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How To Get Rid of Bad Interior Car Odors and Smells

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Does your car interior smell bad? Perhaps you’re wondering why it does and how to get back to it being fresh again. Here are a few reasons why that might be so and what to do about it.

Causes of a stinky car cabin

Let’s go through the obvious stuff first. If you’ve not cleaned your car’s cabin for a long while, naturally, it will start to gather dust and grime. The more regularly you drive your vehicle, the dustier it’ll be.

Even if you wipe the dash and center console over, it’s the hidden stuff that creates the musty smell; crumbs from food down the side of the seats and center console which then go rotten, perhaps coffee that was spilled and never cleaned properly – the milk in it then sours. Then there’s the stuff you’ve trodden onto your mats from the street walking to your car; chewing gum, traces of dog dirt, spilled food, etc., and there’s also the mess under the mats you rarely see. Whether you have leather or fabric seats in your car, they still get dirty, and after you’ve been sat on benches, restaurant chairs, or perhaps a wall, that’s then transferred to your vehicle’s seats. Over time this builds layers, and even if you can’t see them, it’s still there, and just like clothing, if you don’t clean them, they get smelly. We’ll tackle cleaning seats properly in another article. Another stinky area is the boot (or trunk) of the car. This is a heavy-use area, and especially so if you have a family. Just think of the stuff that gets goes in there; your dog after a walk, sweaty sports shoes, food from shopping, all the old stuff from a trip to the landfill site, drinks bottles, and cartons that may have spilled their contents at one time. I find it hilarious that people will keep their houses and the exterior of their car immaculate, but then you get in their car and you may as well by sitting in a rubbish tip; litter on the floor, crumbs in the footwells, thick dust on all the surfaces and smeared windows. It’s not exactly going to smell of roses now. Oh, and that chemical-soaked scent thing you’ve got hanging from your rearview mirror – that’s only lightly masking the stink. It all adds up to a car interior that ends up smelling a bit like an unwashed sock. So, what’s the answer to ridding your car of unwanted smells?

Here’s how to rid of bad smells from your car’s interior

First off: clean the damn thing regularly! It may seem obvious, but most of us are guilty of leaving it for months on end before giving our car’s cabin a good clean. I’ll tackle how to do this fully in another article, but the basics of cleaning are:

  • Vacuum the interior fully every month, more often if the car is used heavily. Get into all the areas you don’t see, as they often harbor the heaviest build-up of grime. Here’s a list of stuff to vacuum, and it should take around 20 minutes.
  • Start with the boot/trunk. Empty and throw out all the old litter and stuff stagnating in there. If possible, take out the boot carpet to do a better job.
  • Next, vacuum the seats. Even if they’re leather, stuff still gets down the back of them, so do those areas.
  • Get that long nozzle they include with the vacuum, and poke it down the sides of the seats neat to the center console and door. Remember to do the armrest compartment and door pockets, too.
  • Take the mats out of the car and give them a thorough vacuum, as they are always the worst area. If needed, take a stiff-bristled yard brush and go over the first to lift out the ingrained dust.
  • Vacuum the carpets and then underneath the seats. Slide the front seats back to get underneath them properly, and then slide them fully forward when doing the rear carpet area.

Cleaning car seats

Briefly – as I’ll cover this in another article – leather or fabric, your seats need a good clean every so often. If you can’t take the car to a detailing shop to have them done, there are many products out there to do the job yourself. If you have filthy fabric seats, though, and you’ve not got a wet & dry vacuum, I recommend using a detailer to do the job.

There are plenty of products available to clean both leather and fabric seats, and you’ll often find these are nicely scented too.

How to get rid of more permanent bad odors in your car

Bad smells or odors in a car can be easy or hard to shift. Sometimes, a thorough clean of the car will freshen things up, and there might not be a problem. If you’ve cleaned it and want something to keep the interior smelling nice, I’d recommend using a good quality air freshener. If you’re using a spray, take out the mats and spray those, spray the carpets they sit on, under the seats, and in the boot/trunk.

However, some smells may be more stubborn or permanent. This could be from spilled milk or food that’s now ingrained into the fibers of the carpets and seats, or perhaps water that has leaked into the vehicle in the past from seals that have failed. For these sorts of problems, there are some brilliant products out there that kill the bacteria permanently. Hopefully, after you’ve done the above, you’ll have a car interior that’s clean and fresh as new!

Written by Chris Davies – an award-winning motoring journalist writing for

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