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Getting Rid of Car Odors

Jeff Zurschmeide
by Jeff Zurschmeide
August 13, 2020
6 min. Reading Time
carodor1 ・  Photo by Andrey Popov

carodor1 ・ Photo by Andrey Popov

We've all had the experience of climbing into someone's car and discovering a bad smell. It's worse when it's your own car, though. Bad car smells can make your friends shy away from riding with you, detract from your driving experience, and even affect your car's resale value.

The best thing to do is keep on top of odor-causing problems in your car. But even the most diligent car care can't stop every smell. When that happens, there are some proven effective cleaning strategies that will banish or diminish bad car odors quickly and easily. 

Prevention Is Better Than Elimination

The best way to get rid of car odors is not to let them get started in the first place. Some car owners have a strict policy about not eating or drinking anything in their vehicles. That's a great plan, but it's not realistic for many people whose cars are their mobile living rooms and offices. But what you can do is make sure you keep a trash bag in the car, and you can make a habit of cleaning all trash out of your car at the end of every day. More than anything else, this will help eliminate odors from items you would otherwise have left in the car.

One thing to avoid is air fresheners. These have a heavy scent that is designed to overwhelm the original odor. But unless you remove the source of the bad smell, you'll just have a strong air freshener scent along with the original odor. The combination is often far worse than the original smell.

 Photo by Sarunchana

Photo by Sarunchana

Natural Odor Absorbents

Whenever you clean your car, you'll always want to thoroughly clean every interior surface. A simple cleaning solution of 50 percent water and 50 percent white vinegar works well and leaves a fresh scent behind. Do not use apple cider or red wine vinegar as a substitute. Use only clear white vinegar. Also, do not use kitchen cleansers that contain bleach or ammonia, as these can damage interior surfaces.

Along with white vinegar, two great odor absorbers are baking soda and charcoal. Arm & Hammer baking soda is safe and easy to use. You can sprinkle it on carpet and vacuum it up to help eliminate general odors, or pour it right on big spills. One note: Do not substitute baking powder, use only baking soda. Charcoal also absorbs odors very well. Activated charcoal has been processed and comes in a granulated form, usually in a box or bag. You can find this product at home supply stores and pet stores, since it's great for pet smells. Simply open the bag and leave it open in your car.

 Photo by Kadmy

Photo by Kadmy

Eliminating Food Odors

By far the most common source of odors in any car is food. Coffee and any foods based on milk or meat are the worst sources of smells because they sour and rot. However, deep-fried foods are not far behind. If possible, consume burgers, fries, and milkshakes outside the car, but if you have to eat on the road, bag your leftovers and throw them away at the first opportunity.

If you have a big spill, you're in for some work. Most automakers put the cup holders in the center console, along with various controls and the gear shift lever. Spray those down with your water and vinegar solution, making sure it gets to all the same nooks and crannies that your venti latte found its way into. If the spill went onto the carpet, or someone got carsick in your car, put baking soda on the mess immediately. The baking soda will absorb much of the liquid, and you can vacuum it up after five to 10 minutes. Then sprinkle some more baking soda and leave it overnight before vacuuming again. If the spill went between the console and the seat (and it usually does), you may have to get out your wrenches and remove the seat. Then rent or purchase a steam-cleaning machine. It's a lot of work, but the alternative may be a sour smell that will never go away.

 Photo by Kana Design Image

Photo by Kana Design Image

Quelling Chemical Odors

Chemical odors from a car's operation can be hard to clean. For example, if you step in gasoline and track it into the car, or an oil leak in the engine bay causes some smoke, your car can end up smelling like a repair shop. The first thing to do is arrest the source of the odor by fixing your car if it's leaking, smoking, or steaming.

If you can leave the windows open on sunny days, these odors will dissipate on their own with time, but hitting the seats and carpet with the steam cleaner will speed the process. Activated charcoal will help pull the remaining odor out of your car. Also, stop by the auto parts store and get a new cabin air filter. These filters catch particulates before they enter your car, but smoke will get stuck in the filter. Changing the filter is a great way to get a fresh start.

