How to Easily Remove Labels and Smells to Upcycle Jars

Updated 02/06/18

Upcycle jars without buying yet another product to upcycle jars.

I am a crazy jar lady. (And a crazy cat lady, but this post is about jars…)

I had no idea when I went plastic-free in 2011 that I would develop a jar obsession. I can’t hoard enough jars, although I won’t settle for just any jar I can get my hands on (a good rule to follow for just about everything in life). I use jars for buying food, storing food, fermenting food, packing food for lunch, eating food…

Neighbors give me jars (I have a reputation) and I occasionally score nice ones rummaging through the recycling bins where I live. Over the course of the summer, my daughter MK brought me home six 1/2-gallon jars from the tapas restaurant where she worked.

But almost all of these jars have labels stuck to them. If you are a fellow jar connoisseur, you have no doubt found that the biggest and best jars had once housed something pickled. In other words, the lids smell. Both problems have easy solutions.

two big jars
Two 1/2-gallon jars with stubborn labels and smelly lids

Here’s how you get the labels off

1. Try water

If you are lucky, you can soak the jars in water for several hours and the labels will peel right off in one go. I find this technique works only occasionally.

spice jar within a jar
A spice jar soaking in a jar of water
spice jar sans label
Naked spice jar
2. If water doesn’t work, use oil

I usually just start with oil and skip the water. Even after soaking in water, inevitably some of the label remains and oil will help remove that. I happened to have a bit of olive oil that had gone rancid, so I used that for the jars in this post. I was happy to find a purpose for it.

Smear the label with oil and wait overnight. Peel off what you can. You may need to reapply more oil and repeat.


In the top left pic, I have just applied oil to the label. I took the middle picture the next day. You can see how the oil has seeped in behind the label over time, where it has broken down the glue. At that point, the label came off completely but left behind some glue residue, as seen in the right.


The back label required a couple of coats. After the oil has soaked through the paper (in the pic on the right), peel the label off.

repurposed jar
Peanut butter also works well to remove some labels
3. Remove sticky residue

A razor blade or utility knife works really well to remove sticky residue. I use one of my old lames (pictured below) that I had made for scoring sourdough bread. If you don’t have a knife, you can scrub it off with steel wool or a copper scrubber. After I remove as much gunk as possible with a blade, I scrub the rest off with my trusty baking soda.

razor blade

4. Smelly lids—a tip worth the price of admission

You can easily remove the pickle (or other) smell from a glass jar simply by washing it. This doesn’t work for lids.

I have tried a few techniques to remove stubborn smells from jar lids. I have soaked them for several hours on low heat in my slow cooker filled with baking soda and water—with so-so results. Soaking them in a dish filled with vinegar and baking soda works better.

But I have found that the best and easiest way to get the smell out of the lids is…

lids baking in the sun

…to put them underside up in the sun for several hours. I was amazed the first time I tried this. It works so well and uses no energy or resources.

Upcycled jars at work

Below are a few cleaned-up 1/2-gallon jars storing some kitchen utensils (left), wedding cookies (middle) and homemade granola. I hope MK works at the restaurant again next summer 😉 I could use more of these.

jars at work

87 Replies to “How to Easily Remove Labels and Smells to Upcycle Jars”

  1. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    Some great tips, thank you! I didn’t know about the oil, I usually soak over night in water and use eucalyptus oil to get off the residue. Your way is cheaper and no doubt easier too 🙂 And sunshine – well, that’s free which is wonderful!


    1. Thanks Madeleine. I love easy. Someone on Facebook also suggested eucalyptus oil. She said to score the label first, which is so smart. I’m going to try that next time. That way the oil seeps in more easily behind the label. ~ Anne Marie 🙂

  2. Great tips, Thanks. I am moving toward plastic free and struggle with getting those stubborn labels off some really nice jars.

    1. You’re welcome. Enjoy your plastic-free journey 🙂

  3. I’m a jar lady too. I thought I could just put the jars in the dishwasher and let it remove them. I ended up with a costly repair bill. Great score in the half gallon jars! I’m so jealous! 😉

    1. Oh no! Sorry about your repair! The jars were a great score but now my daughter has gone back to school out of town so I can’t get any more 🙁 Of course, sad that she’s gone too 😉

      1. Why not approach the manager and ask for an idea of when they’re putting those jars out? I am lucky that a neighborhood pizza place donates their huge olive jars to a nearby thriftstore which then sells them for $0.50…which I gladly pay for the convenience!

