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How to Remove That NASTY Odor From Your Car Permanently

There’s nothing more off-putting than getting into your car and immediately noticing a unpleasant smell that stays with you on your commute. The worst part is that some car odors are incredibly difficult to eliminate. 

With all the different home remedies out there, it’s hard to know what works, and you don’t want something that will just mask the odor or even make it worse. Luckily, some methods are effective and used by professional automotive detailers worldwide.

2-step kit makes interior look like new

The Best Interior Cleaner

★★★★★ 

The one-two punch your interior has been missing.

“So far I’ve used Mirror Shine, Turbo, Tire shine, and now Intra Shield and Clean. All products have performed as advertised and I am very happy with the results. Now to try the car wash and my detailing kit will be complete.” – Bill L.

How Do Smells Impact Your Car’s Interior?

Most unpleasant odors are caused by small particles trapped in your car’s upholstery, air conditioning system, or other soft, porous surfaces.

Girl having trouble with bad smelling car interior.
Man smoking inside the car with cigarette in his hand.
Man smelling nasty odor coming from car's AC duct.

Some common causes of odor are mold, mildew, and smoke, which can pose health hazards to passengers, especially children. 

In the case of smoke, nicotine particles and other pollutants can hang around with the odor. These particles are typically high enough to cause third-hand exposure, bringing along all the risks that come with it. Mold and mildew smell, on the other hand, can release spores that trigger allergies and asthma or lead to infection.

Unfortunately, basic car cleaning doesn’t get these particles out. Instead, your vehicle needs a deep cleaning and a deodorizer to really get rid of bad odors and minimize risks to passengers. 

Why Air Fresheners and Other Products Don’t Work

You can get air fresheners, odor bombs, and other scented products almost anywhere. They come in various scents, so you can find something to suit any preference. However, they only serve to mask odors rather than actually eliminate them.

Your favorite tropical air freshener might make your car smell better for a few days or weeks, but once it starts to fade, the foul smells will return with a vengeance. Of course, you can keep replacing your air freshener or using more odor bombs every time the last one fades, but the better solution is to just eliminate the odor. 

Remove the Source of Odors

Man cleaning car's interior plastic with yellow microfiber towel.

In the case of smoke smell, you want to make sure you get rid of any cigarette butts and ash and clean the air vents. You also want to ensure you get all the tar residue off hard surfaces, so they don’t perpetuate the odor when you clean the soft surfaces. 

For mold and mildew, you want to make sure you deal with any damp spots or moisture sources that promote mold and mildew growth. While wiping down the surfaces won’t get rid of what’s down in the seats, it can get rid of the organisms on the surface that also contribute to the odor. 

For pet odors, identifying where they may be coming from and cleaning those areas goes a long way. Removing pet hair, wiping cup holders, and checking under seats for something unexpected will make getting rid of any lingering odors much easier. 

Vacuum, Shampoo, and Scrub

Vacuum cleaning car's upholstery.
Shampooing car's seat.

The first step in any good interior cleaning is to vacuum. Make sure you vacuum all the nooks and crannies, crevices, cup holders, car seats and under the floor mats to get all the places odors can hide. Many odors can have airborne particles that can land almost anywhere, so you need to be thorough to get everything. 

A good interior cleaner, like the Torque Detail Interior Cleaning Kit, can help eliminate the grime stuck to any plastic, vinyl, or leather seats in your car. Spray the cleaner on one section at a time, scrub the area thoroughly with a scrub brush, and wipe off any grime it shakes loose with a microfiber towel. 

Once that’s taken care of, it’s time to shampoo the fabrics. With this step, you can’t just stop at the carpets. You must ensure you get the seats and floor mats as well to eliminate the odor.

Tips for Cigarette Smells

Most odors should be drastically improved after the previous steps, but the smell of cigarette smoke can be particularly tough to get rid of. You may need a more thorough clean utilizing enzymatic cleaner to get it out of all the porous surfaces, and seat belts can be an unexpected hiding place for smoke odors. 

Steam and Repeat

If you’re looking for the best results without a significant time investment, steaming your vehicle’s interior is the way to go. A steam cleaner might be a big investment, but the high temperature opens up the pores of every surface in your car, letting them release the particles responsible for the odor. 

Steam cleaning also disinfects your car’s interior surfaces, killing off any bacteria that might be hiding out and contributing to odors. If you pair steam cleaning with an enzymatic cleaner, you might eliminate all the odor causes in one go. However, if you have particularly stubborn areas that just won’t give up their odor, you may have to go over those sections multiple times.

Deodorizing Headliners

Headliners are difficult to deodorize but are often exposed to the most odors since many of the odor-causing particles are light enough to be carried upwards by any draft in the vehicle. Because the adhesive holding it to the top can only handle so much cleaner before it softens and starts to sag, steam cleaning is the safest way to get rid of odors on this commonly forgotten surface. Steam cleaning still has to be done carefully to avoid damaging the headliner.

The best way to steam clean a headliner is to wrap it in a microfiber towel and steam through the towel to prevent excess moisture. Then, gently agitate the towel in cross-hatch motions with minimal pressure to release odors and work in small sections to provide the most consistent results. 

2-step kit makes interior look like new

The Best Interior Cleaner

★★★★★ 

The one-two punch your interior has been missing.

“So far I’ve used Mirror Shine, Turbo, Tire shine, and now Intra Shield and Clean. All products have performed as advertised and I am very happy with the results. Now to try the car wash and my detailing kit will be complete.” – Bill L.