 Photo by Natallia

Photo by Natallia

Getting Rid of Tobacco Smoke

If you smoke, try not to smoke in your car. Tobacco smoke gets into absolutely everything, and the smell is nearly impossible to eliminate. A smoky-smelling car has dramatically reduced resale value, and most non-smokers won't even consider a car with smoke residue. If you find yourself facing the task of freshening a smoker's car, you're looking at a full interior detail and then some. You will likely need to clean out the car's climate system to really get the smoke odor out.

Start by washing out the ash trays, but to really get at tobacco smells, you'll need to remove the seats and steam clean them, and then steam clean every inch of the carpet inside the vehicle. Baking soda, vinegar, and charcoal are all good allies in this fight. However, you're not done yet. The headliner soaks up tobacco odors and then releases them every time the car gets warm. So that has to be steam-cleaned as well. Use a heavy concentration of cleaning solution, and you'll be impressed (and maybe a little grossed out) by the color of the solution when you pull it back out of the vehicle's interior.

 Photo by Methaphum

Photo by Methaphum

Battling Pet Odors

Another exceptionally difficult cleaning challenge is what we politely call pet odors. Cats will occasionally decide that your car's open window is an invitation to use the interior as a litter box, and if a vehicle has been stored through a winter, mice and even rats can also take up residence and leave a horrible stinky mess. Because pet or pest urine soaks into carpet and seat cushions, you're looking at steam cleaning again, plus vinegar, baking soda, and charcoal.

However, you may find that steam cleaning simply brings the pet odor out more strongly than before. The product you want for urine smells is called Nature's Miracle, and you'll want to use a lot of it. This product has enzymes that break down the aromatic chemical compounds that make urine such a potent smell. In extreme cases, you may find that it's easier to simply replace the seats or the carpet. Cat urine, in particular, never entirely goes away.

 Photo by Kateryna Kovarzh

Photo by Kateryna Kovarzh

The Special Case of Winter Odors

Summertime odors often smell the worst because the heat of the day cooks the odor into your car, but winter brings its own smells. If you track snow and water into your vehicle on your shoes, it will get into the carpet and soon develop a musty, moldy smell. One of the best things you can do to prevent this is to buy a set of winter weather mats. These are made of plastic or vinyl and hold the water. You can then remove the mats and drain them or wipe them dry as needed.

If you're going to use your car through winter and you want to keep it fresh, sprinkle baking soda on the carpet periodically, and then vacuum or steam clean it. Powdered charcoal also helps soak up odors. Mixing some white vinegar into your steam cleaning solution also helps to eliminate odors and deliver a fresh scent. Don't forget to change the cabin air filter, too!

 Photo by Mikitiger

Photo by Mikitiger

Avoiding Odors When Storing a Vehicle

Keeping a vehicle stored without regular use can lead to stale odors, especially if it's stored in a cold garage in winter. If you're going to store a vehicle for more than a month, here are a few tips and tricks:

  • Get a dehumidifier and place it on the floor. You can get these at any camping or RV store. These cups have a chemical that absorbs water out of the air, and this will help keep musty smells at bay.
  • Find a bag of activated charcoal and leave that open in the vehicle's cabin, too. Do not use charcoal briquets meant for a barbecue because those have been treated with aromatic flammable chemicals.
  • A box of baking soda left open on the console will also help keep odors down.
 Photo by Peshkova

Photo by Peshkova

Recap: How to Get Rid of Car Odors

Eliminating vehicle odors will make your ownership experience more pleasant and increase your vehicle's resale value. Especially at sale time, a thorough professional detailing and deodorizing is a good investment.

Remember these tips:

  • Activated charcoal, baking soda, and white vinegar are good odor cleansers
  • Avoid bleach or ammonia cleansers
  • Avoid air fresheners or perfumes that only mask odors
  • Keep your vehicle clean to prevent odors
  • Buy or rent a steam cleaner for the most difficult odors
  • Keep stored vehicles dry and outfitted with odor preventers
 Photo by Alex Gedeiko

Photo by Alex Gedeiko


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