How to Remove Odor from Inside of Your Car

If you’ve had a car with a foul smell, you know just how unpleasant every minute can be. And even if you become accustomed to the odor after a while, any passenger or potential buyer who gets inside will notice it. And while it seems like it’s impossible to get rid of some offending odors, it’s seldom the case.

With the right skills and equipment, it’s possible to eliminate odors in car interiors. It isn’t always quick, easy, or cheap, but it can be done. Learn more about what causes bad smells in cars, ways to get rid of them, and practices for keeping odors at bay.

Understanding the Causes of Car Odors

The odors inside your car can come from a variety of sources, including smoke, food, sweat, pets, and other organic materials. Over time, these odors can build up to become overwhelming and unpleasant to smell. Understanding the source of these smells is key to getting rid of them effectively.

Cigarette Smoke

Cigarette smoke is one of the most common sources of unpleasant smells inside cars. The chemical particles in cigarette smoke can bond to various surfaces such as carpets and upholstery, making it difficult to remove even after the source has been removed.

Food and Sweat

Food residues left in your car over time can cause lingering odors that can be hard to remove with just air fresheners or sprays. Sweat also acts as an attractor for dust, dirt, and other particles that can make odors stick around and worsen over time.


Pets are another common source of unpleasant smells inside cars. Pet hair and dander trap dirt and moisture which can lead to bacteria growth that causes musty odors. Additionally, pet urine may penetrate through the carpeting or upholstery leading to even stronger-smelling odors that are difficult to remove.


Some substances like coffee won’t smell if they’re spilled, but if a carton of milk leaks, it’s bound to make your interior a terrible place to be, especially if it’s gone unnoticed in warm weather. The fatty component in dairy, as well as meats and certain other foods, becomes almost intolerable and notoriously difficult to eradicate.


Moisture can cause bacteria and mildew to form, and that’s especially true in the HVAC system. The cabin air filter and ductwork can house mildew that is hard to access, and it gets bad whenever the temperature and humidity increase.

Methods for Removing Car Odors

A majority of bad smells inside your car come from organic sources within soft surfaces, particularly the carpeting and the upholstery. They can also come from hidden substances that turn putrid, like spoiled food under a seat, spilled milk that seeps into the spare tire well, or mildew in the air vents.

Having an unpleasant smell in your car can be a major annoyance, but there are several steps you can take to get rid of the odor. Here are some tips on how to effectively remove odors from your car.

1. Air Out the Interior

Getting fresh air into your car can help replace stale air and remove odors. This can be accomplished by simply opening the windows or using a fan or portable air freshener. Using an ozone generator is also an effective way to deodorize as it helps eliminate bacteria and other pollutants in the air.

2. Clean Surfaces

Cleaning all interior surfaces on a regular basis is essential for removing odors from your car. Vacuuming will help remove dirt and debris from carpets, while wiping down hard surfaces with cleaning wipes or a damp cloth will help remove dirt and sweat residue that may have built up over time.

Steam cleaning may help remove especially stubborn pet odors from carpets and fabrics, and an odor neutralizer intended for smoke is often needed to treat cigarette smells. Sprinkle baking soda or spray an upholstery cleaner onto the smelly area for a few hours before steam cleaning to make it even more effective.

3. Disinfect Air Vents

Air vents are often overlooked when it comes to removing odors from cars but they should not be ignored. Smells attach to the interior of the ducts, and a duct odor eliminator is how to get mildew smell out of car, treating these substances to neutralize them.

If you have a cabin air filter, change it too. It can house mildew and other bacteria that contribute to odors.

4. Strip the Carpets and Seats Out

Sometimes, all your best efforts aren’t enough without getting serious about cleaning. It’s not unheard of to remove the seats and carpets from the car to clean them thoroughly. That can entail pressure washing the carpets and shampooing every visible and hidden side of the seats, letting them dry completely, then re-installing them in the car.

Tips for Preventing Car Odors

Some odors can’t be avoided, but others definitely can. Tips to prevent bad smells include: 

  • Keep your interior tidy. Take food containers, dirty clothes, and other junk out of your car regularly.
  • Clean routinely. Frequently vacuuming and wiping down the interior can prevent buildup of organic material that can cause odors.
  • Put your groceries on a cargo mat. Rotten food smells can be particularly troublesome, so catch any spills on a cargo mat for easy cleanup.

Best Practices for Maintaining a Fresh-Smelling Car

If you want your car to smell fantastic all the time – and not just to treat or cover up a bad smell – there are some excellent methods you can put into practice.

Don’t eat or drink in your vehicle if you can avoid it. You’re inviting a spill simply by having food in there. The same goes for smoking – even with a window open, cigarette smells can get embedded in fabrics.

Place dryer sheets under your seats to add a fresh, crisp scent. And if you want to avoid odors from a wide range of sources, place a container of coffee beans, charcoal, or an odor-eating sponge in your car.  Some people also appreciate the natural scents of essential oils diffused in their vehicle.

If you’re trying to figure out how to get smell out of car materials, visit AutoZone. You’ll find a huge assortment of detailing products, air fresheners, and odor eliminators to please your nasal passages.

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FAQ/People Also Ask

What are the common causes of car odors?

Most car odors are organic, caused by spoiled food, spilled milk, mildew, pets, and similar substances. Cigarette smoke is also another cause that’s luckily becoming less common.

What are the different methods for removing car odors?

Wiping down the interior, airing it out, ozonating it, shampooing the carpet, and treating the HVAC ducts are all methods for removing bad car smells.

How often should I remove odors from my car’s interior?

Odors only get worse with time, so it’s best to eliminate them as soon as you detect them.

Can I use household products for removing car odors or do I need special products?

Household products like vinegar and baking soda can help neutralize odors. There are many odor eliminators available for personal and professional detailing too.

How can I prevent car odors from happening in the first place?

Keeping a clean car and being mindful to prevent spills are the best ways to prevent odors.

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