Odors can be a problem whether you have purchased a used car or are trying to sell one. There are multiple causes of strange smells in a vehicle, and sometimes you need to identify what is causing it to find the best way to eliminate it.
The fact that cars and trucks sit heat up while sitting in the sun doesn’t help. Neither does the moisture tracked in by the driver or passengers. If you are a smoker or have kids, that opens a whole new line of scents to eliminate.
Luckily, you have some inexpensive options that you can apply without breaking the bank.
First - A Serious Note
Before getting into odor removal too far, there is a class of smells that requires the immediate attention of a professional mechanic.
If you smell gasoline, transmission fluid, oil, or coolant, there may be a mechanical malfunction that should be addressed as soon as possible. If you can’t think of any reason you can smell any of these, it’s time for the car to have a check-up.
It may only be a cabin filter that needs to be replaced, or it could be something worse.
The fastest method of odor removal is to remove all the trash and garbage from the interior of the vehicle. Fast food wrappers, cups with dribbles of milk in them, and other garbage in a hot car can cause quite a stink.
As you search for things to throw away, look under the seats, inside the door pockets and glove compartment, and inside the trunk. Don’t forget the center console and any other spot that can collect trash. Throw it all away and see if you have killed the smell.
Vacuuming dirt and grime can help with musty, dusty smells. Use a Shop-Vac or go to the local car wash. Some newer minivans come with interior vacuums, which come in handy when small items are spilled.
If there is a lot of liquid soaked into the seats or carpet, use a Wet-Vac to siphon the water out to keep mold and mildew from forming.
Shampoo Carpets and Upholstery
The carpeting and floor mats in an automobile are treated to everything you bring in on your shoes, all the dirt and mud on your pets’ feet, and anything spilled. The seats, if they are fabric, may also need a good shampooing.
- Rub the shampoo into the carpets and upholstery as deeply as possible, particularly where there is a stain.
- Once you have scrubbed every part of the interior, rinse out the soap.
- Open the windows and doors to let everything dry thoroughly.
Auto parts stores and automotive departments can provide shampoo created specifically for cars and trucks. If you can’t or don’t want to do this yourself, you can get the interior of the car detailed by professionals.
Baking Soda, Charcoal, and Vinegar Are Your Friends
Not to be used all at once, baking soda, charcoal, and diluted vinegar have long been used to eliminate odors and clean both hard and soft surfaces.
- Sprinkle baking soda on dry carpets, upholstery, or directly on a stain. Rub it in a bit and allow it to sit for four to five hours. Then vacuum it up. Don’t mix with water or it could create a stain of its own.
- Charcoal is another popular material for removing smells. Charcoal absorbs odors from the air so leaving a small bag open in the car overnight or leaving a chunk inside can help get rid of any odor. Do not use the self-lighting kind. Also, you can purchase bags of deodorizing charcoal if you prefer.
- Vinegar diluted one to one with water can remove the smell of cigarette smoke. Mix the solution in a bowl or bucket and wet a cloth. Wipe all the interior surfaces, hard and soft, to clean smoke and tar away. Vinegar and water are also useful to remove the stench after someone vomits.
Clean vomit immediately before the stomach acids damage the fibers. You may need to rub at the stain until it’s gone to get rid of the odor.
Sometimes you can’t get the interior smelling like new, but an air freshener can mask less overpowering odors. You can even get one that has "that new car smell."
Air fresheners can come as mirror hangers or as a spray. You may wish to spray the vents with air freshener directly.
When it comes to urine stains, you may have to break out the big guns. Urine can smell strong. Immediate removal is best. Buy a stain remover specially formulated to remove urine stains and odors from vehicle interiors.
Blot the stain after spraying it rather than rubbing. Let the stain remover set for the amount of time suggested on the bottle. Allow the wet patch to air dry. Don’t use a hair dryer or other heat source. You could wind up embedding the smell into the fabric and make the odor worse.
If that cleaner doesn’t work, you can always try a spray meant for pet urine odors.
Have a Professional Clean Your Car
Sometimes you just can't do it yourself. You've tried everything, and your car still stinks.
Find a professional who specializes in removing odors, either an auto detailer or a cleaning specialist. Most cleaning agencies are knowledgeable about eliminating various types of stains and odors safely from a variety of materials.
For the Future
To keep your car smelling fresh until you can sell it or simply for comfort, always clean any mess immediately. Don’t let fluids soak into the fabric and dry. Always remove trash and garbage as you leave the car. If someone gets sick or a pet pees, clean it up pronto.
If cigarette odor is the problem, the only answer is to stop smoking in the car. Riding with the windows open will not keep the smell from getting into everything inside. If you or your passengers are heavy smokers who have owned the car for years, you may not be able to remove the stains and odor.
You have plenty of options for deodorizing a used vehicle. Start with the simplest and work your way through the list. If nothing works, ask for professional help. Otherwise, keep the interior clean and dry.