How to Eliminate Car Odor in 6 Easy Steps

An in depth guide to help eliminate car odor. How to Eliminate Car Odor in 6 Easy Steps

A car is like a second home. You might commute to work for several hours per day, you might grab some fast food and eat on the go, you might take your pets for a ride to the park or your children to soccer practice, and some people may even sleep even their car. When it comes down to it, you spend a lot of time in the car and because of that, it might start to stink.

No one likes a smelly car. It makes your commute that much worse and it can be embarrassing if you have guests in your vehicle. So you need to learn how to eliminate car odors in order to avoid being the person with the smelly car. In this article we’ll look at the common causes of car odor and how to remove them, as well as how to prevent odors from occurring in the future.


Determine the Cause of the Odor

Before you can begin cleaning your car, you need to determine which type of odor it is and where it’s coming from. There are three main reasons why your car may start to stink: Smoke, mold or mildew, and pets. Let’s look at each individually:

  • Smoke

It’s no secret that cigarette smoke causes odors. If you are a smoker, you’ve driven someone who smokes, or you have purchased a used vehicle, there’s a chance that your car will begin to smell. Smoke is not only absorbed by the upholstery but it can also seep into the vents, so getting the odor out is going to be tough work. It’s a pretty distinct scent so you should easily be able to determine whether or not the smell is from smoke.

  • Mold or Mildew

You’ve probably had fast food in your car from time to time if you needed a quick meal on the way to work. Or your children may have spilled some juice or milk in the backseat some time ago. If any food or drink debris were left in the car or not cleaned properly, it’s possible that they’ll begin to mold and stink. Mildew smells not only come from food but can be caused by leaks or standing water that was brought in by wet shoes or sporting gear. If your car smells like mold or mildew, try to remember if anything was spilled or if you’ve had any wet items in your car recently. Also, check to see if there are any leaks that may be causing liquid to drip into the car’s interior.

  • Pets

If you often take your dog for a drive or any other pet for that matter, the cause of your car odor is most likely from your beloved furry friend. Pets shed, they leak, they vomit, and overall just generally have that animal smell. The odors from your pet will seep into the fabric and cause your car to stink, so if you believe your pet to be the reason why your car smells then you’ll mostly be focusing on the upholstery.


How to Remove Odors

Now that you’ve determined what caused the odor and where it’s coming from, you need to know how to remove it. You’ll need to take some general preliminary steps to clean the car, then you’ll need to focus on the particular area causing the stench.

Remove All Trash

The first step is to clear your car of any trash, food items, and junk that are laying around in the cabin or the trunk. You may find an old apple or soda can in there that was rotting and causing the odor. Don’t forget to check the seat back pockets!

Eliminate Dust and Dirteliminate-car-odor-3

Next you’ll want to remove any lingering dust, dirt, and pet hair from the dashboard and the upholstery. Use a clean, dry rag to wipe down the dash and doors and use a soft brush to lift any smoke particles or pet hair out of the fabric. Next, vacuum the seats, the floor, and the trunk. If you have floor mats, remove them and vacuum underneath as well.

Wash the Car

Give the outside a good rinse and scrub down for good measure. It’s best just to give your car a complete wash in order to remove any bacteria or dirt you were unaware of.

Clean the Hard Surfaces

ArmorAll is great for cleaning the dashboard, doors, and gear shift and it gives them a nice shine while removing any lingering bacteria, dust, and dirt. Remember to clean inside the glove compartment and any other compartments you have in the car. Use Windex or another glass cleaner to wipe down the windows and mirrors.

Steam Clean the Upholstery

There’s a good chance that your car odor is emanating from the upholstery so you should buy or rent a steam cleaner to give the fabric a deep clean. This will scrub out any bacteria, mold, or mildew that has formed from food spills or pet debris. It will also help clean out smoke particles that have settled into the fabric. When steam cleaning, don’t use too much water because it will take too long to dry and can get musty. If there are any stains in your car, put extra attention into scrubbing them to remove any odor causing bacteria. Use the extracting part of the steam cleaner to suck up excess moisture, then allow your car to air dry.

What to Do If the Odor Persists

After you’ve done a full deep clean, if the odor still persists there are a few things you can try. First is to sprinkle baking soda or carpet deodorizer on the upholstery. Let the baking soda sit on the fabric overnight and vacuum it up the next day. You can also just leave an open bowl of baking soda in the car to absorb extra odors. Next is to try the vinegar method. Fill two bowls with a small towel and white distilled vinegar and set them in the car overnight. The vinegar-soaked towels should absorb strong smoke and pet odors. It’s also possible that the odor could be coming from your vents, so if that’s the case you may need to replace your air filter. If you still can’t seem to remove the odor despite your best efforts, it’s time to hire a professional. Take your vehicle in to a car wash where they’ll use professional cleaners made for eliminating hard-to-remove car odors.

Prevention of Car Odor

Now that you’ve successfully removed that awful car odor, the last thing you would want is for it to return. In order to stop it from coming back, you need to learn how to prevent odors from occurring in the first place.

The number one thing you should do to prevent car odors is to regularly clean your car. Every couple of months or so, you should give it a full deep clean using the steps above or take it in to a car wash for a full detailing. If you’re a smoker, have pets, or have children, you may want to invest in seat covers. They will prevent odors from seeping into the upholstery and are removable for easy cleaning. Obviously the easiest way to prevent specific odors are to stop smoking in your car and don’t allow pets in the car. That can be tough, but it will do wonders for keeping your car smelling fresh and clean.


We know it’s impossible to completely prevent bacteria, dirt, and spills in the car so you should always keep these things handy to help prevent odors from forming: air freshener, wet wipes, napkins, lint roller, and a trash bag. Keep an air freshener hanging from your rearview mirror or attached to your vents at all times to keep it smelling clean. Wet wipes and napkins can be kept in your glove compartment and are great for quickly cleaning up any spills or pet accidents. Keep a lint roller under your armrest and use it after every time you have your pet in the car. And a plastic grocery bag should always be kept in the car to collect fast food bags, drinks, and any other trash that may collect in the car. Just remember to remove the trash bag often so it doesn’t accumulate mold.


Your vehicle should now be sparkling clean and smelling like a new car again. Doesn’t that feel good? Sure it’s tough work giving your car a deep clean but the benefits are so worth it. You may still have to sit in 45 minutes of traffic on your way to work but at least now it won’t be in a stinky car. Having a clean and fresh smelling car makes for a much more enjoyable ride not only for you, but for your guests as well. So don’t let it build up again until it’s so bad that you can’t stand to sit in your own car. Do your best to prevent any odors and it will save you so much time and frustration in the future.


  1. WikiHow – How to Remove Odors From Your Car
  2. Shear Comfort – That Stank is Rank – How to Remove Odor From Your Car & Stop It From Returning
  3. Cars Direct – My Car Smells: 7 Tips for Getting Rid of Bad Auto Odors