How to Get Rid of Bad Smells in Your Car

Eliminating unpleasant odors in your car can be a major challenge. We have the step-by-step solution for cleaning and deodorizing your car.

When It’s Not Burnt Rubber You Smell

Driver noticing bad smell in car
Driver noticing bad smell in car

Wet basement smell, that damp, mildewy stench is bad enough in an actual basement. Far worse is that smell in your car. And that’s not all, odors from pets, food, smoke, deceased rodents stuck in your ventilation system can all effectively ruin a car or dramatically reduce its value. Sure, there’s always those pine tree shaped air fresheners, but masking the odor is usually just treating the symptom of a deeper problem. Thankfully, there are ways to successfully combat bad smells, and in some cases eliminate them completely. Below we’ll share with you the best detailing experts’ secrets to getting rid of bad smells in your car.

Supplies

To rid your car of bad smells, you’ll need a few specific cleaning items. A vacuum is a must, optional is a carpet cleaner or steamer. Next, you’ll need a spray on carpet cleaning solution and a stiff brush. To help eliminate odors, you’ll need deodorizers like baking soda, vinegar, charcoal (you can use regular briquettes for this just not the kind with accelerant/lighter fluid), or a deodorizing gel. You’ll also want a fresh cabin air filter and vent cleaner. Optional items can include an oxidation agent like OxyClean and a spray bottle if you’re using a vinegar solution (usually two parts water to one part vinegar).

Steps-By-Step

Step 1

Man removing car seat
Man removing car seat

The first thing you’ll want to do is clean out your vehicle. Dig out all the stale French fries, the gym bag and skunky sports equipment, the doggy bed, and the kid’s car seat. This last one will need special attention. In addition to all the crumbs, make sure to remove and clean the soft cloth portion of the car seat per the manufacturer instructions. Remove the floor mats and then vacuum these, the carpets, and seats thoroughly.

Step 2

Sprinkle baking soda, either by hand or with a sugar shaker, onto the carpet and floor mats. Let the baking soda sit overnight to absorb odors. The next day, you can vacuum it up.

Step 3

Dirty and clean cabin air filters
Dirty and clean cabin air filters

Remove the cabin air filter. This is typically located in or behind your glove box but consult your owner’s manual on the specifics of removal. Next, use vent cleaner/spray in your AC vents and in the exterior intake vents, where your wipers sit, and the interior intake vents usually located in the foot wells. Now, turn on the recirculate function on your HVAC system and run the AC for five minutes with the windows up. After five minutes, put the windows down and run the fan by itself for another five minutes. After this, you can install the new cabin air filter.

Step 4

Here is where you could use an oxidizer if you chose to, following its specific instructions for use. After that, or if you chose to forego the oxidizer, it’s time to apply a regular carpet cleaner or shampoo to the carpet, floor mats, and cloth seats. We recommend vacuuming one more time to help the carpet cleaner dry.

Step 5

Person scrubbing their vehicle's headliner
Person scrubbing their vehicle's headliner

This step applies specifically to smoke odors, which tend to concentrate near the driver’s side B-pillar, the seat belt, and of course the headliner. Use the same carpet cleaner, but rather than using a course brush, like the ones that come with carpet cleaner, you’ll want to use a gentler application, like a stiff paint brush due to the delicate headliner material. You’ll probably need to apply and brush multiple times to get smoke smell and stains out of the headliner.

The seat belt will also absorb smoke. Pull the belt out all the way and twist it several times to prevent it from retracting. Scrub both sides with a stiff brush while applying a carpet cleaner or other car interior cleaner. Leave the belt pulled out to ensure it dries before allowing it to retract.

Addressing Mold and Mildew

Person steam cleaning their car interior
Person steam cleaning their car interior

Not only is mold and mildew stinky, but it’s also a health hazard, therefore, we recommend wearing a mask and gloves when addressing them. Mold and mildew are caused by the interior getting damp in some way. It could be as simple as leaving a window open and it rains or as dramatic as accidentally leaving the top down overnight as a thunderstorm rolls through. Older cars, especially those left in storage, can start to smell mildewy, too. However it happens, prolonged wetness is a recipe for mold and mildew.

The above steps should help address mold and mildew if your problem is mild. If your problem is more extensive, it’s time to start removing, and perhaps replacing, some parts of your car’s interior. First, identify exactly where you have mold or mildew growing. A leaky sunroof for instance, will often drip onto upholstery. Floor mats and carpet are also likely trouble spots.

Steam cleaning should be your second line of defense. If this doesn’t eliminate the smell, it’s probably time to consider replacing interior parts. Seats, carpeting, and the headliner can all harbor mold and mildew and may all need replacing. Depending on the car, this may or may not be cost effective. But in the case of an older, classic car, a completely redone interior can be a huge upgrade. Each case will be different.

Re-Odorizers

Vent-mounted air freshener
Vent-mounted air freshener

That’s right, once you’ve identified the source of your stench and gone through the steps of eliminating it, now it’s time to finally pick out your favorite air-freshener. You can go with the traditional tree air fresheners. Yankee Candle makes tiny jars to hand form to your review mirror, too. There are also ones that clip to your AC vents, though these can be a bit aggressive when you want cold air on your face on a balmy day. And of course, if you’re a big enough baller to own something like a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, you can choose from cabin atomizer fragrances that include Downtown Mood, Sport Mood, and Pacific Mood.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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