Getting Rid of Car Smells

Cars have a way of holding onto unpleasant odors and making your drive time uncomfortable. Because a car is such a contained space—and because it often sits in the sun for hours at a time, allowing smells to “bake” in—it’s not enough to crack a window every now and then and freshen up the air. Whether you’re dealing with pet smells, cigarette smoke, food left inside too long, or other mystery scents, here’s our guide to freshening up. Even better—many of these tasks can be done during your regular cleaning routine or when you visit a car wash.

  1. Always clean the car’s interior first, and take your time to ensure that it’s a deep clean. Throw away all trash, and vacuum everywhere—including under the seats. Wipe down surfaces with a mild cleansing spray and towel. Don’t forget to pay attention to the trunk, as well. It’s no good to clean the air only to have the smell reappear on the drive home.
  2. Purchase some kind of neutralizer. “Neutralizer” is a term for any chemical or natural substance that absorbs odors to eliminate them (as opposed to just masking the smell). Two of the best options include baking soda and charcoal.
  3. Baking Soda: Sprinkle baking soda all over the upholstered surfaces of your car, including seats and carpets. You can allow it to sit in the car for a few minutes or a few hours (the longer it sits, the better it will work), and you can use a gentle brush to scrub it for greater efficacy. This will need to be vacuumed up once you’re done letting it work its magic.
  4. Charcoal: Charcoal is one of the most natural neutralizers out there. Although you can grab a few unused chunks from your BBQ and leave them in the car for a few days, it may be better to find a charcoal filter of some type. (Air conditioning units and shoe inserts often use them.) It takes some time for the charcoal to do its magic, so you may want to find a hidden place to keep it.
  5. A more innovative way to eliminate smells from upholstery is to cover it with damp tea leaves or coffee grounds and allow them to soak in before vacuuming them up again. As you can imagine, these methods tend to get pretty messy and leave a distinct smell behind—but some people prefer the coffee to the more intrusive scents.
  6. Air deodorizers are another option, especially if you’re dealing with cigarette smoke. You can spray these directly into the air (for mild smells), or you can work them into the ventilation system (for more intense smells). To do this, you’ll want to turn the car on and start the AC system. As soon as the cold air starts blowing, go outside to your car’s intake vent. You can spray the deodorizer into the vent so that it gets sucked into the system and works from the inside out.

Wait until you’re happy with the scent of your car before you invest in new scents to introduce. Air fresheners, linen sprays, Febreze—all these things are great at making your car smell nice, but only if you’re working with a clean canvas to begin with.

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