Remove Old Smells from Used Vehicles

When you buy a used vehicle it may be perfect for you and fit all of your needs, but the smell from the previous owner may be cause for you to choose a different option. In the end getting the smell out of the car is relatively simple, only takes a couple hours, and is not worth giving up the perfect vehicle for you.


  1. Assess the source of the smell. Bad smells come from contaminants that can be trapped in your carpets, seats, or plastic trim pieces. Finding the source of the bad smell can allow you to find where to focus your time and energy when working on removing the bad smell from your vehicle.
  2. Obtain the required products and tools. You will need a few products and tools in order to clean your carpets and plastic trim pieces. As far as products go you will need: carpet an upholstery cleaner, vinyl and leather cleaner, compressed air (you can use an air compressor), a cabin air filter for your car, an air freshener (optional). As for tools that you will use: a vacuum, a stiff carpet brush, a carpet extractor (not necessary but helps), towels, a soft bristle brush, and a steam cleaner (not necessary but helps).
  3. Remove surface contaminants from the carpet. You can start the cleaning process with your carpets, which are generally where the contaminants that cause the bad smells in your car are collected. To clean your carpets you want to first remove what you can off the surface with your vacuum taking your time to get everything you can. You should also attempt to move contaminants closer to the surface with your carpet brush to be removed by the vacuum. Make sure to get into every corner and crevice, for example on the sides of the seat where it is more difficult to reach.
  4. Deep clean the carpet. Now that the surface contaminants are off of your carpets they may look clean, but there are still contaminants trapped deep i the carpet fibers. To remove these contaminants you need to use the carpet and upholstery cleaner, following the instructions on the packaging. You can use your carpet brush to agetate the carpet cleaner into the carpet and remove more contaminents. You can then wait for the product to dry if you don't have an extractor, or use your extractor with hot water until the water being pulled out by the extractor is clear. Don't be afraid to do this step multiple times if the carpet is not coming clean at first.
  5. Remove surface contaminents from the seats. Similar to your carpets you can remove the surface contaminents from your seats using a vacuum no matter what the material is. If you have leather seats be careful not to press too hard with the vacuum to avoid damaging your seats. Make sure to reach the entire seat and take your time, getting the recessed area around the seatbelt components and in between the bottom and back of the seat.
  6. Deep clean the seats. In order to deep clean your seats the process is dependant on the material of your seats. If you have upholstery seats the process is similar to deep cleaning your carpets. If your seats are leather then you need to use the vinyl and leather cleaner to clean the seat. You can apply the cleaner to a towel or directly to the seat and then use the soft bristle brush to agetate the contaminents. You can then wipe the product away with a dry towel removing the contaminents with it.
  7. Remove surface contaminents from trim pieces and the dashboard. You can remove the surface contaminents from the trim pieces by using the vacuum and the soft bristle brush. The deeper hard to reach areas, like vents can be blown out using the compressed air or your air compressor and pulled away with the vacuum.
  8. Deep clean trim pieces and the dashboard. Deep cleaning trim pieces and your dashboard involves using the vinyl and leather cleaner to remove contaminents. You can apply the cleaner to a towel and apply or apply it directly to the trim pieces. You can then use the soft bristle brush to agetate the cleaner into the material and then remove the cleaner with a dry towel pulling away the contaminents with it. Focus on areas that are hard to reach like the bottoms of cupholders or in corners. You can also use a steam cleaner to heat up and extract contaminents and then remove them with a dry towel.
  9. Replace the cabin air filter. It's possible that bad smells can come from the ventilation system. The cabin air filter in your vehicle filters the air that blows through your air systems and if it is not replaced it can hold onto contaminants that will then cause a bad smell and blow them throughout your car when you run the air conditioning or heat. To replace your cabin air filter you can look in the owner's manual to find the right one and instructions. It is generally behind the glove box, but getting to it depends on the make and model of your vehicle. Make sure when you replace it the arrows on the new filter face the same direction as the arrows on the old one.
  10. Add in a new smell with an air freshener. This step is completely optional, an air freshener will not remove a bad smell, but simply mask it. The purpose of an air freshener is to be used at the end of the process after the bad smell has already been removed. It will give your vehicle a new smell that you may enjoy. There are many forms of air fresheners you can purchase each with pros and cons. Choose whichever one is best for you and follow the instructions on the container.
  11. Run your air system. Running your air system will allow your car to circulate the air freshener through your vents and air ducts, if you chose to use air freshener. It will also run the air in your car through the filter you just replaced, trapping any contaminants that may be trapped in your air system.
  12. Check to see if the smell is gone. The last step is to test to see if your work was successful. You can check yourself or ask friends or family how the smell in your car is. If the smell is still in your car you can repeat any steps to clean the areas of your car that you identified as the problem area in the first step.


  • Removing seats from the car is generally simple and can make it easier to access carpets under the seats and other hard to reach areas. Usually seats can be removed by four bolts under the seat, and instructions can be found in your owner's manual.


  • Some of the products you will be using may be harmful if breathed in large quantities over a large period of time. Do this in a well ventilated area

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