      2. I should do that. I’ve thought about it. The next time I go there (maybe when my daughter comes home), I’ll ask them. They are the best jars. I’d be happy to pay 50 cents too. That’s a great score!

  4. I’m becoming a bit crazy about glass jars myself and I’m an avid label removerer. Every time my cupboard looks rammed with them, a short while later they disappear into the bowels of my kitchen and I don’t have enough. Some of my bottles smell though and I never thought that the cover might be the culprit. Will investigate that one and thanks for the fix!

    1. I’m the same way Alisa. I don’t know how I can possibly get low on jars, I have so many, but it happens all the time so I keep hoarding more. I hope you’re able to get the smells out 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  5. Thanks so much for the tip! I had given up on the smelly lids and have been using those jars only with new smelly contents. But I definitely have plenty of sun available and will try that out this weekend.

    1. My pleasure. I hope your lids are smell-free now. I had a stubborn one from sauerkraut that I left out for a couple of days. It worked!

  6. Thanks for these tips. It’s unbelievably annoying when you have a perfect jar and can’t get rid of the smell!! Maybe I should get out more! I’m going to try the sunshine method for sure. Sometimes I feel as if it’s actually the glass that smells? In Australia coffee often comes in really big jars with push on lids, but because these have a plastic seal it’s really hard to get the coffee smell out 😥

    1. Hi FarmerFi I keep the macona (sp?) jars too, the plastic part can be removed with a butter knife or such and I soak in lightly vinegared soapy hot water. Comes up fresh.

      1. Yes, those ones! Thanks for the tip. Wasn’t sure I’d get them back on again 😊

    2. LOL. I should probably get out more too. I get a little too excited by jars… If the jar smells, maybe the sun will take care of that too (?).

      1. Will definitely try it out! Lots of UV here in Tasmania!

  7. Thanks!
    The Sun works great for musty smelly things, and skunk smell too.

    1. Makes sense. My cat came in one day reeking of skunk. Stunk up everything. Hopefully he knows not to mess with a skunk now, but if he does, and gets skunk smell all over the place again, I’ll know what to do 😉 Thanks for tip!

  8. AnaMaria Bruce says: Reply

    I am a crazy jar lady too and used all sorts of jars, but mainly olive jars from Costco(perfect size) similar to the ones in the picture, when I was raising my large family. Now it’s just the 2 of us and only use mason jars, just love them!!!! In the fridge and cupboards that is all you see! My lunch is also just mason jars. I also found re-usual ziplocs(they are in the shape of a mason jar and have a picture on the outside of a jar, real cute!!)

    1. Ooooh, olive oil jars are nice. And the olive oil always drips out and that makes the label easy to remove. Mason jars are great too. I love the wide-mouth ones best. I had no idea I would become a jar connoisseur when I started all of this. Nice to meet a fellow crazy jar lady 🙂

  9. AnaMaria Bruce says: Reply

    also I meant to add to my last comment, if you use a hairdryer it helps to take the label off.

  10. Oh my goodness so great and yet so simple.. Love the tip on the lids out in the sun.. Thank you, Thank you as I have a huge pickle jar with a lid that’s well you know.. out into the daylight it goes..

    Take care and I love your blog too, just followed you .. Laura

    1. Thanks for following and for the comment Laura 🙂 All the good jars are for pickles and that smell in the lid…so stubborn. I hope the sun did the trick for yours. ~ Anne Marie

      1. Anne Marie, you’re very welcome for the follow and the tip about setting the jars and stubborn pickle smelling lids outside worked like a lucky charm, magically smell free now.. Thank you so very much for this natural solution to a problem I’ve had for years trying to get the smell out.. I’ve wasted so many lemons trying without any luck.. Take care and I look forward to many more ideas from your wonderful blog.. Take care my new friend…

        Laura 🙂

  11. Rubbing alcohol can be used to remove the sticky residue as well.

    1. Thanks for the tip Becky 🙂

  12. Wow. There are others who think like me. Yay. I especially like 16 oz glass peanut butter jars. So many excellent uses.

  13. Quicker & more efficient for labels: scrub it under running water with the rough side of a good kitchen sponge. Usually takes everything off but any small glue residue can be quickly removed with nail polish remover.

