The scent of a car air freshener, the stench of cigarette smoke, and the unpleasant note of pet odor are but a few of the many factors that give vehicles their own unique aroma over time. Forget to roll-up your windows before a rain storm and you’ll be rewarded with a mildew smell. Keep the cabin locked-up tight and a musty smell will begin to develop. No matter what you do, unsavory odors are a constant threat to your car’s cabin, many of which are quite difficult to remove or mask.

So what works? Does an open box of baking soda work just as well to soak-up rank odors in a car as it does in a fridge? Is a concentrated car odor bomb safe to use if you need to remove a cigarette smell and have to drive later that same day? What natural alternatives are there to the average car air freshener? What is the best cleaning routine for those looking to keep dog odors from developing in a a car’s upholstery? These are all genuine concerns for car owners.

Due to the the confined nature of automobiles, and the prolonged periods of time we spend in them, offensive aromas tend to appear all the more putrid while behind the wheel.

In order to help answer these questions (and hopefully offer a bit of guidance), the team at AvalonKing dove head-first into the stinky end of the “carpool.” Dad jokes aside, the following explains the reason why most bad odor molecules develop in the first place. We’ve also included some natural odor removal suggestions, preventative maintenance tips, and a handful of suggested cleaning techniques and tools. It’s time you squashed that car stench once and for all, because nobody likes riding in a car that smells like the year 2020.

 

Common Causes of Car Odors

Some of the most common causes of an unpleasant smell in an automobile are the presence of cigarette smoke, pet hair, moisture, dirt, trash, decomposing food, perspiration-soaked clothing, and any one of the following automotive maladies

If the air blowing out of your car’s vents has a strong mildew smell, chances are you have condensation on your car’s air conditioner evaporator. Although a burning smell reminiscent of burning oil is quick to cause alarm, there are other fluids that can cause this sort of smoke odor to develop, so don’t rule out transmission or power steering fluid leaks. An antifreeze smell on the other hand will always smell sweet, while a compromised catalytic converter will create a rotten egg smell. Overheated insulation and interior upholstery, as well as extremely hot brakes can also create an unpleasant odor or smoke smell, and the lingering smell of gas fumes should always be investigated immediately.

If routine car detailing isn’t in the cards, stagnant water in your car’s carpet could also be causing that mildew smell, a rank reminder of yesterday’s rain storm. Perhaps there’s a gym sock stuffed beneath the backseat, its pungent aroma offering earthy notes of body odor, perspiration, and athlete’s foot. Remember that corn chip that dropped between the front seats the other week? That would be mold you are smelling. Oh, and as for all of that coffee that was spilled on your cloth car seat over the weekend, chances are there’s a stale smell wafting from your seat cushion now that your latte has had ample time to dry in the sun.

These issues, and the foul odors that come with them, are only further compounded when children and pets are added to the equation. So what’s the best way to combat these nasal nuisances, and are there any natural alternatives to the traditional chemical odor neutralizer? 

Best Natural Products to Help Remove Odors From Your Car

If for instance, there is a car mildew smell emanating from your vehicle, and you wish to go the “all natural” route, you will need to skip the standard car odor eliminator tactic entirely and opt for one or more of the following.

  • Activated Charcoal- From fish tank media to filtered vodka, activated charcoal is a marvelous all-natural purifier. Just purchase a pre-bagged multi-pack from your favorite online seller, and then drop these old fashioned filters in your vehicle. From door pockets and glove boxes, to under-seat storage compartments and the cubby beneath the trunk mat, there is no place that this natural air freshener won’t work. 
  • Distilled White Vinegar- This tart, all-natural distilled product is a beast of an odor neutralizer, and quite inexpensive as well. Just be forewarned. Too much of this magical elixir will make your car smell like a pickle on wheels if you use too much. To avoid this issue, always dilute vinegar in a spray bottle with a 50% water, and only spray in areas where you know the odor remover is most needed.
  • Essential Oil- It may sound like a silly old hippie trick, but an all-natural essential oil really does mask foul odors for long periods of time. Just place a few drops on a handkerchief or tissue, and then tuck it into your rear cargo hold or trunk so that it the aroma not wafting in your face. This approach offers infinite combinations, and know that starting out with a complimentary blend of peppermint and orange is always a safe bet.
  • Baking Soda- From removing soap scum and stubborn stains, to pulling double-duty as an odor neutralizer in your refrigerator and car, the many uses for baking soda never ceases to amaze. Simply sprinkle a dusting of baking soda over the carpeted area where you think the odor remover is most needed, and allow it to sit for at least 15 minutes before vacuuming. For a more intense, lingering smell, allow the baking soda to sit undisturbed overnight before breaking-out the vacuum.

