Three children eat ice cream in the boot of a car while a dog looks on.
News and tips

How to get rid of odours in your car

Whether you have a dog that loves rolling in things it shouldn’t or a child that decided to paint your cabin with milk – here are the best ways to rid your vehicle of lingering, unpleasant odours.

By Shell on May 17, 2022

In a famous episode of 1990s sitcom Seinfeld, the protagonist's car is sullied by a smell so bad and so impossible to banish he feels he has no other choice but to literally gift the vehicle to the nearest street thug – who immediately discovers he can't bear more than a few seconds behind the wheel of it either.

Even if yours doesn't smell that bad, a foul-smelling car is a problem you want to solve without delay, both for your own dignity and that of your passengers. You might be tempted to buy an air freshner, but that will only mask an odour – not eliminate it. So how do you get your car smelling as fresh as the proverbial daisy? Here are some handy tips.

Do a thorough clean first

A bad smell is often simply the result of some bit of general junk or gunk accumulating and going bad, so a full cabin clean-down should be your best first step.

Empty your cabin of everything, not just rubbish but floor mats and the contents of any storage bins and spaces. Then give it a rigorous vacuum, including hard-to-reach spots, cupholders, storage bins and other nooks and crannies, before wiping down all hard surfaces. Don't forget to shake down and vacuum your floor mats.

If you're lucky and that smell was the result of, say, a bit of food that had fallen between the seats, you might be able to stop here and get on with your life.

Dealing with spills

If you're not so lucky, the source of a bad smell could be a recent wet spill – or, depending on the substance, smear – onto carpet or upholstery that wasn't cleaned, either properly or at all.

Even if you can't recall any spills, do a sniff test of all soft trims to count out an unknown issue the kids or pets might not have told you about.

If an area smells funny, you'll need to clean it with either a targeted retail cleaning product, a car steam cleaner, or a home-spun fabric-cleaning solution such as a 50:50 mix of white vinegar and water or by sprinkling baking soda onto the wetted stain, letting it dry and then vacuuming it up. Keep cleaning until the smell is gone.

Water, leaks and mildew

If water has got into your carpet or other trim and stayed damp, a musty odour will inevitably arise. If not left to the point where the material in question actually starts rotting, the smell is relatively easy to banish – you just need to let things dry out. Waiting for a warm, windy day and then dropping your windows, opening your doors and leaving your car to air for a good stint is one option. For more localised wet patches, a hair dryer can work.

The smoker's car

Inherited or purchased a car with that lingering smoke smell? It’s likely caused by a build up of tar on the car’s surfaces and upholstery, and the only way to get rid of it is to get rid of the tar. That means wiping down or cleaning cabin surfaces – including fabrics – with an appropriate retail cleaner or 50:50 white-vinegar/water mix, then leaving to air dry. Remember, smoke gets into everything, so you'll need to attack every surface you can see or reach for maximum success.

How to deal with mystery smells

You've tried everything but your car still smells. What now?

Leaving a cup of vinegar to evaporate in your car overnight – being careful not to let any undiluted vinegar touch your cabin surfaces as it can damage them – is one option.

Alternatively, or additionally, try the same overnight-leaving process with a bag of charcoal – a substance famous for its ability to soak up bad smells. If one night isn't enough, try two. Sprinkling bicarb soda over carpets and upholstery then vacumming should deal with a range of culprits, too.

Viva Energy Australia Pty Ltd (“Viva Energy”) has compiled the above article for your general information and to use as a general reference. Whilst all reasonable care has been taken by Viva Energy in compiling this article, Viva Energy does not warrant or represent that the information in the article is free from errors or omissions or is suitable for your intended use.