How To Get Rid of Common Car Smells

When asking nicely doesn’t work.

Little girl pinches nose in carseat next to little boyGetty Images

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The only thing worse than a smelly car interior is a smelly car interior on the hottest day of summer. Odors rarely exit a car as quickly as they enter, getting recirculated through the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, and locked in when you leave the car baking in the sun. If rolling down the windows doesn’t cut it, try these methods, ordered from least to most involved.

Spot Clean

If the odor has an obvious source, attack that first. Automotive-specific carpet and upholstery cleaners work great on pet and kid messes without hurting the materials. You can find a spray bottle or can at an auto-parts store for less than $10; many include a built-in scrub brush.

While you’re at it, you can give the rest of the interior a once-over. Be sure to empty out the cupholders and clean up any sticky stuff left behind. And while this might go without saying, a thorough vacuuming of your interior (under the seats, in the cargo area and footwells, everywhere) can remove some odor sources, like those french fries you misplaced on last year’s big family vacation.

Freshen the Air with a Car Odor Eliminator

If you’re sensing a moldy odor, it may be coming from your HVAC system. The damp conditions inside an A/C evaporator and its associated drain pan are the perfect place for yucky stuff to grow. Cleaners for this specific task come in spray cans. Pick up a can (or two if the situation is really bad) for around $7 each. Then, follow the instructions on the back of the can. Most instruct you to shoot the solution up the drain line into the evaporator as well as into the vents to clear out the ducts

For smells that are hanging in the air, like smoke, you can try a sanitizing spray. These canned products kill odor-causing germs and bacteria, and some contain ozone (basically supercharged oxygen) to promote oxidation and to get rid of smells. These are also relatively inexpensive at under $10, and as a bonus, you can use them in your home or anywhere you encounter unwanted stench. Plus, some are available in delicious new-car smell.

If a smoke smell is really baked in, you can try an aerosol anti-stink bomb. Not quite the nuclear option, the whole-car odor eliminator sits in your vehicle emitting its solution while the A/C is on full blast, the doors and windows are closed, and you are elsewhere. After 15 minutes or so, open the doors and let the car air out for another 15. These products are good at getting into all the nooks and crannies where odors can hide. A one-time-use bomb runs about $10.

When to Call the Pros

If you’ve tried all the applicable products and methods above and the car still stinks, it may be time to throw in the microfiber and enlist some professional help. Auto detailers have extra-strength solutions and tools like steamers that can perform a deep clean. Pricing varies, with larger vehicles typically costing more to de-stench, but you can budget for at least $75 to clean the upholstery, and it goes up from there if the car requires extensive help.

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David Gluckman
David Gluckman has over a decade of experience as a writer and editor for print and digital automotive publications. He can parallel park a school bus, has a spreadsheet listing every vehicle he’s ever tested, and once drove a Lincoln Town Car 63 mph in reverse. When David’s not searching for the perfect used car, you can find him sampling the latest gimmicky foodstuffs that America has to offer.