How To Get The Smoke Smell Out Of Your Car COMPLETELY

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Smoke smells or any type of unwanted odor in your car's cabin can be a big turn-off for many. Sadly, despite being one of the most common smells, smoke can also be one of the most difficult odors to permanently remove from a car - a total bummer when buying a used car!

There are many at-home remedies and over-the-counter options available for odor removal, so it's hard to pinpoint what works and what doesn't. Luckily, there are tried and true options that professionals use around the world to permanently remove smoke smells from your car’s cabin.

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Table of Contents

How Does Smoke Affect Your Car Interior?

The cigarette odour in a vehicle is caused by all the smoke particles embedding themselves inside the interior surfaces. For example, if you’ve ever been to a bonfire and smelled your clothes from that night the next day, they smell like smoke. Well, that same exact process happens in your car, but rather than a few hours of smoke, it’s multiplied by years!

Moreover, a smoker’s car is affected in more ways than just the presence of odor. Studies conducted in 2010 by researchers from the University of California and San Diego State University show that the presence of TSP (total smoke pollution) can cause third-hand smoke and nicotine exposure. This exposure is not as harmful as second-hand smoke exposure, but it still puts drivers and especially children at risk.

Furthermore, basic cleaning has little to no effect in minimizing total smoke pollutants inside a vehicle. Smoker vehicles need to be properly cleaned and disinfected in order to minimize total smoke pollutants and make the vehicle cabin a safe environment for drivers.

The Problem With Masking Odors Using Air Fresheners And Other Products

I’m sure you’ve seen and probably even used many of the air fresheners found in local stores. They're cheap, come in a variety of awesome smells, and are super easy to use - but sadly, they don't really work. Automotive air fresheners and odor bombs just mask the smell of smoke for a few days to a couple of weeks. Your car might smell like a tropical sensation for a week or two, but you’ll notice that the smoke smell returns with a vengeance, and usually sooner rather than later.

Remove The Source Of The Cigarette Smell

In order to remove the cigarette smell from your car (or any odor for that matter), you have to remove the source.

Typically in a heavy smoker’s car, you’ll find cigarette butts in cup holders and underneath seats, and ash on the carpets and maybe even in the air vents. The last thing we have to remove is the smoke and tar particles found all over the cabin of the vehicle.

In extremely bad examples, you can see tar residue collect around the smoker’s area, typically found on the driver's side.

Vacuum, Scrub, And Shampoo The Entire Interior

We recommend starting with vacuuming the interior, making sure to vacuum out all your carpets, seats, cupholders, and other nooks and crannies. A big tip is to remove your floor mats in order to clean and vacuum as much surface area as possible. Remember, cigarette smoke is airborne and finds its way into all the surfaces of your interior, so it's super important that we clean everything inside the vehicle.

After vacuuming, we recommend using an automotive interior cleaner in combination with a scrub brush and microfiber towel to clean out your plastic, vinyl, and leather surfaces such as door panels, center console, seats, and the dashboard. Start by spraying your interior cleaner one section at a time, thoroughly agitate it with your brush, then wipe off the grime. After all your hard plastic, leather, and vinyl surfaces are clean, move on to shampooing your fabric surfaces.

Tips For Removing Smoke Smells From Leather Seats And Upholstery

If after your initial cleaning you still notice a heavy smoke smell coming from your upholstery and leather, we recommend using some type of enzyme cleaner. Fabrics can act like little fingers and grab onto odor very easily, and leather is very porous and likes to absorb odors. The enzyme cleaner will break down these molecules and neutralize them, allowing you to pick them up with a vacuum or a microfiber towel.

Using your automotive enzyme cleaner, spray the solution on the surface and let it sit for 30 seconds. After the time has elapsed, spray some more cleaner and scrub the surface, then wipe off all excess solution with a microfiber towel. A huge tip would be to pull out all your seat belts and clean them one by one with the enzyme cleaner as well.

Use A Steam Cleaner

Steam cleaners are at times a large investment, but if you're looking to speed up the odor removal process and guarantee even better results, steam is the way to go. The high temperature of steam opens up the pores of plastics, leathers, vinyls, and fabrics, helping to release all the smoke particles while simultaneously disinfecting the surface. A steam cleaner in combination with an enzyme cleaner will most likely remove all the sources of odor stuck within the materials of your car.

How To Deodorize Smoke Smells From Headliners

A steam cleaner is also the best option for deodorizing headliners. A vehicle's headliner is the most sensitive part of the interior because it’s glued on and constantly fighting gravity. It also receives the most odor abuse because smoke rises and gets embedded in the headliner. If you soak the headliner with too much cleaner, you’ll soften the adhesive, causing it to potentially sag in the future. Steam is a great alternative because it can clean without excessive cleaners and moisture. Just be warned that the high temperatures caused by the steam can also affect the headliner if used improperly.

We recommend cleaning the headliner section by section so the results are consistent. Take your steamer and wrap the headliner with a microfiber towel to avoid excess moisture. After that, lightly agitate the headliner in cross-hatch motions. Imagine as if you’re cleaning the headliner like you’re polishing paint - with little to no pressure and making sure to cover all the areas until the headliner is complete.

