How to remove bad smells from your car

May 02, 2022
woman in vehicle

Everyone wants to maintain the new-car smell as long as possible. But what do you do when the air turns musty? Here’s a look at 6 common causes of car odors and how you can remove them.

How to check for hidden odor sources

Play detective and check around the car for anything that could be causing the odor. Look in pockets, under seats, on floor mats and even in the glove compartment for baby bottles, moldy fruit or unidentified blobs that may have been dragged in on the bottom of someone’s shoe. Immediately remove and throw any of these away and open the doors for a while to let any lingering odor dissipate. Don’t forget that sometimes a bad smell can also be a sign of an overheated car – or you may be in need of an oil change.

How to clean car carpet and upholstery

If you can’t find the source, pull out the car vacuum. Many times, the upholstery, carpet or fabric interior can trap odors. [1] Work the vacuum all around and down into crevices using the upholstery attachment. If this doesn’t do the trick but you believe this is the source of your odor issue, try steam cleaning where possible. Use car cleaning tools to make cleaning the interior easier. If your car has leather seats, there are simple ways to clean leather seats.

How to get cigarette smoke smell out of car

Keep in mind that cigarette smoke has a way of getting everywhere, including into the vents. Spray a car odor eliminator into the vents as well as through the intake valve under the hood. In addition, open all the windows and doors to air things out. [2]

Keep in mind that smoking leaves behind tar, which is a sticky substance. Wipe down the interior panels with a 50/50 solution of water and vinegar. If the odor still lingers, mix in some dish soap as well. Once finished, wipe the interior surfaces dry.

How to get vomit smell out of car

Don’t forget about small children or pets who may have had an accident on the upholstery or who, may have had a moment of carsickness. Even if these accidents were wiped up right away, a deeper clean may be necessary to fully get rid of the odor. If it has already dried, use your 50/50 water and vinegar solution to rehydrate the spot and then remove it with a wet/dry vacuum. Spreading cat litter on the area or sprinkling it with baking soda can also help absorb odors. Worried about other messes with kids in the car? Here are tips for keeping your car clean with kids. [3]

How to get mildew smell out of a car

Mildew is another source of unwelcome odors. All you need is one rainstorm and an overlooked partially open window (or even just a small leak with a buildup of condensation), to experience this. Luckily, removing mildew smells in cars is fairly straightforward. A wet/dry vacuum can help remove remaining water from carpets and upholstery but, in a pinch, even a hair dryer might work. You can also remove odors with baking soda by sprinkling it on the affected area and letting it absorb for two hours before vacuuming it away. [4]

How to get musty AC smell out of a car’s air conditioner

Another possible source of that musty smell is the air conditioning system. One telltale sign is damp floor mats near the air conditioner. If you find an odor coming from this area, open the front cover and remove the filter. Use a nylon scrub pad to remove any mold growth, then use a cotton swab to dry it. (To finish drying things out, turn on the car’s heater.) When you’re sure the area is completely dry, apply an anti-mildew solution, enzymatic cleaner or odor absorber. You could also sprinkle baking soda on the upholstery and leave it in place for a day or so before vacuuming away. By then, the smell should have dissipated. You also may, of course, remove any car mats and let them air out for a while. Dust can also pile up inside the vents and lead to a musty smell in a car. In this case, vacuum the vents and use the water-vinegar solution on the interior.

Everyday cleaning products for your car

Before resorting to having your car professionally detailed, there are a number of tools and products that can help eliminate odors. You may even already have some of these in your home [5]:

  • Baking soda
  • Vinegar
  • Dish soap
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Carpet cleaner
  • Charcoal
  • Odor-absorbing crystals/gels
  • Disinfectant wipes

If you find the odor in your car persists after repeated cleanings with different products, it could be time to bring it to a trusted professional car detailer. However, it might also be possible that the lingering odor is a symptom of a more serious car problem. Some common smells can indicate a more significant issue; for example, if you smell rotten eggs when your engine is running, there may be a problem with your car’s catalytic converter. [6] If you feel unsure about a smell coming from your car, have the vehicle looked at by a trusted mechanic as soon as possible to avoid more dangerous or costly problems.

By finding the source of car odors and treating them, your car should smell great. With the help of air fresheners, your car could almost smell as good as new. For more helpful information, check out these articles about car maintenance and cleaning tips.


[1] “Complete guide for car odor elimination,”, Accessed March 2022.
[2] “The Ultimate Guide to Getting Smoke Smell Out of Your Car,”, Accessed March 2022.
[3] “How to Remove Vomit Smell From a Car,”, Accessed March 2022.
[4] “How to Remove the Smell of Mold From Your Car,”,fresh%2C%20mold%2Dfree%20smell, Accessed March 2022.
[5] “How to Clean Your Car With Household Items,”, Accessed March 2022.
[6] “What’s That Smell? 7 Car Odors You Should Never Ignore,”, Accessed March 2022.

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