It’s a problem that has existed ever since the first vehicle was built: interior odors. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, eventually something will cause your vehicle to smell unpleasant. Whether it’s last night’s leftovers you accidentally forgot in the car or your child spilled something and neglected to tell you, odors are inevitable.
There’s also the chance you’re reading this article because you just purchased your dream Porsche from somebody and, well, it’s got an odor you’d like to get rid of. You’ve come to the right place, as we’ve not only tapped into our combined decades of vehicle ownership for tips and tricks, but we also consulted professional detailers who literally do this for a living. Below is a compilation of some of the steps we’d take to get rid of odors in our own cars, and here’s to hoping it’ll help get your car smelling fresh.
1. Determine where the odor is coming from
This might sound a bit silly if it’s a car you’ve owned and driven for years, but if you just recently acquired a used vehicle and want to get rid of its stink, you should try to locate the source. It could be spilled food or drink that’s worked its way into the carpet, or maybe you’re just dealing with cigarette smoke. The important part is to make sure it isn’t something mechanical and related to the vehicle — like a water leak or a really old cabin air filter.
Obviously, if you’re going to go through all this hard work to get rid of the odor, you’ll want to fix it at the source.
2. Steam clean your carpets
We recommend steam cleaning your carpets periodically, even if you aren’t dealing with any annoying smells. It’s a good way to prevent odors from happening in the first place.
Product recommendation: McCulloch heavy-duty steam cleaner
If you don’t already own a steam cleaner, this is the one we recommend for steam cleaning your car’s interior. It’s compact enough to easily maneuver around while you’re working through your car’s cabin, yet has a big enough tank so you should only need to fill it once to steam clean your entire car — depending on how large it is, of course. If you own a Cayenne or similar-sized SUV, then one tank may not be enough. But for most vehicles, the 48-ounce water tank should suffice.
The steam cleaner comes with 18 accessories, ranging from a floor mop to nylon brushes and scrub pads. It has all the tools you need to get deep into your car’s carpets and floor mats, for a nice and thorough wash. Attached to the steam cleaner is a power cord that is almost 16-feet long, while the steam hose is over 9-feet long.
3. Use an interior cleaner
This may seem obvious, but once you’re done steam cleaning your carpets, it’s time to go through your entire car’s cabin with a proper interior cleaner. You can also use standard, household isopropyl alcohol on your car’s surfaces to both disinfect and clean. But interior cleaners will cover your entire interior, from seats to dashboard, and even your infotainment’s touchscreen. Plus, some leave behind a pleasant scent.
Product recommendation: Adam’s Polishes Interior Detailer with Microban
This interior detailer from Adam’s Polishes is actually not my top-ranked product on my list of best interior cleaners. That honor goes to Chemical Guys’ Total Interior Cleaner and Protectant, but the reason why I’m not recommending it here is because that product is a bit on the mild side. Chances are, if you’re dealing with an odor inside your cabin, you need something stronger and more powerful.
I use this product if my interior is particularly dingy after a few weeks of neglect. And it’s a preferred solution if you’re dealing with odors since it features Microban. If you’ve never heard of Microban, the company specializes in antimicrobial technologies and odor control solutions. Now you see why I recommend it to help get rid of your car’s odors?
Product recommendation: Chemical Guys Premium Microfiber Towels
To properly clean your interior, you’re going to need a couple microfiber towels. You may already have these lying around, but if you don’t, spend a few bucks and pick up a pack from Chemical Guys. They’re affordable, plush, and won’t scratch any delicate surfaces inside your cabin. Toss them in your washer and dryer once you’re done and they should last you for years.
4. Smelly air conditioner?
If you noticed an unpleasant odor coming from your car’s air conditioning system, it’s likely condensation from the evaporator that has collected and sat inside your system. It’s a bit of a musty smell and you’ll know it if you smell it. The easiest way to address this issue is with an AC disinfectant or cleaner.
Product recommendation: nextzett Klima Cleaner Pro
While I haven’t had the need to use a product like nextzett’s Klima Cleaner Pro, this is highly recommended by professionals I trust who have had to deal with a smelly air conditioner. They say it’s easy to use and it has a very high success rate at getting rid of odors from your car’s AC system. They do also recommend that you change your cabin filter at the same time.
Product recommendation: Bosch HEPA cabin air filter
There are dozens of cabin air filters out there to choose from, and honestly at their price point, they’re all pretty similar. You don’t necessarily have to spend extra on one if you don’t want to, as they are pretty basic products. At the very least however, get one from a reputable manufacturer — which is why we recommend this HEPA cabin air filter from Bosch. You’ll need to figure out which one fits your specific vehicle.
5. What about more traditional methods?
If you’ve ever had to deal with odors around the house, you are probably used to some more traditional methods like using charcoal, baking soda, or vinegar. These methods do work, depending on how strong the odor is. Just make sure you’re also addressing the source of the smell. Otherwise, absorbing it won’t do you any good if it just comes back.
6. How about an air freshener?
Air fresheners are often the cheap option to cover up a nasty odor inside your car. But if you aren’t fixing the cause, then an air freshener or a product like Febreeze is simply covering it up temporarily. We do recommend getting an air freshener once you’ve diagnosed and addressed the issue. It’s a good way to freshen up the overall smell of your car. Just please, don’t mix a $1.99 air freshener from the gas station with old cigarette stench. It ends up doing more harm than good.
Product recommendation: Air Spencer CS-X3 Squash air freshener
I have been using this air freshener in my cars for over 20 years. To me, the “squash” version is just the best-smelling air freshener you can get. There are other scents from the same brand you can also try out. They’re a little expensive for an air freshener, but that’s because it has to be imported from Japan. If you want something that lasts a while and has a real pleasant smell, give it a try!