Replace The Cabin Air Filter

One of the most overlooked parts of the odor removal process is the cabin air filter - in fact, a lot of people don't even know what it is! The cabin air filter filters your AC system, providing your car cabin’s fresh air. You can typically find the cabin air filter behind your glove compartment or underneath the windshield shroud behind your engine bay. Replacing your old cabin air filter is a must because it collects all the smoke contamination over the years, making it a major source of odor. Check your owner's manual for the correct replacement cabin air filter and its location. If you can't find it in your owner’s manual, a quick Google search will help.

The Final Step: Use An Ozone Generator

I’m sure if you’ve ever called your local detailer about odor removal, they mentioned the term “ozone generator”. The ozone generator is the final step in the odor removal process. Ozone is also referred to as activated oxygen, and is created naturally either through electricity, photosynthesis, or by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Ozone is created when one of these forces causes oxygen to split into two separate atoms.

The freed atom then attaches itself to an O2 molecule, recombining to create ozone. The word "ozone" is derived from the Greek word "ozien", meaning "to smell". By nature, ozone is an unstable molecule and has a half-life of approximately 20 minutes. Shortly after ozone is created, it begins to break down, casting itself to the odor molecules in the car which then produce fresh oxygen. For DIY individuals who won’t be detailing cars on a daily basis, you can pick up consumer-grade ozone generators online for anywhere between $60 to $100.

There are a few safety precautions that must be taken when using an ozone generator. Make sure you’re in a well-ventilated room away from children, people, and pets. Because ozone is a lung irritant, if exposed to direct contact for too long, it can be harmful or even cause death. A rule of thumb is that if you can smell the ozone, you're too close! Next, take your ozone machine and place it in a central area of the vehicle.

After that, start your car in a well-ventilated area (a closed garage is a no-go), and turn on your AC and air recirculation on max. This will help spread the ozone around the cabin, making sure it reaches everything. After you turn on the car's AC system, turn on the ozone machine for 1 hour and immediately close all your car’s doors and windows. After the time has elapsed, unplug the ozone generator, open all the car doors, and step away from the vehicle. You're then going to want the vehicle to air out for at least 30 minutes to an hour. After this, turn off the vehicle and enjoy a smoke-free car driving experience!

Fast Home Remedies For Minimizing Smoke Smells

If you're not looking for 100% odor removal or the previous process is just a little out of your budget, check out some of our fast home remedies for minimizing smoke smells. Obviously, these methods won't completely remove the smoke odor, but will help for some time.

Dryer Sheets

Dryer sheets are an easy and quick temporary solution. Just take a few dryer sheets and tuck them around your interior, such as under the seats and inside your door cards. You can even put a few inside your air vents - just make sure you can still reach the dryer sheets when they need to be replaced.

Baking Soda

Baking soda is another at-home remedy that you can try out. Just take a few boxes of baking soda and leave them open in your car overnight. You can also sprinkle some banking soda in your carpets as well, as this will help the baking soda absorb more odor.

White Vinegar

White vinegar is very similar to baking soda - just leave a small bowl of white vinegar in your car overnight. This will help minimize the smoke odor, but will also leave a slight vinegar smell behind which will dissipate within a few hours.

Coffee Grounds

Coffee contains nitrogen, which helps neutralize odors in the air quickly and safely. Put your used coffee grounds in a bowl and place this inside your vehicle overnight. This should help with the smoke odor and make your car smell like delicious roasted coffee!

What Are The Best Products To Get Rid Of Smoke Smells From A Vehicle?

If the professional or DIY routes don't interest you, below, you will find a few over-the-counter products you can try out. Just please remember that most of these products won't completely remove the odor - they will only provide a temporary solution.

Ozium And Lysol Disinfectant Sprays

Ozium and Lysol can both be used on the inside of your vehicle in order to kill bacteria and viruses while also minimizing odors. Spray Ozium or Lysol inside your vehicle as needed, making sure to wipe away any overspray on plastics and leather surfaces. You can also spray these products in your cabin air filter and AC ducts of your vehicle, which will help further disinfect those areas.

Zero-Odor Deodorizer

Zero-odor deodorizer is very similar to Ozium and Lysol, the biggest difference being that it’s not a disinfectant. Zero-odor deodorizer eliminates existing odor molecules in the air and surfaces. Simply spray the product around your vehicle as needed.

Intra Clean and Intra Shield with Ceramic
Get That Interior Sparkling Clean!

Our brand new interior kit is the one two punch your interior has been missing. This kit makes it super simple to get deep clean your interior and get it like new. Make interior detailing easy with this all in one kit. First use Intra Clean to deep clean and deodorize your interior surfaces. Second apply Intra Shield to apply Ceramic & UV Protection for your interior surfaces. Then simply touch up the interior with Intra Clean as needed.  


Summary: Smell of Smoke Be Gone!

Now that we’ve gone over almost every odor removal option available, you can pick the option that works best for you and your vehicle. Just keep in mind that if you’re looking to remove the odor 100% and permanently, we very much recommend the professional step-by-step process we listed in the beginning. However, don't discount some of the over-the-counter and DIY options on the market! If the smoke odor in your vehicle is mild, many of those options can make a drastic difference in your vehicle.

Published on Feb 06, 2021