Unstink Your Ride

By Catherine McNulty

February 2, 2012 5 min read

If you're like most Americans, you spend a significant portion of your day in your car. Your car is more than just a way to get from point A to point B; it is an extension of yourself. Yes, it's transportation, but it's also your living room, your office, your dining room, your karaoke stage and maybe even your confessional. So what do you do when it stinks?

Car odors -- be they mysterious or source known -- are unpleasant. No one wants his ride to smell bad, but no one wants it to smell like a cardboard pine tree, either. And how you fight the odor depends entirely on what's causing it.

Let's start off easy: If your car smells stale and is messy, clean it! Get any trash out of there, remove the floor mats, vacuum, and wipe down all the surfaces. Make sure you clean under the seats, as well. Or better yet, remove them for easier access. If you have a car seat, remove it; kids are notorious for making messes, and those messes will start to smell.

How can you keep the car from smelling stale again? Drive around a bit with the windows down to let the car air out. Try not to eat in your car, but if you have to, keep a designated bag for trash, and remove it promptly. And don't waste $1.99 at the gas station on the tacky pine-scented trees. Spring for an atomizer, or discreetly place a satchel of dried herbs in the car.

If the odor is more pervasive, then more dramatic action needs to be taken. First you need to figure out what is causing the odor, and then you can fight it. Different sources create different odors. For example, if it smells as if something died in your car, it's possible something did. Mice have been known to nest in engines and meet untimely ends. To get rid of that smell, you may need to enlist the aid of a mechanic and get some serious deodorizers.

Mildewy or moldy smells can be a tip-off that outside moisture is leaking into your car -- or that you left your windows open on a rainy day. First, if there's a leak, fix it! Find the mold or mildew, and clean it up using a disinfectant. Disinfectants work by killing the mold or mildew and stopping it from spreading.

What if you know exactly why your car stinks? For example, say you routinely take your dogs to the park or you smoke in it or your sick kid wasn't faking it. The good news is that when you know the source of olfactory offensiveness, it's easier to fight. The bad news is that timing is of the essence. The sooner you combat it the easier it is to get rid of.

For the smoking and dog smell, the key is prevention. Keeping your car clean is half the battle. Vacuum thoroughly after the dogs have been in your car, and get in all the cracks and hard-to-reach places. Consider putting down sheets or towels for the dogs so they aren't directly on the seats. Use an odor eliminator such as Febreze to keep the air smelling fresh.

Cigarette smoke permeates everything, and the smell is much harder to get rid of. There are certain preventive measures that will help -- don't let the butts accumulate in the car; throw them out after every ride -- but even keeping the windows cracked won't be enough to entirely get rid of the smell.

If you do need to completely kill the smell of cigarette smoke, you should get the car detailed professionally. If that is too expensive, sprinkle baking soda in the car, wait a few hours and then vacuum. Bowls filled with a vinegar and water solution left overnight have also been known to clear the air. Just don't forget to remove them before you start your morning commute!

Finally, for vomit, urine or any other bodily fluid, clean it up as soon as possible. Vomit especially can be damaging if left, as stomach acids can ruin upholstery. But even if you clean it up immediately, the odor can linger unpleasantly. There are plenty of "home remedies" that have been used to eliminate the odor of vomit, but nothing works quite as well as cleaning quickly and thoroughly and then using a deodorizer.

There's no reason to endure a bad odor in your car. Keep it clean, and breathe easy on your commute.

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