In regard to using natural products to remove an unpleasant smell from a car’s engine bay, the best option is to make your own natural engine cleaner from distilled white vinegar, natural liquid soap, baking soda, lemon juice/essential oil, and water. Remember, that bad smell could be coming from somewhere outside of the engine bay, so a thorough investigation should always be completed prior to committing to this approach.

Best Cleaning Products for Removing Odors From a Car

Removing odors from a car via the use of natural (or unnatural) ingredients is only one chapter in the ever evolving automotive odor removal saga. Using products that prevent a putrid scent from developing in the first place is just as crucial as battling bad smells once they develop. Since prevention is so crucial, keeping a bag or two of the aforementioned activated charcoal (preferably of the bamboo charcoal variety) in the vehicle at all times will do wonders for improving the quality of the odor molecules you breath. 

Upgrading to a washable, high-grade cabin air filter offered by K&N Filters, is another proven approach, as these filters can also be “recharged” with a cleaning care kit. Going this route is not just an inexpensive and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional disposable cabin air filters, but because these filters are electrostatically charged, they are far better at capturing mold, mildew, pollen, spores, fungi, dust, germs, and other contaminants.

Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Choosing the right car upholstery cleaner is also crucial. Always opt for a high-end microfiber cloth and a quality interior detailing spray for hard surfaces, and an all-in-one car upholstery/carpet cleaner for everything else. It’s also not a bad idea to keep a pack of multi-surface cleaning wipes in your car’s glovebox at all times. These disposable wipes don’t just remove dust from your dash and door panels, they also remove odor and leave a fresh scent behind in its place.

While some people may claim that the average household cleaning spray will work in a pinch, it is not recommended. Using products specifically engineered for automobile interiors will clean better and are typically guaranteed to not discolor upholstery or damage trim. Some of these car cleaning chemicals even contain odor eliminator molecules which clean both surface areas and the atmosphere above them simultaneously. 

As for removing pet odors from a car’s interior, this topic presents its own unique set of challenges. For instance, if the offensive pet odor stems from a 200-pound St. Bernard with a penchant for swimming in park ponds, chances are you have more than just the garden variety wet dog smell to contend with. Since steam cleaning is not always in the cards, and dog fur is everywhere, some scrubbing with a concentrated upholstery cleaner, followed by a thorough vacuuming should always be your first option. And while some people may claim that keeping dryer sheets in door pockets will help remove putrid pet odors, opting for a highly reviewed odor bomb is the strongest solution. It may be packed with unpleasant odor eliminator chemicals, but odor neutralizer bombs really do an amazing job of removing a bad smell on a molecular level.

Required Steps for Cleaning Car Upholstery to Remove Odors

Photo Credit: Micah Wright

Offensive car odor located, and all necessary car cleaning products procured, it is now time to remove said foul odors from the car upholstery and the surrounding contaminated area. Thoroughness and patience is the name of the game here, so if that vomit smell is coming from the back seat, there’s a good chance there is puke hiding between the cushions. Take the necessary steps, and remove the rear bench or fold it forward in order to make sure that every square inch of the car’s interior gets inspected and cleaned.

Speaking of vomit, some odors are far more difficult to remove or mask than others, and will often require additional investigation prior to settling upon a solution. A lot goes into properly detailing a vehicle, so leave no seatback pocket unturned, and use a flashlight if necessary.

A “back-to-front” approach is highly recommended, so start with the rear hatch or trunk space and move forward from there. Be sure to vacuum and sanitize the area beneath the rear trunk mat, and don’t forget to leave an air freshener or an activated charcoal odor eliminator behind before you move to the back seat. From there, hit every inch of carpeted area you see with the vacuum, sliding seats out of the way and removing carpet mats as you go, all the while liberally spraying carpet and cloth alike with a dedicated cleaner spray.

Once the carpet has been cleaned, you can move onward to the removal of car seat stains, as well as the cleaning of door pockets, glovebox, seatback stash pouches, and cupholders, which once vacuumed, should be sprayed down with a trusted interior detailing spray. After that it’s on to the dash and steering column, followed by the vehicle’s headliner, which depending upon the material it has been wrapped-in, may require either an upholstery cleaner, or a hard surface detailing spray. Finishing leather surfaces with a leather reviving product is never a bad idea either, as is the use of a car-friendly glass cleaner, especially since dogs tend to drool a lot when their heads are out the window.

Once cleaned from top to bottom, and an odor removal product put into play, your bad car smell should be nonexistent, and your car makeover will be complete. 

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