How to get a smell out of a car

On the Road 3 min read

Unpleasant or musty smells in cars make driving an awful experience. The good news is that you can remove many car odors through DIY methods using common household products. While you may need a professional service to get rid of tough and hard-to-remove smells, you can often deodorize your car with a little effort.

What’s the best way to remove a smell from your car?

It’s usually best to start with simple methods to get a smell out of your car, then progress to more intense methods as you go. Here are a few tactics that experts recommend:

  • Baking soda: According to Matthew Hart, owner of AxleWise, the first thing you should try is “cleaning the upholstery first with baking soda, vinegar, or club soda mixed with a bit of dishwashing soap. I would then follow that by wiping down with a mixture of distilled white vinegar and fabric cleaner if possible.”
  • Ozone generator: An ozone generator is an air purifier that reduces airborne contaminants. After opening the vehicle’s windows to remove excess vapors, Hart recommends renting an ozone generator to clear any remaining smells.
  • Wet/dry vacuum: If the odors persist after a few cleaning attempts, that may indicate the cause of the smell is deeper within the upholstery or carpet of the vehicle. According to Patrick McCann of WeTryTires, “The only real solution [if other methods aren’t working] is to use a wet and dry vacuum to deep clean and bring up all the dirt that is causing the odor.” You can rent these appliances if you don’t have one at home.
  • Anti-mildew cleaner: Moldy car smells that happen when the air conditioner is running can be caused by mold buildup within the system. Have a repair shop treat the vehicle with an anti-mildew cleaner.
  • Taking apart the car: Fidel Lerma, business manager of EBA Automotive Repair, says that getting to the source of especially offensive odors can require more invasive methods. “Rotting odors can be caused when mice get into the car when it is parked for a long time,” he says. “Sometimes the rodents end up dying in the car, with a powerful stench that’s difficult to remove. The source has to be found, which may require serious detective work and even disassembling the dashboard, if necessary.”

When to hire a mechanic to remove the smell from your car

You may need to hire a professional to detect the source of some odors that could indicate mechanical problems. For example, Lerma says that a rotten egg odor could indicate your catalytic converter is failing. If you’ve taken steps to deodorize your car, but a foul smell still lingers — or you only smell it when the vehicle is running — it’s time to take your car to a trusted mechanic.

Talk to an automotive service professional if you smell an acrid odor, like something burning, which could point to problems with the electrical system. Also, the smell of hot rubber could mean a belt is wearing thin.

What if I’m buying a used car?

With a new vehicle, you may keep that coveted new car smell for a while. However, if you purchase a used or classic car, you may inherit some powerful car smells as part of the deal. For example, if the previous owner smoked or had pets, the vehicle will likely have a few lingering odors. Bad smells could also indicate past issues like water damage or mechanical problems. Discover more about how to store and maintain classic cars.

Most common sources of car smells

Foul odors in car seats come from many different sources, but some of the most common are:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Pet odors
  • Mildew
  • Spilled food and drink

You might also smell odors from the engine, indicating potential mechanical problems. You might investigate these right away as they could be dangerous to the safety of you and your passengers.

Another potential source of odor is the air conditioner. It takes in air from outside and inside the car, often near the floor mats. If your floor mats are damp or a mildew smell comes from wet carpets in your car, it can affect the odor of the entire vehicle. Mildew could also be a sign of a flood-damaged vehicle. If your car was submerged in water at one time, consult a professional to check for damage beyond a bad smell. Learn more about common car smells and how to keep your car well maintained.

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