Remove Odors from Your Car

If your car stinks, it's an unpleasant experience to sit in it and your passengers will be uncomfortable. There are a lot of things you can do to improve the odor of the car, starting with practicing good hygiene and locating the source of any lingering stench. Start with the easy options first, then work your way up to finding any hard-to-locate odors last.


  1. Clean your car. Start with the basics by clearing everything out of the car and removing all trash. Before wiping, shampooing, or adding anything to your car's interior carpet, upholstery, dashboard, etc., read the car's manual for warnings and advice on which cleaning products are safe to use in your car. If you're in any doubt, talk to your local automobile retailer for more advice based on your car.
    • Check under the seats and remove all rotting food, trash, and lost items.
    • Check back pockets and remove all items. Be careful if you have children as there may be sticky candies, or unidentified blobs of food stuck within the pocket.
    • If you have child seats in the car, check the pull-out drink containers and under the seat cover as well. Food and drink can be lodged in any of the these places without you realizing. Take the seats right out of the car for cleaning.
    • Don't forget to clean the back or trunk (boot) of the car as well. The odor could be coming from anywhere.
  2. Wipe the car surfaces. Use a soft cleaning cloth to wipe every plastic, wood, glass, and metallic surface inside the car. If you want to use anything other than warm water, rely on mild detergent as it will be safe for most surfaces, and glass cleaner for glass. For leather seats, use an appropriate leather cleaner. Alternatively, you can ask for a suitable interior car cleaner at your automobile store. If it's a really hot day, leave the doors and windows open to let the car cool down first or it'll be hot and unpleasant as well as super odorous!
    • Wipe inside the glove compartment or glove box. Remove all items from it first, then wipe out everything.
  3. Brush the carpet before vacuuming. Use a soft but firm brush to loosen dirt and debris before vacuuming the car.[1]
    • Always use clean water and change frequently. Wring out all excess water so that there is no water pooling in the car.
  4. Vacuum the car. Remove any floor rugs that can be removed. Vacuum the carpet and the seats to remove excess dirt. Place the vacuum nozzle into all seats, open cushions up as much as you can to release the dirt from inside the cracks.
    • Sprinkle carpet Make a Clean Room Feel Cleaner over the carpet. Leave it to sit for the time recommended on the package instructions before vacuuming up. This may reduce the odor levels if the source of the odors is within the car.
    • Vacuum the trunk too.
  5. Steam clean the inside of the car. After vacuuming, you might like to consider steam cleaning the floors using an appropriate interior car shampoo/enzymatic odor remover and an extracting machine (steam clean, steam extraction, or hot water extraction). Using an extracting machine will ensure that you get up as much dirt as possible.
    • Scrub the car upholstery and carpet to release the dirt trapped inside the fabric folds. Use a suitable car shampoo or enzymatic odor remover recommended by your automobile store and use a clean sponge for scrubbing.
    • Be wary of applying too much water, as this will take days to dry afterward, especially in cold conditions. And water that doesn't dry will leave a musty smell in the car,[1]
    • Try to get an extracting machine that has a clear nozzle. This will allow you to see the water that is being extracted from the seat. As soon as the water turns clear and you don't see any dirt coming up through it, this means your car seats are clean and that there is no more dirt inside them. It also indicates that when they dry, they'll come up looking like new again.
    • Repeat the process over any stubborn stains. Stains may be a source of odor, so their removal is crucial for that reason as well as for appearance. Stains can indicate heavy soil, dirt, food, drink, or even water marks from an open window.
    • At the end of this process, the seats will be slightly damp but they shouldn't be any more than towel damp. If you find there is excess water, continue using the extracting machine to withdraw any more water from the seats until they become less damp.
  6. Once the car has been cleaned and has dried, check for odor. If you can still detect an odor at this point, (or if you know where the odor is coming from and don't want to clean the whole car), it's time to target the possible causes and see if you can apply direct solutions to tackle precise odors. Here are some possibilities:
    • Bacteria: This will usually occur because you've left food to rot in the car, or some other natural item, such as garden bits and pieces from people's shoes. The best method for treating this is to remove the offending food or plant life, and to clean the patch left behind. Then apply an enzyme or bacteria digester, available from cleaning supplies stores. Follow the instructions on the packaging.
    • Cigarette smoke: If you smoke in your car, then this will be obvious but even someone else smoking in the car unbeknownst to you can leave a lingering odor. To try to get rid of it, place two towels into two separate plastic bowls and fill with white distilled Clean Filters With Vinegar. If the car is really big, use additional bowls. Place the plastic bowls into the car with the vinegar-soaked towels. One should sit near the ashtray, and the other one on the backseat. The vinegar will absorb the cigarette odors from the car, so that when you remove the bowls, the odor should leave too. If needed, repeat. You can also try sprinkling baking soda and/or carpet deodorizer over the upholstery and carpet respectively, leave for a few hours, and then vacuum it up. If you or somebody else regularly smokes in the car though, the odor will always be present, so the best thing to do is to stop smoking in the car.
    • Fire smoke: If your car has been damaged by fire, the smoke smell will be trapped in the upholstery and other porous surfaces. In this case, you are probably best to get professional detailing on the car interior. Try the vinegar method first but if it doesn't work, seek professional advice.
