When you purchase a used car, there are some things you can easily fix. Polishing scratches on the paint, installing new wheels and tires, or even changing out interior features simply takes some time, money, and a little skill if you do it yourself. However, when it comes to getting smoke smell out of your car, that’s a horse of a different color.
There are several “proven” methods for removing smoke smell. But honestly, most of the time, the aroma of burnt tobacco comes back into car. Tobacco smoke is some pretty toxic stuff, I mean, when you consider that there are more than 50,000,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer across the globe – mainly due to smoking, it’s pretty clear the stuff can leave behind a long-lasting mark.
But, we’re not here to preach – just to provide some tips. So, if you’re looking to remove the aroma of burned tobacco products, this guide should help.
Start with the Basics
Before you get too hot and heavy with removing smoke from your car, it’s important to start with a few basic steps that most people simply overlook.
Let’s start with why smoke smell continues to linger. Tobacco products are infused with chemicals, mainly used for preservation of the products (or to add ‘flavor’). It’s these chemicals that tend to linger in cloth materials. This includes cloth seating, floor carpeting, and even some plastics – mainly those the ventilation system (AC and Heating).
With all that said, it’s important to remember that smoke has likely infused itself in each of the material inside the vehicle. This will also include the cabin filter, and in some cases, the plastic housing where the filter sits.
If you’re going to succeed at removing smoke from the car, you’ll have to commit to cleaning the air vents, the housing of the cabin filter, and replacing the cabin filter itself. This may involve removing some hardware on your ride – such as the dashboard or gain access from the firewall.
Step 1 -- Completely Clean Your Vehicle
Once you’ve determined that you’re ready and capable of taking on this project, your first step should be to completely clean your vehicle. This includes removing all trash, vacuuming every nook and cranny, under the car seats, in the back, and even the trunk. It’s quite possible that cigarette ash is embedded in the carpet materials.
It’s also recommended to clean those convenient storage areas, including the side panels on the doors, center console, and the glove box. Don’t start vacuuming yet – just make sure every piece of trash and debris is removed from your ride.
Also, remove any non-essential items from the car including hats, cups, jackets, work supplies, emergency roadside kits – everything. Basically – pretend you’re trading in your car.
Step 2 -- Find an Opened Air Area
When your car has been cleaned of trash and debris, find an opened-air location to continue with the smoke removal project. This is where you’ll vacuum the vehicle, use a spray cleaning agent, clean the vents, wash your upholstery, and replace cabin filters.
It’s best to do this in your driveway, where you’ll still have access to power – but make sure all windows are rolled down, and your car has room to ventilate with fresh air. It’s not only helpful for cleaning, but also for your lungs.
Step 3 – Collect Your Supplies
Here is the main problem with trying to remove smoke smell from your car – every vehicle and individual has a unique “level” of smoke contamination. As such, what might work for (1) car owner might not be the same for the next guy.
As such, here are some general supplies that will help most cigarette smells out of your car interior.
Vacuum Cleaner: A shop vac works best in this situation as it’s typically better with regards to “sucking power”. However, make sure you vacuum with the container outside. If you don’t, a lot of the cigarette “stuff” you soak up with the vacuum will expel from its exhaust system.
*Tip – Before you start vacuuming, clean the filter out completely.
Steam Cleaner: Most of the embedded cigarette smells are deep into carpet or cloth materials. To remove a lot of these aromas, you’ll have to steam clean the interior of the vehicle. You can rent one at your local grocery store for less than $50 – and purchase soap.
Vinegar & Spray Bottle: A great home-made recipe for removing embedded smoke stains from vinyl, plastic, and even some leatherette materials are blending straight white vinegar mixed with distilled water at a 50/50 ratio.
Multiple Microfiber Cloths: It’s best to use microfiber cloths to wipe down all hard surfaces with the vinegar/water spray solution. Replace them once they are saturated, so you don’t cross contaminate.
Here is what you’ll do – and it’s best to follow these steps for optimal results.
Step 4 – Begin the Basic Interior Detailing
Vacuum: The first step in the cleaning process is to completely vacuum the vehicle. This will include anything that can be vacuumed including floor carpet, floor mats, seats, headrests, plastic trim parts (using a soft brush attachment) and all compartments.
Steam Cleaning: Once everything is vacuumed, steam clean your cloth seats, headrest, and floorboards (front and back) – and rear seating, trunk and any other locations that are carpeted or cloth. This is crucial – as smoke will stick to anything porous, so if you want to do a good job – go the extra mile.
