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Ask Mechanic Shop Femme: How Do I Get Rid of a Bad Odor in My Car?

Mechanic Shop FemmeChaya Milchtein is an automotive educator, writer, and speaker. She'll be here every other week answering all your car questions. Need to know what engine oil you need? She's got you covered. Wondering what gas your car really needs? She has an answer. Let's untangle cars together.

Whether your car smells musty from sitting for a while, or you have an unexpected strong odor, there are a number of ways to deodorize and wipe out the smell. Some odors might be simple to remove, others may take a little more effort. If you have the lingering odor of cigarettes or marijuana, though, these tips may help, probably won’t totally eliminate the stench.

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Change Your Cabin Filter

Bosch Automotive Cabin Air Filter | $25 | Amazon
Bosch Automotive Cabin Air Filter | $25 | Amazon
Graphic: Gabe Carey

Every time you turn on the A/C, heat, or fan in your car, the air gets filtered through the cabin filter before being pumped into the car. This picks out dust, allergens, dirt, and debris, leaving the air you breathe clean.

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However, without regularly changing the cabin filter, all of that builds up in the filter and traps stale odors, causing you to inadvertently blow them right into the car when you just want some air. Luckily, cabin filters aren’t very expensive and are located behind the glove box in most cars. If you like to tackle small car projects yourself, this is one that you can safely do without too much trouble.

Blow Out the Air Intake Vents

Gooloo Car Vacuum | $34 | Amazon
Armor All Car Air Freshener and Cleaner | $5 | Amazon
Funny Tool Mini Duster | $9 | Amazon
Gooloo Car Vacuum | $34 | Amazon
Armor All Car Air Freshener and Cleaner | $5 | Amazon
Funny Tool Mini Duster | $9 | Amazon
Image: Armor All

Right in front of your car’s windshield is a long line of air vents. When you turn on the blower and ask for fresh air, the air gets sucked into the car through these vents. Due to the open nature of the vents, other things like leaves and debris build-up, sometimes causing a foul odor.

A portable vacuum cleaner can help you remove all the debris build-up. Use a handy air vent cleaner tool to wipe down and dust the inside vents. Next, use a car air cleaner like this Armor All one as directed to spray into the vents and eliminate the odors.

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Shampoo Your Seats and Carpets

Chemical Guys Foaming Citrus Shampoo | $10 | Amazon
Chemical Guys Foaming Citrus Shampoo | $10 | Amazon
Image: Chemical Guys
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If you eat in your car, have kids, or just spilled your morning latte, it’s possible that your carpet and seats are carrying those funky stenches. Taking the time to shampoo the upholstery and really get out the caked in dirt, sweat, grime, and odors will help your car feel fresh and clean and smell better. Using Chemical Guys you can do it yourself (and detail the rest of your car while you’re at it!), or you can take it to a local detail shop for a professional detail job.

Bag Away the Odor

Bamboo Charcoal Air Purifying Bag | $23 | Amazon
Bamboo Charcoal Air Purifying Bag | $23 | Amazon
Image: Bamboo
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Finally, get yourself an odor eliminator/absorber. Your car is a small space, and can feel stuffy or musty at times. This Bamboo charcoal air purifier helps absorb all the odors in your can while not adding a strong fragrance to it. Since these odor eliminators are made from charcoal, it can be used for years so it’s quite economical. You only need one to do the job in your car and the rest can be used anywhere in your home.

If Nothing Works

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If nothing works, it’s possible that there is a mechanical or other reason for the odor. I’ve seen squirrel and mice carcasses lodged into under-car suspension parts or the engine bay. You could have a bad catalytic converter, a fuel or coolant leak, amongst other problems. Simply use your best judgment, clean your car, and then get it checked out if it doesn’t go away.


Chaya Milchtein is an automotive educator, writer and speaker who's made it her mission empower the average driver. She believes that anything is possible and can be done on your own terms.

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