  14. Scouring powder and/or nail polish remover for sticky residue.

  15. Try boiling water; that gets off most sticky things.

  16. I use cat can lids to scrape the residue off and sometime use metal scouring pad which is very efficient. Also, bread plastic tabs are useful for scrapping as well.

  17. You can use an old credit card as a scraper first before going to a razor blade.

    1. I actually was going to do that but I thought it probably wasn’t a good idea to put a pic of my credit card online :p I sometimes use a dough scraper also. Thanks for the tip 🙂

  18. People who do book and paper restoration use lighter fluid to remove adhesive tape and the glue from paper. ( it leaves no mark on the paper afterwards ). It usually works quickly on jar labels once you get some soaked under the label.

  19. Love this idea, but my husband complains that we have a drawer full of different size jars and lids and he can never find the right lid. Any ideas for organization??

  20. I use 70% rubbing alcohol to remove the glue residue, and it works fine!

  21. My father used to sells labels for a living and one thing he taught me was that many times people are too fast when trying to remove a label. Before you soak them – fill the jar with hot water to warm the glue – then go super slow and give the label time to release the glue. The slower you go the more likely you will be able to remove the label. There are lots of things like “Goop” to remove the residue. You’re looking for a solvent to remove the residue.
    The easiest way to get rid of a smell is charcoal. So if you’ve been burning wood or grilling save the ash then bury the lids for a day or two and you’ll get rid of the smell. If you don’t grill just buy the natural charcoal and crush it – and use it to get rid of lots of odors.

    1. Thanks for the ideas Jessy. ~ Anne Marie

  22. Don’t soak the jar – this weakens the paper label and makes it near impossible to get it off. The best way to get labels off is to fill the jar with boiling water as this melts the glue the holds the label to the jar but doesn’t weaken the paper itself. Leave 5 – 10 minutes, tip water out, then peel the label off – typically it will come off in one go as the label hash;t been weakened by touching water. Any residual glue can be removed with a scouring pad / citrus degreaser etc.

  23. Reblogged this on empty it out.

    1. Thanks so much for the reblog 🙂

  24. you can also use lemon essential oil to remove any residue. glad to learn your sunshine trick!

  25. On the other side, if you want to put something on your jars, paper will stick to it very well if glued with milk, ordinary milk. And also easy to remove.

  26. WD40 removes the sticky stuff too 🙂

  27. Nice post!
    Thanks for the sun no smell tip!
    I read a blog lately where they used peanut butter to remove labels, ofcourse I tryed and it worked.
    But maybe that’s also because of the oil in the peanut butter?

    1. Thanks for checking out the post. A couple of people on here and Facebook mentioned peanut butter. That sounds like a great idea. It would stay put too, it’s so thick. I’ll try that next time. I have a few labels to remove at the moment. Thanks for the tip!

  28. Goo Gone or Goof Off dissolves the residue from glue used to apply jar labels. I’ve never seen label residue yet that failed to come off after rubbing this stuff on it and giving it a little time to work

  29. Borax in soaking water will remove labels. You can also cover them with new labels.

    1. Thanks Cory! I hadn’t heard that one. ~ Anne Marie

  30. I make a citrus enzyme cleaner from citrus peel sand find this is very effective at removing some of the more stubborn labels. Just leave the jar soaking in some diluted enzyme cleaner for a day. The label then comes right off and most of the sticky residue is broken down and easy to scrape off.

  31. […] In the above picture, you can see some of the containers I reuse. The container labeled “Rolled Oats” was an empty nut container. Same with the “Green Lentils.” There’s old pickle jars, jelly jars, honey jars, pasta sauce jars and oatmeal containers pictured. If your containers are glass, just remove the labels and tape your own label on. For the oatmeal containers, I simply wrapped a piece of cardstock around it and taped it on. This post by the Zero Waste Chef is excellent for learning how to cleanly remove labels and stink fr… […]

  32. Been re-purposing jars for a long time. The problem we have is after a few washings, the lid gets some rust forming near the seal. Also, I’m learning that most seals contain BPA. Any solutions?

    1. Hi Steve,

      The lids on my giant jars are BPA-free but that claim doesn’t make me feel much better. They may contain something just as nasty. Since I don’t use these to can, and the food doesn’t touch the lid, I don’t worry too much about the BPA. But in a perfect world, I would have piles of (fairly expensive) Weck jars. The lids are glass and apparently the seal is 100% natural rubber. I do have several bale jars, also with glass lids, which I love for fermenting (the CO2 escapes along the rubber gasket).