    • Mildew or mold: Check for leaks first, as you'll want to prevent any water from getting into the car from the exterior. If that is not an issue, the mildew or mold may have occurred because of rotting food, a spilled drink, or the addition of water from shoes, wet sporting equipment, or other wet gear being placed in the car and left there. Remove any contaminants such as rotting food and clean the area of the car. Spray the carpet with Lysol for mildew, if you believe that is the source of the odor. Also read How to get rid of carpet mold for more information.
    • Vomit (pet or human): Read these wikiHow resources for more information – How to clean pet vomit from carpet, How to clean vomit out of carpet, and Clean Up Your Dog's Vomit While in the Car. This is an odor source that is best cleaned up immediately, because the stomach acids in vomit cling to the fiber and can damage it.[2]
    • Urine: A strong odor, urine should be removed from the car as soon as possible. Clean the urine first and try to eliminate the stain. Use a stain remover that is suitable for the upholstery, carpet, or other surface being cleaned. Then, checking that it is all right to apply to the relevant surface, consider using a pet urine odor remover. If using this on upholstery or carpet, blot rather than rub to remove it after it has sat for the time suggested by the packaging. This will avoid harming the fibers. Shampoo as directed earlier.
    • Milk: Milk spills on carpet, leather, or upholstery should be cleaned immediately as they will both stain and cause a bad odor. For leather seats, moisten a cloth and wring out excess water. Wipe over the stain and pick up all the milk. Be sure to get into any cracks in the seat as well. Leave to dry, then apply a leather cleaner. For carpet spills, remove a mat if it's on the mat and clean the mat separately. If on the carpet itself, apply clean water and constantly blot to remove the milk. Allow to air-dry - if you use a heat dryer source, the milk may adhere to the carpet and start to smell very bad.
  7. Deodorize the entire car. Once you've cleaned the car and looked for particular odors, consider doing an overall deodorizing of the car to try to finish off any lingering odors. Here is what to do:
    • Armed with a spray bottle of a quality odor neutralizer, begin by opening the hood of your car in a well-ventilated (preferably outdoor) location.
    • Start the engine and set the parking brake for safety. Next, place the AC (air-conditioning) and fan on full. Important: make sure the "fresh air/recirculate" setting is in the "Fresh Air" (outside air) position.
    • Go to the front fender side of the car (usually the passenger side) and look in the engine compartment. Find the AC/heater "Air Intake", sometimes called the cowl vent. Different vehicles use different air intake vent configurations but all are just below the bottom edge of the windshield, normally on the passenger side, and all have some sort of screen, grid or louvers covering the intake.
    • Liberally spray the deodorizer directly into the intake screen.
    • After a few sprays, get back in the car and smell to determine if the deodorizer is circulating through the AC system.
    • Repeat if necessary. This application should treat the air conditioning evaporator, blower, and ducting, the places where smoke and odor particles will collect.
    • Now, switch the AC/heater control to "Full Heat", leaving the engine running, the air control in "Fresh Air" position and the fan on full.
    • Go back outside the car and repeat the spray treatments into the air intake as you did earlier.
    • By switching to the heat position, the deodorizer is now treating the heater core, blower, and ducting, another place that odors will hide.
    • Repeat spraying if necessary.
  8. Replace the cabin air filter if the vehicle has one. This might make an importance difference. Refer to the car owner's manual.
  9. After other cleaning options have been exhausted, use an ozone generator to do an ozone shock treatment to the vehicle. This will actually kill bacteria and mildew and denature odorous organic compounds. Read How to do an ozone shock treatment on a vehicle for details on what to do.
  10. Seek professional help if the odor continues to linger after everything else you've tried. There are professionals who focus specifically on removing odors, either through professional detailing outlets, or through specialist cleaning. Search online for a suitable place near you, or call a local car dealership for their advice on who to use. If they don't know, call the community police, as they may have contacts with people who do difficult cleaning jobs.
    • In many cases, there are commercial cleaning solutions that you can use to remove specific odors but you may need to ask for these from professional detailers or auto shops. Be prepared to give them details about the odor.
  11. In future, clean up all spills immediately. They are much easier to remove when they first occur and will leave the least odor behind when removed fast. Also, do a regular sweep to remove food scraps, empty drink bottles, and any organic materials that have been traipsed into the car on fee, clothing, and equipment.
    • When traveling with pets, ensure that they are adequately cared for so that there aren't little messes. Cats can be carried in waterproof containers that will trap urine in the container rather than on the upholstery. And dogs should be toileted before entering the car and given regular toilet stops if you're on a long trip.
    • Always have additional floor protection. Removing rubber-backed mats to clean off mess and odor is much easier than trying to get it out of the carpet on the car. Imagine the difference between removing dog feces that has been smeared on a mat or on the carpet and you'll soon prefer to have mats down.
    • Place towels or throws on the areas where children sit. You know they're going to spill things, so cover it up first!
    • Plan for a weekly interior clean out. It'll be much faster when done regularly and odors won't have much of a chance to build up.
    • Leave windows wound up when you're not in the car. Animals can jump in, rain can wash in, and people can even toss litter in when windows are left down.


