Four Ways to Deal With Bad Car Smells

Woman holding her nose in a car

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Dealing with baked-in bad car smells can be a long and arduous process. First, you have to figure out why your car stinks, and then you have to fix the problem. In the case of smells caused by mechanical issues, that may be the end of it.

In the many cases where that isn't enough, especially when the offensive odor has had time to really seep into every nook and cranny in your passenger compartment, you’ll be left with a car that still reeks.

There are a number of different methods that can be useful in purging a bad odor once the source of the smell has been dealt with, so it’s usually a good idea to start with the basics and go from there.

Here are four of the best ways to get rid of a bad car smell:

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Break out the Shop Vac

Vacuuming out a car

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Removing Bad Car Odors With a Vacuum

Believe it or not, vacuuming is a great way to get rid of a lot of different bad car smells. It may not do the trick all by itself, but it is a great place to start.

If you have a shop vacuum or a powerful portable unit, then you’re set. If you don’t, then you’ll want to look for a repair shop, gas station, or car wash that has a vacuum that you can use. You’ll then need to go over both the carpeting and upholstery, being careful to hit every square inch.

Vacuuming often does the trick, but particularly stubborn odors may call for steam cleaning. Or you can move on to one of the other methods and leave the steam cleaning for later.

  • The smelly culprit — Smelly substances can settle into the carpet and cling to surfaces. Every time they get disturbed, the bad smell gets renewed.
  • Why this fix works — Vacuuming the carpet and fabric can remove smelly materials from your car.
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Absorb and Neutralize the Smell

A box of baking soda in a fridge

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Removing Bad Car Odors With Absorbents and Neutralizers

Lingering odors that just seem to hang in the air, even after you’ve vacuumed the carpet and upholstery, can often be absorbed or neutralized by charcoal, baking soda, or a variety of commercial products that are specifically designed for this purpose.

Charcoal is a type of carbon that has a very large surface area in relation to its size, which allows it to absorb odors on the molecular level. This occurs via something called the van der Waals force, which is the same phenomenon that allows animals like spiders and geckos to walk up walls.

If you’re feeling frugal, you can set a few pieces of regular old barbecue charcoal in your car and leave them there for a while. Or you can buy a commercial charcoal odor removal product that is specifically designed for this purpose.

Baking soda is also good at removing odors, which is why people like to keep an open box of the stuff in their fridge. Rather than just leaving a box of baking soda in your car, though, you’ll want to sprinkle it on smelly carpet, leave it to set for a while, and then vacuum it up.

Other products that are designed to knock out bad odors in your house, like odor-neutralizing sprays and odor-absorbing gels, can also do the same job in your car.

  • The smelly culprit — After you remove the source of a bad odor, particles can remain suspended in the air or settled into the carpet.
  • Why this fix works — Baking soda, charcoal, and other related products can absorb, or trap, the smelly particles so that you can remove them from the vehicle.
  • Advanced technique Sprinkle baking soda on the carpet and upholstery, let it rest, then vacuum it up. Make sure to test a small section of carpet and upholstery first to make sure no discoloration occurs.
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Use an Air Purifier or Ion Generator

Two men installing a car air filter

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Removing Bad Car Odors With Air Purifiers

Car-sized air purifiers and ion generators typically don’t have the power necessary to tackle really persistent odors, but there are situations where they work well. If charcoal and baking soda don’t do the trick, you may want to look into your car air purifier options.

While car air purifiers and ion generators don't always work, there are situations where the right one might do the trick.

  • The smelly culprit — Odors can linger in the air inside your car.
  • Why this fix works — Air purifiers can trap odor particles like smoke.
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Take It to a Professional

Man shaking hands with mechanic

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Taking a Car to a Profession to Fix Bad Car Smells

The best way to knock out some persistent odors, like smoke and mildew, is ozone. However, it’s important to note that so-called ozone-generating air purifiers and filters you can buy for home use aren’t up to the task.

In fact, the EPA has actually warned that using air filters that generate ozone can present a literal hazard to your health.

Ozone is great when it's in the upper atmosphere, protecting us from ultraviolet rays. Down here closer to the ground, it's a different story. The fact is that ozone is actually toxic, and exposing yourself to the levels that are required to effectively counteract stubborn odors would be very dangerous.

So while ozone generators are available to the public, you may want to look for a professional who has experience knocking out stubborn car smells with ozone. 

  • The smelly culprit — There are a ton of different things that can cause bad smells in cars, and some of them require help from a pro.
  • Why this fix works — Professionals have the experience required to identify hidden sources of odors and the equipment required to stamp them out for good.