How to Track Down and Eliminate Bad Smells in Your Car

By  //  April 21, 2021

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Unpleasant smells in your car have a way of festering quickly. When you drive, you’re sitting in a tiny enclosed space, breathing recirculated air – for hours a day, if you have a long commute – and the experience is both annoying and very unhealthy if your car doesn’t smell good.

Foul-smelling air is unhealthy air. Breathing unhealthy air can lead to a host of chronic issues over the long term ranging from a persistently stuffy nose to the development of severe allergies.

If you have a car that smells unpleasant or musty, have you tried to put off the inevitable deep cleaning by hanging an air freshener on your mirror?

If so, stop wasting your time. Chemical air fresheners simply use potent synthetic scents to numb your olfactory senses; they don’t do anything to eliminate the causes of bad smells – and although you might not think so now, finding and eliminating unpleasant odors in your car isn’t nearly as difficult as you might assume. All it takes is a systematic cleaning process.

Once you’ve done that, making the right decisions will ensure that your car always smells clean and inviting in the future.

Begin With a Thorough Vacuuming

The best tool that you can possibly have for removing foul smells from your car is one of the high-power vacuums at your local car wash. If you’re trying to troubleshoot a smelly car and have already tried vacuuming the car, the reason why you weren’t successful is probably that you didn’t approach the problem systematically.

A day before you plan to vacuum the car, sprinkle baking soda liberally on the upholstery. Don’t forget to sprinkle the baking soda under the floormats as well. Baking soda is a powerful odor absorber, and it works extremely well on carpets and upholstery. Leave the baking soda there overnight.

The next day, take your car to the car wash and vacuum every inch of the upholstery from front to back. Don’t forget to vacuum the hard-to-reach places like under the seats and between the seat bottoms and backrests.

To clean the hard surfaces of the car such as the dashboard and windows, use water with a bit of distilled white vinegar added. Vinegar is especially helpful if you happen to be a smoker – something we’ll discuss in greater detail shortly – because it helps to break up the sticky tar clinging to the car’s smooth surfaces.

Make the Right Decisions to Prevent Odors From Reappearing

Because it is such a small space, little decisions that you make about what you do in your car can have an enormous impact on the way the car smells. In particular, there are three decisions you must always make if you want to maintain the value of your car and keep it smelling as nice as it can.

■ Don’t ever smoke in your car. The smell of stale smoke will stick to everything, and it’s extremely difficult to remove. That’s why smokers’ cars tend to sell for less than non-smokers’ cars. If you’ve tried to give up smoking and have failed, you should try vaping instead. Grab a low-cost device like the SMOK Morph and use that device in your car instead of smoking cigarettes.

■ Don’t ever eat in your car. When you’re on the go, it’s very tempting to run through a drive-through, grab a burger and fries and eat your snack without leaving the car. The problem, though, is that it’s almost impossible to eat without getting crumbs everywhere – and in a hot car, food particles are going to start rotting very rapidly. Unless you are extremely vigilant about vacuuming your car, you should always get out of the car to eat if you don’t want your vehicle to start smelling like old fries.

■ Don’t ever leave trash in your car overnight. A piece of rubbish like a half-finished beverage or a candy bar wrapper can cause a nasty surprise the next morning if you don’t get rid of it right away.

Eliminate Sources of Potential Moisture Buildup

Some unpleasant odors in a car are caused by the decisions you make, and others are caused by environmental factors that you can’t control directly. The first of those is water ingress. If water collects in your car, mold will eventually grow. Mold growth inside a car smells awful. It’s an extremely difficult problem to fix.

It can be a health issue, and it can even attract certain types of insects to begin nesting in your car. The way to prevent water from getting inside your vehicle is by checking the weather stripping around your windows and trunk regularly and replacing any strips that are cracked or torn.

If your car has a sunroof, you should also keep an eye on its drainage channels. Things like dirt and fallen leaves can prevent your sunroof from draining properly, and if that happens, the water can build up and drip from your car’s roof.

Replace Your Car’s Cabin Air Filter

The condition of the cabin air filter is the second environmental factor having a major effect on the way your car smells. Before air passes through your car’s air conditioning system and enters the cabin, it must first travel through a filter. The filter traps exhaust fumes, pollen, dirt, mold and small insects to prevent contamination of the HVAC system and to maintain the healthy air quality in the cabin of the vehicle.

A cabin air filter usually costs around $20 and lasts around 15,000 miles, although prices and longevity can vary. If you keep a cabin air filter past its best-by date, you’ll notice musty smells in your car because the organic material trapped in the filter will begin to rot and/or harbor mold. With most vehicles, the cabin air filter is very easy to replace, and you’ll find the instructions for doing so in your car’s manual. Plan to spend around $50 if you’d rather have the work done by a mechanic.

Use Activated Charcoal to Keep Your Car Smelling Fresh

Even though you’ve cleaned your car top to bottom and are making the right decisions to keep it smelling fresh, it still doesn’t hurt to have a little help in that area. That’s particularly the case if you’ve ever smoked in your vehicle because the smell penetrates absolutely everything and is incredibly difficult to remove.

To help remove any lingering odors, put activated charcoal under your car’s seats. Activated charcoal is available in small bags are your local home improvement store. The bags are usually quite inexpensive, and they’ll last for a couple of years if you leave them in direct sunlight once a month to refresh the charcoal.

As air circulates through a bag of activated charcoal, the charcoal traps odor-causing molecules. Activated charcoal can also help to control lingering moisture problems if your car has ever had a water leak.

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