf, Schick S, Snijders A, and Destaillats H. Thirdhand Exposures to Tobacco-Specific Nitrosamines through Inhalation, Dust Ingestion, Dermal Uptake, and Epidermal Chemistry. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022;

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