  • Although exact figures are not well established, it is possible to damage interior components of a vehicle (for example, rubber seals) through overuse of an ozone generator. Generators rated at 3500 to 6000mg/h should generally be safe to use for two hours. More powerful ones will work just fine in less time. Repeated treatments separated by airing out periods may be safer than one long, continuous treatment.
  • Don't use Oust in large quantities or it will pool somewhere in the vent system and leave a bad smell overnight when you turn on the air/heat/vent the next day. Use Lysol (the old-fashioned kind) to kill off that smell. A product called Ozium also works very well and has a very mild scent. It can often be found in auto parts stores.
  • If you're having trouble locating the air intake screen, shut off the engine and place the key in "Run" position. Check to make sure the AC fan is still running. Go to the front side of the car, usually the passenger side, and listen for the movement of air and the blower running. After spraying and treating both the AC and heater, shut off the engine, close the hood and let the car sit undisturbed for a couple of hours. This will allow the deodorizer to "work" on the odor.
  • Keep a fabric softener (plastic) refill under the passenger seat. The pleasant odour will permeate the car quickly. When the fabric softener smell fades, move the packet to your laundry and buy a new one for the car!
  • Cut an onion in half and place under your seat and the odours will vanish!


  • Caution: Many AC/heater systems use vacuum to operate, and the running engine is the provider of the vacuum. There is an inherent danger of injury when working under the hood with the engine running. Never perform this procedure with children nearby. If you do not feel comfortable doing this procedure, take your car to a mechanic or repair shop. They should charge you very little (if anything) for squeezing the spray bottle a few times.
  • Ozone generators can be harmful if used improperly. Read all manuals before using any ozone machine. It is extremely important that no person or animal be in the vehicle during an ozone shock treatment.

Things You'll Need

  • Car cleaning equipment
  • Suitable car cleaner
  • Vacuum cleaner - if your car is really dirty, use a vacuum cleaner especially kept for the car rather than messing up the household one
  • Steam cleaner with appropriate cleaning chemicals suited to the car

Related Articles

Sources and Citations

  1. 1.0 1.1 Elsie Agnes Allen, Household Hints & Tips, p. 236, (2003), ISBN 1-8651-5942-5
  2. Wisegeek, How can I get rid of vomit smell?,