Our informative hub for all car detailing enthusiasts and anyone who loves a clean car

How to Easily Eliminate Car Odors

Eliminating your car's odors requires your car to be thoroughly cleaned before assessing for further odor removal treatments

The Complete Guide to Eliminating Unpleasant Car Odors

As a car owner, dealing with unpleasant smells in your vehicle is frustrating. Whether from cigarette smoke, pet odors, body odor, or something else, it can quickly become overpowering and ruin your driving experience. Luckily, there are ways to eliminate these bad smells and keep your car smelling fresh and clean. In this post, we’ll cover the various sources of foul odors, provide tips and methods for removing them from your car’s interior, and, most importantly, explain how to prevent the smells from coming back.

Identifying the Source of the Odor

To get rid of a bad odor in your car, it is essential to first locate its source. Pinpointing the source can be difficult as the smell can permeate various parts of your car’s interior.

The most common sources of bad odors in cars include:

  • Stale Food or Drinks
  • Pet Odors
  • Vomit
  • Body Odors
  • Cigarette Smoke
  • Mold or Mildew
  • Dirty Air Filters
  • Leaks in the AC System or other Mechanical Issues

Once you have identified the source of the odor, take immediate action to eliminate it. If you cannot locate the odor, try raising the car seat as high as possible and sliding it forward to access the hard-to-reach areas where fallen food and other dropped items tend to accumulate. Under the seats is a great starting point for your investigation, but ultimately, your sense of smell will be your best guide in pinpointing the source of the odor.

Thoroughly Vacuum Your Car

Why Vacuuming is Important

When it comes to removing unpleasant odors in your vehicle, the first and most crucial step is to vacuum the interior thoroughly. By doing so, you’ll remove dirt, debris, and other particles that are causing the bad smells. A meticulous vacuuming job can go a long way in eliminating most unwanted odors, making it easier to remove the remaining ones. Depending on the condition of your car, this process may take several hours, so be sure to take your time and be as detailed as possible.


Before vacuuming your car, remove any trash or debris inside your vehicle, including the door pockets and underneath the seats. Take out the floor mats and any removable rubber inserts, such as the cup holder liner, as these are easier to clean outside the vehicle.

Adjust all the seats as much as possible to ensure full access for vacuuming. Sometimes removing the seats is the best option for a thorough cleaning. While removing a car seat may seem intimidating, it’s easy once you understand how. This step will save time and allow for better cleaning, as there will now be full access to clean the carpet and the inside portion of the seat, which is often very difficult to reach.

rubber inserts removed from the car to make cleaning and odor removal easier
The car’s rubber inserts have been removed to make cleaning easier


We must remove most contaminants by vacuuming them to achieve complete odor removal. Removing the bulk of debris will allow us to focus on removing the more stubborn ones later with more specific treatments.

  1. First, use a vacuum cleaner to eliminate loose dirt and food particles. I recommended using a wet vac since it has greater suction power and can remove a broader range of debris, including liquids.
  2. Next, work around your car, focusing on small sections at a time, and use a cleaning brush to agitate every material. It’s essential to vacuum thoroughly afterward. Consider using a drill brush to save time and effort; choosing one with an appropriate stiffness for the material being cleaned is important. Too aggressive bristles can fray fabrics and scratch materials, while using a too-soft brush will increase your cleaning time. I use both soft white and medium-stiffness yellow brushes. Choose the least aggressive option that is effective for cleaning the material.
  3. To remove pet hair, use silicone brushes and a pumice stone. While the pumice stone works quickly to remove hair from carpets, it can damage delicate fabrics used for seats. For these fabrics, it is best to use silicone tools.
  4. For cigarette smoke smells, it is crucial to vacuum as much ash as possible before moving on to the next step. Use a brush to agitate the ash, making it easier to vacuum.
  5. Make sure to vacuum throughout the cleaning process, as new dirt is loosened and dislodged.


