Car Advice

How to get rid of bad smells in cars

Smoking, water leaking onto carpet, or letting the kids eat and drink in your car can all cause it to stink. Here’s how to get rid of bad smells in cars.

LIKE ME, IF YOU’VE got kids you’ll know that trying to stop them from eating in the car is like stepping onto the beach and trying to hold back the tide. That said, my kids are good and I don’t let them drink milkshakes or eat anything that can spill or stain the inside of the car. It’s dry crumbly stuff only that can be easily vacuumed up… Although my son did once vomit in the car. That was a fun day. Not.

But, not everyone’s like that. I worked with a bloke whose car was literally a garbage tip. I was a junior writer at the time and was asked to go and clean his car (it was a long-termer and due to be returned to the manufacturer) and besides the stink, I found all sorts of stuff in the thing, and none of it nice. From half-eaten rusks smeared onto the windows, to what can only be described as mush, smeared into the seats and carpet. There were juice stains on the seats, take-away food wrappers on the floor and, wait for it, two soiled nappies in the boot. I kid you not.

Since then I’ve been in cars with water leaks that smelled of damp, cars belonging to smokers and cars of those who regularly buy take-away food and leave wrappers scrunched up on the floor in the car.

And, you know what all those cars had in common? They all had a little pine tree air freshener hanging from the rear vision mirror.

The good news is that smells can be gotten out of a car with a little bit of elbow grease. Here’s how to tackle smells in cars.

  1. Cars that smell like an ashtray: For a start, as Yul Brenner said, ‘Whatever you do, just don’t smoke’. It’s good advice, but I’m not going to get preachy. That said, nothing will ruin your car’s resale quicker than smoking inside it, a non-smoker won’t want to go near it, no matter what it is. Smokers might not notice, but the smell gets into everything.
    So, how do you get rid of stinky cigarette smoke from a car’s interior? The trick here is to plan to go to work on a nice, hot and windy day. Drop all the windows and let the car air out while you prepare a solution of 50:50 white vinegar and water… don’t use apple cider vinegar or anything other than white vinegar. Then, with your bucket of vinegar and water, dip a cloth in, wring it out and then wipe down every single surface of the car, including the dash and the seats. Let them dry and continue to air out. If you’ve been smoking in your car for a considerable period, it’s likely you’ll need to give the interior a good clean with vinegar and water a handful of times. Ask a non-smoker friend to take a sniff and tell you if they can still smell smoke.
  2. Takeaway smells in cars: If you eat on the run and use your car as a dining room then there’s a good chance it’s going to stink. And, if you’ve got kids who eat in the car and spill stuff regularly that doesn’t get immediately cleaned up, then that too is going to contribute to a pot-pourri aroma of yuck. Like getting rid of cigarette smoke, you need to stop the habit… meaning, no more eating in your car. Clean out the rubbish that’s in the car, and look under the seats for old chips that have fallen underneath them. Once you’ve cleaned out the car, on a hot sunny, windy day, open the car and let it air out. Once you’ve done that, like with cigarettes, mix up a solution of 50:50 white vinegar and water and give all the surfaces a good wipe. Don’t drench the carpets in the stuff, so make sure you wring out your cloth. And you might need to change the water regularly to avoid smearing dirt all over your car.
    If you’ve got dried on stains, you’re probably best off getting a stiff brush and carefully rubbing it on the stain (check that you’re not damaging the surface before getting too stuck in), once you’ve loosened it, get you vacuum and vacuum up the dust. And then use the vinegar and water solution to clean up what’s left.
  3. What about damp smells in the car? This is usually an issue for older cars where the sealing rubbers have started to perish allowing water to leak inside the car and onto the carpet. You’ll know what a damp smell is. If you can smell it in your car then, you should take your car into the mechanic and have them check all the seals on the car to see if they can identify quickly where the water might be leaking in from (if they do, get them replaced). After that, you’ll want to get rid of the smell… you can just call a car detailer, or you could go and hire a wet-and-dry vacuum suitable for use in cars, and then use that to clean the carpets and mats in the car. Most of these wet and dry vacuums will have a drying agent that you add to one of the tanks that will help to dry out the moisture from the carpet.
    The short story is, you want to extract the water that’s soaked into the carpet and caused it to stink, and a wet-and-dry vacuum will be the best way to do it. At the same time, you could also go and hire a commercial fan and use it to help blow air through the car and complete the drying process after you’ve cleaned the carpets.
  4. Muddy carpets: These aren’t smelly, but… Hopefully you’ve got mats in your car, meaning you’ve got a sacrificial layer between your feet and the car’s carpet. Having mats in your car, front and back, will ensure an easier clean-up of mud and dirt.
    The first thing is to remove the mats from your car and place them on a hard surface, like brick paving or a concrete driveway. Once you’ve laid out the mats, get a brush and scrub the dried-on mud. Once you’ve loosened it, use a vacuum to clean up the mess, and you may need to hire an industrial-strength vacuum. Be patient when vacuuming and keep going even when you think it looks clean as the mud and dirt can be worked deep into the carpet pile. If that doesn’t shift it, you can give the mats a clean with laundry powder made into a paste and applied to the stain. Let it sit for a few minutes and then rinse the mat clean. After that, get a pressure cleaner and spray the carpet mats. Then place the mats over outdoor chairs or a saw horse and leave them in the sun to fully dry before placing them back inside your car.

A short-term option when removing bad smells from your car could be to purchase an air freshener spray that allegedly clings to odours. Only it doesn’t. And all it does is mask the problem so don’t bother.

Find the best demonstrator car deals for Practical Motoring readers around Australia on our Live Deals website. 


  1. JaiNormosone
    February 25, 2017 at 8:44 am — Reply

    You didn’t go into a car where someone has died. Sure – not a nice topic but people sometimes expire and they are left for a time before they are found.
    That is a smell that cannot be removed… I think that even fire won’t get rid of it.
    I am sure that someone is going to bring up the term ‘Myth-Busters’ but I go on real-world experience rather than a couple of clowns on TV.

    • February 25, 2017 at 8:47 am — Reply

      Um, no, I didn’t. Sorry about that. I tried to stick with areas I had experience of. – Isaac

      • JaiNormosone
        February 26, 2017 at 10:59 am — Reply

        No worries. Wasn’t meant as an attack or anything… It was more for complete-ness (excuse non-word).

  2. 1250
    February 25, 2017 at 3:48 pm — Reply

    I had a bad smell in my car !!! But it was only when my bother was their !!!
    Remedy ,KEEP Brother away ,problem solved

    • amiaq
      March 10, 2017 at 10:42 am — Reply

      Well, well . well.. I used to pick my nose and rub on the steering wheel while my sister in passenger seat so she won’t use my car?

  3. Doug Mullett
    March 29, 2017 at 9:23 pm — Reply

    Smoke smell will return every warm to hot day, no matter what you do. Easiest solution? Don’t smoke in the car.

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Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober