Get Rid of Those Bad Smells from Your Car

Something's not right inside your car and you know it. You can try to blame the funky smell in your car on neighborhood pranksters or maybe you've convinced yourself that it's temporary. It's more likely, however, that the odor originates from a combination of dirt, pets and stray food wrappers. Luckily, you have a number of options for getting rid of that car smell. You can:

  1. Send your kids to boarding school (pets too, for that matter)
  2. Invest in gas masks
  3. Roll up your sleeves and get to work

You probably want to keep your kids and pets around a while longer. And you should save your gas masks for a real emergency, like a zombie apocalypse. So, let's take a closer look at option three: roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Air Filter | Getty

Cabin air filter

When it comes to eliminating interior odors, the best place to start is the cabin air filter. The cabin filter is located inside the vehicle, usually on the passenger side, between the floor and the dash or glove box. The filter traps dust, mold, pollen, and other contaminants, and prevents them from entering the interior. Like any filter, it needs to be changed on a regular basis — every year or 12,000 to 15,000 miles. Changing your cabin air filter is simple. While you have your cabin air filter out, vacuum the filter compartment. You may be surprised at what you find.


Remove the floor mats — ten points to Gryffindor if you've installed rubber floor mats to protect your carpeting. Hose them off (maybe with a little scrub to release any sticky residue) and allow them to dry. To clean the floor mats that come standard with most vehicles, vacuum up excess debris, then scrub them gently with a mild detergent, hose them off and let them air dry. Next, sprinkle baking soda on the floor carpet to deodorize smells. Let it set for a few hours. Meanwhile, use an interior detail brush to pry out the remnants of last month's egg and cheese biscuit from the cup holder, seat creases and wherever else it might be hiding. Finally, give the entire interior, including seats, compartments and cup holders, a thorough vacuuming.


Cleaning your upholstered seats may be a little trickier than the floors. That's because sweat, soil and food stains on fabric can be difficult to treat if they've been left too long. A light sweep with a hand-held steam cleaner can make a big difference (same goes for the floors once you've vacuumed up any baking soda). You can also use some effective cleaning products designed to make your seats look like new. Follow the directions carefully for best results. To clean and protect leather upholstery, use a cleaning agent specific to that purpose. If you really want to keep your seats looking and smelling fresh, get yourself a set of seat protectors.

Odor eating options

If you car still doesn't have that new car smell, you can turn to car deodorizers. Decide if you want an air freshener that you spray, place in your vehicle’s vents, hang from a rear-view mirror or even a little tub of freshener that emits scents based on how much you open the lid. As far as scents go, the sky's the limit — "new car," cherry, outdoor breeze, rain, jasmine, vanilla and fresh linen. Or all of the above if you're not ready to give up on eating meals in your car. The choice is yours.

Have you had to banish a bad smell? Tell us about it and share a weird thing you've found when cleaning out your car. 

Last updated January 19, 2021