Vacuum cleaner removing large debris to eliminate odors
Before moving onto more intensive cleaning, vacuum as much large debris as possible
tools used for removing pet hair and odors
Items left to right: Tornador Blow Gun, Pumice Stone, Silicone Hair Tool, Drill Brush Stiff, Drill Brush Soft

Protect Yourself While Vacuuming

When vacuuming, it is important to consider using a face mask or respirator to protect yourself, depending on what you are cleaning up. For most jobs, a simple cloth mask is suitable and comfortable to wear. However, if you are dealing with mold or mildew, it is best to use a respirator that can filter small particles for additional protection. Vacuuming can stir up a lot of dirt and debris, which can be harmful if inhaled. By using a mask, you can feel safe and concentrate on cleaning instead of worrying about your well-being.

employee wearing face mask for protection
Wear a face make to protect yourself while removing car’s odors

Plastics and Hard Surfaces

Cleaning Plastics and Hard Surfaces

Here’s how you can get rid of odors from hard surfaces: first, wipe down the interior with an all-purpose cleaning solution. Since hard surfaces are non-porous, the odors sit on the surface instead of penetrating them. Once they’re clean, these surfaces should be odor-free. If you prefer, you can make your own solution by mixing water, white liquid detergent, and vinegar.

Say goodbye to harsh chemicals and use this homemade, eco-friendly all-purpose cleaning solution instead.

To effectively eliminate odors, focus on areas where they are strongest, like the seats (if not upholstered) and places with high hand traffic, such as the steering wheel, knobs, and control buttons. Rubber cup holders and other inserts can be scrubbed with an all-purpose cleaner or placed on the top rack of your dishwasher. Any sticky messes, especially those with dairy, like coffee creamer, should be removed as they tend to produce a terrible smell. Cleaning grimy areas can be a bit challenging and time-consuming, but there are cleaning products that can make the job easier and faster.


brush cleaning textured plastic
A soft-bristled brush is a safe cleaning tool for plastics
Abrasive scratch-free pad cleaning plastic
For more stubborn dirt and stains, try using a more abrasive cleaning pad

Protect Your Car Seats from Dirt, Hair, and Odors

As a pet parent, you understand how challenging it can be to maintain a clean car. Accumulation of dirt, hair, and odors can happen in no time, leaving your car with an unpleasant look and smell. Fortunately, there are a few effortless ways to safeguard your car seats and keep your car fresh.

One of the most efficient approaches to protecting your car seats is using a kick mat or a pet seat cover. These mats are specifically designed to shield your seats from dirt, hair, and odors. The installation is easy, and you can remove and wash them as required, making them an excellent investment for every car owner.

Apart from using a kick mat or pet seat cover, it’s also crucial to frequently bathe your pets. That helps in reducing the amount of hair and dirt they shed in your car. By taking these simple measures, you can protect your car seats from dirt, hair, and odors, and maintain the great look and smell of your car for years to come.

Hot Water Extraction

What is Hot Water Extraction

Hot water extraction is a technique that effectively removes tough odors from upholstered surfaces in your car, such as seats, armrests, and headliners. This process involves using a carpet cleaning machine that flushes hot water through the fabric while simultaneously extracting dirty water back into the machine. The machine uses a cleaning solution designed to break down and eliminate the source of the odor. This process ensures a deep clean of the fabric by removing all odor-causing particles.

The Bissell SpotClean Pet Pro™ is a portable option that delivers professional-level results when paired with a pre-treatment and a bit of elbow grease. After hot water extraction, completely drying the interior is critical to prevent mold and mildew growth.

How to Hot Water Extract

  1. Begin by vacuuming the seats and carpeting thoroughly to remove any loose debris.
  2. Pre-treat the soiled or stained areas.
  3. Fill the carpet cleaning machine with hot water and the appropriate cleaning solution. I only use hot distilled or DI(deionized) water in my machine because it maximizes the tool’s longevity and efficiency.
  4. Starting at the top of the seat, apply the cleaning solution to the fabric and use the machine to extract the dirty water back into the machine. Continue this process until the entire seat has been cleaned.
  5. Use a dry towel to blot any excess water from the surface of the seat.


hot water extraction stain removal
Hot water extraction is a must for tough stains and grime

For an on-the-go solution that you can keep in your vehicle for emergencies, try the Bissell Pet Stain Eraser Plus Portable Deep Cleaner. This handy device can clean up multiple spills on a single battery charge and is built to last for years.


After hot water extraction, drying the car quickly and completely is crucial to avoid mold and mildew growth. Use high-powered fans, the sun, and your car’s heating system to speed up the process. A dehumidifier can also help, but it’s only sometimes necessary. These tools remove moisture from the car’s interior, reducing the risk of mold and mildew growth. Neglecting this step is always bad news.

fans drying carpet after removing car odors
Using fans dramatically reduces drying times

If high-powered fans are unavailable, use a clean, dry microfiber towel to remove excess water from the seats and carpeting. Then, turn on the car heater and park in a sunny location. Set the fan to maximum and direct it towards the feet. On sunny days the car can dry in as little as an hour, but it can take several hours on cloudy, cold, or humid days. A dehumidifier is helpful in such cases. Do not operate the car in an enclosed space because exhaust fumes can accumulate and pose a severe danger.

