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How to get rid of bad car interior odours

by Neil Allen /

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

car interior

Even if you give the dash and centre console a wipe over, it’s the hidden stuff that create the musty smell; crumbs from food down the side of the seats and centre console which then go rotten, perhaps coffee that was spilt 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, spilt 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 spilt their contents at one time.

I find it absolutely 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, is it? Oh, and that chemical-soaked scent thing you’ve got hanging from your rear view 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

Carrera front 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 harbour 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 in order 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 centre 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 them first in order to lift out the ingrained dust.
  • Vacuum the carpets, and then underneath the seats. Slide the front seats all the way 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 valeter to have them done, there are lots of products out there to do the job yourself. If you have really dirty fabric seats though, and you’ve not got a wet & dry vacuum, I recommend using a detailer or valeter to do the job.

Porsche front seats

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 odours in your car

Bad smells or odours 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 hanging air freshener like this or this, or a compressed air freshener spray like this one.

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.

Lexus tan interior

However, some smells may be more stubborn or permanent. This could be from spilt milk or food that’s now ingrained into the fibres 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, such as Valet Pro Enzyme Odour Eater, Autoglym Odour Eliminator, Odor Aid and ones such as these.

Hopefully, after you’ve done the above, you’ll have a car interior that’s clean and fresh as new!

Photo credits: Dirty interior, Michael Theis; Clean Porsche car seats (2 photos) Bryn Pinzgauer; Really clean car interior – 2012 Lexus RX270 interior, NRMA Motoring and Services;

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

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