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As Popular Mechanics reports, your car can emit a lot of different smells. Some of them are perfectly normal such as the aroma of maple syrup after your engine has warmed up. Others are not so natural, like a musty odor that can actually indicate a problem such as mildew. What happens if you encounter this smell? Fortunately, there are some remedies available.

Identifying the smell

Most car owners first become aware of their mildew problem when they turn on their vehicle’s air conditioner and notice a smell similar to that of sweaty gym socks.

This is a telltale sign of mildew, which can build up inside your evaporator unit whenever moisture condenses. Water leaks or even humid conditions may cause them as well, particularly if there is very little airflow.

Musty odors that persist even when the air conditioner is not running may be coming from your carpet or upholstery instead. You are more likely to encounter mildew in your vehicle’s interior if you have experienced flooding or left the windows down while it was raining.

How to fix a car that smells like mildew

To get rid of the mildew smell in your car, you will first need to identify the source. According to John Ibbotson, chief mechanic for Consumer Reports magazine, mildew often results from a leaking heater core or clogged air conditioning drain.

Many times, fixing these problems is enough to eliminate the odor. At any rate, you should have an air conditioner inspection performed so that you can get to the root of the issue.

Most people would like to eliminate musty odors right away rather than waiting on repairs. As a quick fix, Popular Mechanics recommends turning off your air conditioner when you are about a mile or so from your destination. With the a/c off, operate your fan on high to help dry out the system. Of course, you should look at this as only a temporary fix, since the problem will likely return as long as your air conditioner has problems. 

Cleaning to remove mildew smells from a car

When mildew is rooted in the soft surfaces of your car, you will need to perform a thorough cleaning. Start by getting rid of any extra items you are carrying around with you.

In many cases, removing dirty clothes or other objects will also take care of the odor. If that doesn’t work, shampooing your carpet and upholstery will normally eliminate the problem. However, more serious cases could call for a replacement. After cleaning your car, allow it to air out naturally to get rid of any remaining odor and prevent new mold or mildew from forming. 

Things to avoid

Mildew in air conditioning units is a rather common problem that leaves many people scrambling for a home remedy. Accordingly, there is plenty of bad advice out there such as pouring Listerine into your vents or spraying them with Lysol.

Neither of these options offer any long-term solution, and could potentially cause further damage to an already fragile air conditioning system.

You might also be tempted to mask the odor with air fresheners. While this may provide you with some relief, it will do very little to rectify the situation that has allowed mildew to grow in the first place. In fact, too much air freshener might actually cause you just as many breathing problems as the mildew would. 

Musty odors can be frustrating if not downright embarrassing. However, there is usually a clearly identifiable cause that makes them rather easy to eliminate. If you are bothered by the smell of mold or mildew, repairing your air conditioning system followed by a thorough cleaning should help you eradicate this problem.