“Don’t Let Your Car Fall Victim to Mildew: The Ultimate Guide to Fast-Drying Techniques”

Vomit/Bodily Fluids

Cleaning up vomit is an unpleasant task that many parents and pet owners may have to face. Even ride-share drivers may encounter this situation. In such cases, I recommend wearing gloves and a mask to avoid any discomfort while cleaning a messy and unpleasant situation. The approach you take to clean up the vomit will depend on its location, and I can provide guidance on the best methods.

Vomit on Hard Plastics and Trim

First, remove any visible debris from hard plastics and trim using a paper towel or rag. Paper towels are ideal for large pieces as they can be easily disposed of. Next, use an all-purpose cleaner to wipe down the surface. For textured surfaces, use a soft-bristled brush to scrub the cleaner into these areas. Don’t forget to pay special attention to adjoining gaps. If you have compressed air, it can be used to dislodge debris from hard-to-reach areas. When cleaning up vomit, it’s best to use enzyme soaps as they are formulated to eliminate organic odors. Once the cleaning is done, wipe the area with a damp microfiber cloth and then dry it with another microfiber cloth.

brush cleaning shift selector to help eliminate car odors
Switch through all the gears to fully clean the selector

Expert Tip: In a pinch, a can of compressed air designed to clean electronics is helpful for cleaning tight spaces you otherwise couldn’t reach.

Vomit on Upholstery and Cloth

To clean vomit from your upholstery, use a shop vac to remove the larger pieces. The shop vac will do most of the work if the vomit is fresh and moist. However, if it has had time to dry, you will need to use liquid cleaners to break it up and then mop it away with a microfiber towel. After removing the bulk of the vomit, saturate the area with a bio-cleanser or enzyme cleaner to eliminate the organic material causing the odor. Use a wet vac or a damp towel to remove the cleaner from the fabric. For larger messes, hot water extraction may be necessary.

Leather Seats and Leather Trim

Cleaning up vomit on leather can be challenging, as it can seep into the crevices and threads of the leather and penetrate perforations in the leather seats. First, use a leather-safe brush and an all-purpose cleaner (APC) to lather up the stitching, then vacuum up the lather. Repeat this process as necessary. Cleaning perforations can be especially difficult if a large amount of material is trapped inside. The best way to clean them is to lightly saturate the area, lather, and then extract using a vacuum. If visible debris remains, use thin tweezers to reach into the perforations, but be careful not to stretch the holes. This process requires patience, but it’s essential to be thorough.

clean seat crevices and stitching to remove vomit and eliminate car odors
Make sure to clean all crevices in leather seats. You will have to spread the seat to reach these areas

After cleaning, you will most likely need hot water extraction to thoroughly flush away any remaining vomit. Additionally, an odor removal treatment may be necessary.

Removing Cigarette Smoke Smells From Your Car

There are several reasons why one might want to remove cigarette smoke smell from a car, including:

  • Purchasing a used car that smells of cigarette smoke and wanting to eliminate the odor.
  • Former smokers wanting to remove the smell from their cars to stay smoke-free.
  • Sellers wanting to improve the resale value of a car previously owned by a smoker.
  • Non-smokers who share a car with a smoker.
  • Renters wanting to remove the smell before returning the car.
  • Ride-share drivers that want to remove the smell between passengers.

Why Cigarette Smoke Odors are Hazardous

Cigarette smoke contains harmful chemicals that can cause various health problems if inhaled by passengers. Even after the cigarette has been put out, these chemicals can linger in the car’s upholstery, carpets, and on other surfaces. Additionally, the smell of cigarette smoke can be extremely unpleasant and make the car’s interior uncomfortable. Therefore, removing cigarette smoke smells from your vehicle is vital to ensure a safe and pleasant driving experience.

How to Remove Cigarette Smoke Odors

Removing cigarette smoke odors from your car is difficult but possible; follow these simple steps:

  1. First, vacuum the interior and wipe all hard surfaces, making sure to remove all ash.
  2. Next, thoroughly clean the entire interior using hot water extraction.
  3. Finish with an odor removal technique that I’ll get more into below.