      I do notice that the lids of my repurposed jars can get rusty. If I use them only for buying and storing dry bulk food, I don’t seem to have that problem (I also wash them less frequently, so that might be why). But if I do ferment something in them, it definitely happens. I would suggest drying the lids really thoroughly. Sorry I don’t have a better answer for the rust thing. ~ Anne Marie

      1. spiamgSteve Yakoban says:

        Thanks for your thorough response! We just use them for things like freezing/storing lemon juice or sauce and try avoiding touching the lid, but it happens. We’ve been using 1/2 gallon mason jars for fermenting 6/$12.

      2. You’re welcome 🙂 Mason jars are a good deal. I love Weck jars but they are so $$$

  33. I just found your blog and LOVE it–thank you! 🙂
    My favorite way to remove labels from jars involves sticking them in the oven for 8 minutes or so (lids off!) after I’ve roasted something. It’s a trick I learned from a friend who saves her wine labels–and it works BEAUTIFULLY. Careful, the glass is super hot–be sure to take them out with an oven mitt, and then just use your nail to raise a corner of the label–it should peel off with ease!
    Once in awhile, there’s a bit of yucky residue, and I’ll use the oil trick to get it off. Works like a charm.

    1. :O I’m going to try this trick tonight near the tail end of dinner! Thank you so much. That sounds so easy! Thanks also for the kind words about my blog 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

      1. Woot woot! How did it go?? 🙂

      2. I found a really nice short wide-mouth jar in the dumpster with an impossible-to-remove plastic label. It peeled right off after being in the oven. It did leave behind sticky gunk but I know how to get that off. The other jar didn’t work but that’s fine. It’s a paper label that I can get off. That other one was so stubborn and had been sitting on my counter for way too long. Thanks so much for the tip 🙂

      3. Oh, cool! 🙂 Happy to hear it helped. 😀

  34. I’m a crazy jar lady, too! LOL!! I found that I can use the gallon plastic jars to store flour in the freezer! The flour will last far longer when frozen. I also freeze my yeast. I buy it in a large bag then transfer it into a quart Mason jars and freeze it. When I need some for baking I just take the jar out, spoon out what I need and return the jar to the freezer! I have had yeast last over a year frozen and it works just fine! I also found that using isopropyl alcohol on my dish cloth will often clean the residue of the labels off the jars. Nail polish remover works, too! Loved reading your blog! Thanks!

    1. Hi Colleen,

      Oh that’s a good idea for flour. The flour I buy is very fresh (the store has a quick turnover) but I still buy smaller amounts because I want it as fresh as possible. Yeast makes sense too. Thanks for all the jar tips and for reading my blog. We crazy jar ladies have to stick together 😉 ~ Anne Marie

  35. that is my life ?? thanks for sharing the tips, I will try the one for the lids !!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      You’re welcome. I was so excited when I learned about the lid trick. Maybe I need to get out more 😉

  36. Great post, thanks! I was horrified when I moved from Poland to Ireland and saw that people just throw away all the jars. When I was running my fermentation workshops, people often asked me how I source jars. It has never occurred to them that they are the same jars that they buy jam in. Some of the people though that I import some sort of special jars from Poland. How mad is that?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Anna. It’s crazy what we consider trash! I have found some nice jars in the recycling bins. I have been horrified by what some of the restaurants throw out that my daughter has worked in. She has brought me home the best jars. They would be expensive to buy. It is a mad world! ~ Anne Marie

  37. Thanks for all the tips.
    I had some really stubborn labels and the olive oil worked perfectly.
    Had to use a razor blade on one jar.
    Didn’t scratch at all.
    Happy crazy jar lady!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Steph. My pleasure! I’m glad you were able to get the labels off. Crazy jar ladies unite! ~ Anne Marie

  38. I was seriously just telling my husband that I couldn’t figure out how to get the smell out of an old pasta sauce lid. I’ve tried letting it soak in soapy water and was just about to reach for bleach (I know, terrible 😔) but then I saw this tip in your Insta stories! Thank you so much!!!! As soon as the rain clears the lid is going outside 😁

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Priscila, I tried so many different tactics too, with ho-hum results. I hope it gets sunny soon where you are. ~ Anne Marie

  39. […] Here is a great article from The Zero Waste Chef on repurposing jars. […]

  40. Just wanted to share that I used to use the jar removal method you describe here. But a few months ago I switched to soaking the jars in hot water, baking soda, and a tiny bit of dish soap. Let me tell you, it’s been life altering! So much less effort to get the labels off. Let me know if you try it.

  41. Hi, thanks for this post, and for all your posts! This was really helpful for tips in getting labels off, but I’m wondering: do you have a clean, waste-less method of labeling your repurposed jars? Like if you want to make sure you remember what is face wash and what is shampoo (those are random examples) — to differentiate between things that may look similar?

  42. Very informative blog!! Yes, it is very difficult to remove labels but i think your idea is very helpful to remove labels

  43. Amanda Lamothe says: Reply

    LOVE THIS!!! I had to find your blog because I remembered reading about this while scrolling through IGTV, I want to print this off like a poster!! My favourite!!! Next I’m going to re read your sour dough lesson <3

    1. Hello! I love your blog and am a new follower on your IG account. I have big, beautiful candle jars I want to use but the lid smells of the candle scent. I’ve tried bleach, soap, and dishwasher to no avail. I will be putting it out in the sun today. Thank you!!

  44. Thank you so much for this post, I will definetively try the sun tip for the lid.
    Do you any magig tip on cleaning tomato sauce lids? I happen to love some of these jars, but I can never deal well with this forever red tomato lids 🙁

  45. I am so happy I tripped into this blog today. Everything I read is “Yes, thank you”. I found the blog just double checking pickling brine recipes.
    I watched my grandmother use her jar collection as did my mother and they both pickled or “canned” fruit and vegetables in jars. So sustainable. Both of them used eucalyptus oil as a matter of course to remove label residue after soaking the jars in hot water. So I do too. Eucalyptus (and teatree) oil are inexpensive where I’m from so that’s what I use. I stock up whenever I’m in my home country.
    I love Zero Waste Chef site.

  46. Chaisley Reeves says: Reply

    Love the AH-HA moment of “just let nature do its work”! Thanks for sharing! Your wooden utensils look great. I’ve been searching for a good quality, non laquered set. Any recommendations?

  47. […] things like leftovers and bulk foods. If you have a bunch of jars that stink, check out these handy instructions for removing their labels and […]

  48. If you already took the label off, but residue is left behind, you may skip steps involving peeling the label off, and get straight to residue removal. These work for both removing residue and labels.

  49. I was thrilled to read your article on how to remove the labels from glass jars and can’t wait to try using oil. I’d given up on trying to get the odor out of the lids. Putting them out in the sun is so easy. Great discovery! Thank you!

    1. Oh I’m so glad you liked that tip. It’s hot and sunny here now and I have a couple of smelly lids outside in the sun as I type. It works so well and is zero work. Win-win!

  50. I use lemon halves (after they have been juiced) to de-smell jars and lids. I put
    The lemon half in the jar, full with water, place the lid on and turn the jar upside down to sit for several hours in sink.
    This technique has worked with jars that held kimchee and jars that held ginger garlic paste.

    1. Thank you for this idea! I have a jar that was used to store curry powder, and the smell has survived *several* days of sunbathing. I’ll try the lemons next. After that, I’ll put my hands up and make it the forever-curry-powder jar.

  51. I used to use oil to remove label residue. it worked but I had to let it sit for hours, and the goo that comes off took multiple washes to remove and ruined my sponges. Then I read that a paste of baking soda + oil works better, and sure enough, it’s SO MUCH BETTER than oil alone! The baking soda acts as an abrasive so the paste only needs to sit for a few minutes, not hours. And since it’s a paste, not liquid, it doesn’t drip down the sides and make a mess. And finally, it’s way easier to rinse off! It only takes one wash (less water! yay!) and is much kinder on my sponge. To keep my sponge clean, I scrub the goo with a stiff-bristled brush first (I use an old toothbrush, in true ZW fashion). The scrubbing displaces the goo so it rinses off even more easily. Now I keep a small jar of the baking soda + oil paste in the kitchen so I can smear some on whenever I get a new jar. Removing glue residue used to be a huge annoying messy chore that I put off until I accumulated enough jars to make it worth it. Now it’s so much easier!

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