Ban the Stink: 6 Bad Car Smells and How to Remove Them

Most people like a new car smell and want it to last as long as possible. However, eventually, the new car smell goes away, and various odors take over the cabin. Here are five bad car smells and tips on how to remove them.

Foul car smell from the carpet of your car

Man driving an old car with smoke coming out of it, highlighting bad car smells and how to remove them
Man driving a smoking car | Alina Rubo via Unsplash

A common source of bad smells in cars is the carpet and upholstery, which can trap foul odors, as detailed by Nationwide. Thoroughly comb through your car’s cabin with a vacuum cleaner, using the upholstery attachment. Make sure to go over the crevices too. If the odor still lingers, try steam cleaning the cabin. You can also use car cleaning tools.

Bad odor of cigarette smoke in a car

If you frequently smoke in your car, there’s a good chance that it has the lingering odor of cigarette smoke. First, open all of the windows to air your car out. Additionally, spray a car odor eliminator into the vents — and the intake valve under the hood. Since cigarette smoke often leaves behind a sticky tar, it’s also good to wipe down the car’s interior with a 50/50 solution of water and vinegar. You can add dish soap as well. When finished, wipe away the moisture with a towel.

Mildew smell in a car

Man sticking his head out of a car window, highlighting bad car smells and how to remove them
Driver with his head out of a car window | Frank McKenna via Unsplash

Another bad odor in a car is a mildew smell. This is caused by the buildup of condensation or rain getting into a car with an open window. To remove a mildew smell from a car, use a wet/dry vacuum on the carpets and upholstery. For an even quicker remedy, you can use a hair dryer. Also, if the mildew odor is especially strong, you can sprinkle baking soda on the “affected area and let it absorb for two hours before vacuuming it away.” 

Musty smell from a car’s air conditioning system

A possible source of the mildew-like smell is the car’s air conditioning system. This is likely the case if you see damp floor mats near the A/C. To remove the bad smell from your car’s A/C, first, open the front cover and then remove the filter. Scrub the filter with a nylon scrub pad to remove any mold growth. Dry it with a cotton swab and the heating system in your car. After that, apply an “anti-mildew solution, enzymatic cleaner, or odor absorber.”

Additionally, you can “also sprinkle baking soda on the upholstery and leave it in place for a day or so before vacuuming away.” Additional solutions include removing and airing out the car mats, vacuuming the vents, and using a 50/50 water-vinegar solution on the interior.

Vomit odor in a car

If you have kids or pets, there’s a decent chance that they’ve vomited in your car after experiencing some car sickness. If you wiped up the vomit soon after it happened, a deep cleaning might not be necessary. However, if the vomit is already dried, use a “50/50 water and vinegar solution to rehydrate the spot and then remove it with a wet/dry vacuum.” To further eliminate vomit odor from your car, you can sprinkle cat litter or baking soda on the affected area.

Burning oil and other mechanical smells in a car 

The bad smell in your car might not even be coming from the cabin. Instead, it could be burning engine oil or some other mechanical problem. If this is the case, then take your car to a service center to get an oil change and/or checked for other issues.

In addition to the aforementioned bad car smells, the source of a foul odor in your car might be much more straightforward. You or one of your passengers could have left some food or an unfinished drink in the car. Thoroughly look over your vehicle, and if you find any old food or drink, remove it. And for a unique way to make your car smell good, continue reading below for the next article about fuel fragrances with scents such as fruit, candy, and baby powder. 

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