Be sure to pay extra attention to the area where the smoker sat, as tar and nicotine tend to accumulate there, especially on the headliner. Take care when cleaning the headliner to avoid oversaturating or overheating the delicate material and causing the adhesive to fail. If you’re a ride-share driver, Ozium is a great solution to eliminate smoke odors left behind by passengers. If you’re renting a car, keep in mind that smoking is prohibited, and you’ll likely be charged a cleaning fee if you smoke in the car. Also, note that certain materials, such as leather seats, absorb cigarette smoke and pet odors more easily than cloth seats, so it’s best to choose materials more resistant to odors when buying a new car. If your car already has odor-absorbing materials, consider investing in seat covers or mats that can be easily removed and washed.

cleaning cigarette smoke and ash from the headliner is essential to eliminate the car's odors
Pay special attention to the visor and surrounding areas

Mold and Mildew Odor

What are Mold and Mildew?

Fungi like mold and mildew thrive in damp environments and can cause health issues and unpleasant odors. Poorly ventilated areas or those with high moisture levels are common breeding grounds. Mold is recognizable by its black or green patches, while mildew appears as a powdery white or gray substance. It’s vital to address these issues early on to prevent potential health risks for passengers, as complete removal becomes difficult once it has taken hold.

What are Mold and Mildew?

Why do I have mold or mildew?

Car owners may experience mold and mildew issues for various reasons. Flooding inside the car and a lack of prompt water removal can cause mold and mildew to grow. Additionally, storing a car in a humid environment, such as a garage with high humidity, can also promote mold and mildew growth. Lastly, if the car has a leak in the roof or windows, water can enter and create a moist environment that is conducive to mold and mildew growth.

How to Clean Mold and Mildew

If the interior is wet, begin by extracting as much water as possible using a wet vac and then mop up any remaining moisture with a microfiber towel. If the water is flood water, be sure to wear gloves and a face mask because the water is often very dirty and contaminated with environmental debris. Depending on how much water is pooled in the car, it can be helpful to open the drain plugs underneath the vehicle to allow the water to drain. After removing as much water as possible, pre-treat the affected area with an enzyme cleaner and flush with hot water to remove any remaining nasty water.

Remove Mildew Smell

Although there are enzymatic detergents designed for removing mildew odors, I have found them ineffective when used alone. To fully eliminate these odors, an odor-elimination step is necessary. One common cause of mildew odor is a dirty or clogged AC cabin filter. This filter purifies the air circulating through your car’s interior. A clogged filter can trap moisture and create a breeding ground for mold and mildew. To eliminate this odor, consult your car’s owner’s manual to locate the AC cabin filter and replace it if needed.

Techniques for Eliminating Odors in Your Car

After thoroughly cleaning your car’s interior, it’s time to eliminate any remaining odors. While many products on the market claim to be designed for this purpose, I don’t recommend using most of them, as they typically only mask the smell. The best method is to use products that have been proven to destroy the source of the odor, ensuring that it stays gone. I use two different techniques with great results.

Ozone Generator Treatment

My preferred method for eliminating bad smells is to use an ozone generator. It’s affordable and easy to use, with each treatment taking only about 20 minutes. The generator transforms oxygen (O2) into ozone (O3), which breaks down the odor-causing molecules and leaves only oxygen and water vapor. This process is called oxidation. It’s essential to use ozone generators with caution because high levels of ozone can be harmful to people and pets.

ozone generators help eliminate car odors
Using an ozone generator is an effective method for odor elimination

To use an ozone generator in your car:

  1. Place it in the middle of the vehicle with a soft towel on the center console and the generator on top.
  2. Turn on the car, open all the vents, turn on the AC to recirculate, and set the generator to run for 20 minutes.
  3. Remember to turn on the generator but wait to plug it in until you’ve left and shut the car doors, then safely plug it in from outside the car.
  4. Never use an ozone machine if anyone is nearby, and ensure the car’s interior is completely dry; otherwise, the fabric can be bleached.

An ozone generator is a useful tool that can also be used around your house. For more information on using ozone generators, check out our guide here.

Using Chlorine Dioxide to Eliminate Tough Odors

Chlorine dioxide is an effective solution for removing persistent odors from vehicles. The process is simple, and the materials needed, I recommend ODOR-CLO2, are readily available on Amazon for less than $40. This cost is a great value, considering its effectiveness, as 500 tablets are provided in a single purchase, providing enough chlorine for many applications. Each treatment only requires about 20-30 tablets, so the cost per treatment is just a few dollars, depending on the vehicle’s size.