Check Under the Hood

Once your car’s interior is completely cleaned, you have one more place to check. Many of these odors can enter your car’s vents, and some even start with the engine and migrate into the cabin. This makes cleaning the engine bay and replacing the cabin air filter essential to completely eliminating odors. A combination of steam cleaning, using a degreaser, and carefully rinsing with water can take care of the worst offenders.

Use an Ozone Generator

An ozone generator is the final step for ensuring an odor-free car. Also known as activated oxygen, ozone has three oxygen atoms bound into one molecule, breaking down and binding to other molecules. In the case of deodorizing your car, the broken-down ozone binds to and neutralizes odor molecules, leaving behind fresh oxygen. 

Before you get started, you need to take a few safety precautions. While ozone does a great job of binding to odor molecules, it’s also incredibly irritating to the lungs. Exposure to high levels or for extended periods can cause permanent damage to your lungs or even death if the exposure is long enough. Make sure you work in a well-ventilated area away from children and pets, and keep your distance while the ozone generator is running. If you can smell the ozone, move further away.

Once you’ve made sure your surroundings are clear and well-ventilated, place your ozone generator in a central area in your vehicle. Next, start your car and turn on the Air Conditioner and air recirculation as high as they’ll go to increase the ozone circulation. After that, turn on your ozone generator and immediately close all windows and doors on your car. 

Let the ozone generator run for an hour, then unplug it and open all your car’s windows and doors to let the ozone dissipate. Make sure to let your car air out for at least thirty minutes with the AC and air recirculation still running before getting in it. After this, your car should be odor free. 

Home Odor Removal Remedies

If you don’t have all these supplies on hand and don’t have time to take your car to a professional, there are a few home remedies you can try. They won’t be as effective as the previous methods, but they can minimize the odor without just masking it. 

Baking Soda

Long used as an odor-reducer in refrigerators and freezers, sodium bicarbonate, the main ingredient in baking soda, is a one of the great absorber. It’s also a great first-line cleaner for anything involving liquid, including vomit in the back seat. 

Cleaning with baking soda simply means sprinkling the area of interest with baking soda, lightly wetting it, and vacuuming it off after it’s had a few hours to dry. Keeping an unused box of baking soda in your car with a few holes poked in the box can also help prevent odors. 

Charcoal

Like baking soda, charcoal is a natural filter that can pull odor-causing particles out of the air and keep them from setting up shop on your car’s soft surfaces. Activated charcoal is the best option since it has increased porosity and absorption, but even a few charcoal briquettes will work in a pinch. If you plan on keeping some in your vehicle, activated charcoal would be the way to go.

Vinegar

If you don’t mind a few hours of a lingering pickle smell, vinegar can be a powerful tool for reducing other odors in a vehicle. Just leave a small bowl of it in your car overnight, and the evaporation will let the vinegar interact with the odors wafting through your car, binding and eliminating them. 

It can also be diluted and sprayed onto fabrics with particularly potent odors, then wiped away with a damp cloth. Be careful not to use pure vinegar on your car’s surfaces. The relative acidity of vinegar can be caustic and cause significant damage to the fabric and other surfaces.

Coffee Grounds

Generally considered more pleasant smelling than vinegar, coffee grounds are another home remedy for odor removal. The nitrogen they contain is excellent at filtering and removing unwanted particles. After making your morning coffee, pour your used grounds into a bowl and place it in your vehicle overnight.

Make sure you don’t let your coffee ground sit in your car for too long, though. Since they’ll likely still have moisture in them, they’ll attract and grow mold, mildew, and bacteria that can create new odors. Instead, try placing the bowl somewhere in the way so you don’t forget about it in the morning. 

Protecting Your Car From Future Odors

Keeping your car clean is a good way of protecting it from new odors. Make sure to wipe up any spills as soon as they happen, and clean and vacuum regularly to minimize the growth of microorganisms that can build up odors. It’s also a good idea to keep the window rolled up whenever there’s a chance of rain to keep the interior from getting too wet and provide a home for mold and mildew. 

You can also utilize an interior protector, like the one found in the Torque Detail Interior Cleaning Kit. These protectors form a barrier on your car’s interior to keep dirt, grime, and other particles that can create odors, as well as offering protection against UV damage that can fade or decolor interior surfaces. Make sure to follow the instructions on the protector to ensure long-lasting protection. 

2-step kit makes interior look like new

The Best Interior Cleaner

★★★★★ 

The one-two punch your interior has been missing.

“So far I’ve used Mirror Shine, Turbo, Tire shine, and now Intra Shield and Clean. All products have performed as advertised and I am very happy with the results. Now to try the car wash and my detailing kit will be complete.” – Bill L.

Summary

Odors in your car can be incredibly strong and off-putting, but getting rid of them is no easy feat. Vacuuming followed by scrubbing and shampooing, steam cleaning with or without an enzymatic cleaner, and using an ozone generator are all essential steps to remove odors properly. You also must remember that odors can get trapped in your air filter or even originate in your engine, requiring special attention to be paid to those areas. 

If full odor removal isn’t your goal or isn’t currently possible, there are some home odor removal remedies you can try to keep odors to a minimum, even if they aren’t completely gone. Whether you deep clean to eliminate odors or just try to minimize them, having a good interior cleaner and an interior protector, like the ones found in the Torque Detail Interior Cleaning Kit, can protect your car’s interior from more than just a bad smell.

  • Published on Jan 02, 2023
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