Spray Plastic and Vinyl: After you’ve steam cleaned the vehicle, continue with spraying the vinegar/distilled water solution on vinyl and plastic components. The best method is to spray onto a microfiber cloth, wipe down a section, then use a clean and dry microfiber cloth to dry.
Remove Air Vents from Dash and Clean: The next step is to remove the air vents from your dash, or gain access to behind them to fully wipe down the vents, vent tubes, and remove the cabin filter (so you can wipe down the housing).
The key here is to use that same vinegar/distilled water solution to remove any stuck-on tobacco or chemicals. If you don’t do this step, the moment you turn the air or heat on your car, the cabin will just continue to smell like smoke.
If you don’t have the ability to remove the dash or air vents, one alternative option is to use an odor neutralizer spray. It’s not as effective as the first method mentioned above, but it will help to remove stuck on tar from cigarette smoke.
Here is how to accomplish this method:
- Locate the Air Intake Vents: Most AC and Heat systems have two options, to circulate air from the exterior or to circulate air from the cabin. As such, there are two series of intake vents. The exterior vents are usually located near the windshield wipers. The interior vents are often located near the windshield, or on the side of the dash.
- Remove the Old Cabin Filter – but Do Not Install New One Yet: Remove the cabin indoor filter and clean the housing where it’s located, but do not install the replacement yet.
- Make Sure All Windows are Rolled Down: Start by rolling the windows down, so the air can ventilate outside.
- Turn on Heater at Full Blast from Outside Vents: It’s easier to start by cleaning the outside vent intake first. So, start your car, leave it in park with the emergency brake on, and turn on heater on full. Make sure ALL vents on the inside are open including dash, and floorboards.
- Spray the Odor Neutralizer Spray into Outside Intake Vents: For about 10 seconds on each vent, spray the neutralizer spray across the entire intake vent. Make sure to complete this step on each vent outside.
- Leave the Car Running and Swap to Interior Vent Circulation: Once you’ve completed this task, and let the air circulate through the vents for a few minutes, turn the intake of the heater to cabin circulation. Complete the same process by spraying into the interior vents. It’s best to do this from about 5 inches away. You will likely have residue on the dash or even the glass, so make sure to clean this up when you’re done.
- Completely Clean All Glass: The next to final step is to completely clean glass on the inside and out with a strong window cleaner. Cigarette smoke sticks on the inside of glass, so make sure to fully clean ALL glass on the inside and out.
- Install the New Indoor Cabin Filter: Finally, install the new cabin air filter and secure the housing.
DIY Remedies for Removing Smoke from a Car
The method described above is one that works best. However, if you go through the trouble of doing everything above – and still have issues, consider some of these home remedies that might help.
Pure White Vinegar in a Bowl
White Vinegar is an odor sucking substance. It’s also potent smelling stuff. If you’re inclined, consider pouring some white vinegar into a bowl and leaving it inside your car overnight. It’s best to do this with windows rolled UP. Then, roll them down for a few days to let it exit the vehicle. Don’t drive your vehicle with windows rolled up the day after – as it’ll make you sick to your stomach and can cause respiratory issues.
Baking Soda Method
Some DIYers swear by the baking soda method of removing odors. This is another good home remedy, as it basically includes sprinkling it on cloth materials, let is soak for a few minutes and vacuum up.
This is another odor sucker. People will put some charcoal in a bowl and let it sit in the car for a few days. Again – results will vary.
Another item that tends to work to remove cigarette aroma are the peels of strong citrus items, including lemons, limes, and oranges. Leave them inside your vehicle for a few days, and a lot of the cigarette aroma will vanish – for a while.
The old dryer sheet method is another common household solution for soaking up bad aroma like cigarette smoke. For this to work, you need several sheets, place them on your seats, and floorboards and let them sit in the vehicle for at least 24 hours. If nothing else, your car might smell like a fresh load of laundry.
Wrapping it Up
Sometimes when you purchase a car that was formally owned by a smoker, it will have been treated by the dealership. The main issues occur when you purchase from a private owner. If you have the option or ability, and that stuff bugs you, simply choose another vehicle.
But, if you want to – attempt a few of the methods above, as they are good at removing a lot of the aroma from cigarettes, pipe smoke, and cigars.