Begin the treatment by, adding the tablets to 2oz of water in a cup or bowl. This will activate the tablets and start producing yellow chlorine dioxide gas, which will turn clear as the reaction completes. Larger vehicles such as vans, SUVs, and trucks require more tablets than smaller vehicles like coupes and sedans. For increased effectiveness, you can divide the treatment into two cups and place one in the front and the other in the cargo area. Let it sit for a few hours or up to 24-48 hours, depending on the severity and source of the odor.

It is important to note that chlorine dioxide gas can be harmful if inhaled in large amounts, so exit the vehicle immediately after starting the treatment.

Using chlorine dioxide gas to remove vehicle odors is a cost-effective and efficient solution. With the materials readily available at an affordable price, it is a practical approach to eliminate stubborn smells from your car. Be careful not to spill the chlorine bleach solution on any surface, as it can cause damage. If the odor persists, I recommend a second application of this method.


Ozone and chlorine dioxide treatments are two effective methods for eliminating tough odors from cars, but it’s important to use them cautiously and follow safety guidelines. Preventing bad odors from building up in your car is easier than removing them, and regular cleaning and vacuuming can help keep your car smelling fresh and clean.

Eliminating odors is one of the most challenging tasks that detailers handle on a daily basis. When the smell is contained in a specific area, the task can be straightforward, and it is often possible to completely eliminate the odor. However, reducing the odor to zero is a challenge when the problem is systemic and has been allowed to get out of control. If all of the steps have been followed, but a smell still persists, verify that the source of the odor has been removed, and then follow up with a second treatment of ODOR-CLO2.

Why You Shouldn’t Deodorize Your Own Car!

If you’re considering tackling your car’s odor problem by yourself, you might want to think twice. Here are some reasons why booking a professional interior cleaning service with odor removal is a better option:

  1. Time-saving: Cleaning a vehicle’s interior is time-consuming and requires a lot of effort, especially if you want to remove odors. By booking our service, you can save time and energy and focus on other important tasks.
  2. Professional expertise: Our team of experts has years of experience in vehicle cleaning. Using the latest technology and products we are equipped with the knowledge and skills to clean your vehicle thoroughly and efficiently.
  3. Thorough cleaning: Our cleaning process involves thoroughly cleaning every nook and cranny in your vehicle’s interior, including hard-to-reach areas you might miss. We also use specialized equipment to remove any odors, leaving your vehicle smelling fresh and clean.
  4. Cost-effective: While cleaning your vehicle yourself seems cost-effective, it often costs you more in the long run. You probably do not have the necessary equipment or products, so you’ll have to buy them. Additionally, you’ll have to pay for repairs if you damage any part of your vehicle during the cleaning process.
  5. Peace of mind: By booking with Clean My Car BCS, you can rest assured that your vehicle is in good hands. We take pride in our work and guarantee customer satisfaction.

Don’t take on the challenge of cleaning your vehicle’s interior by yourself. Book our interior cleaning service with odor removal today and enjoy a clean, fresh-smelling vehicle!

schedule you interior cleaning service now
Book your detail today!

Tips for Preventing Bad Odors in Your Vehicle

Keeping your car smelling fresh and clean is easier than trying to remove bad odors. To help you maintain a pleasant driving experience, here are some tips:

  1. Avoid smoking or eating in your car to prevent unpleasant smells.
  2. Keep a lint roller in your car to remove pet hairs and prevent them from accumulating.
  3. Regularly clean and vacuum your car’s interior to prevent odor-causing debris from building up.
  4. Place humidity control packs under your car seats to absorb moisture and prevent foul smells.
  5. Park your car in a shaded area or use a window shade to prevent the interior from getting too hot, which can intensify odors.

By following these simple steps, you can remove and reduce unpleasant odors in your car, keeping it smelling fresh and clean and ensuring a safe environment for everyone. With a little effort, you can enjoy a pleasant driving experience every time you hit the road.

Related Articles

Michael Rivas


Detailing Specialist

Everyone eventually struggles with odors in their car. I’m hoping my ultimate guide will help you solve your car’s odor problems so you, your family, and your friends can enjoy drives in your car again!

Michael Rivas

My Personal Favorites