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posted on April 10th, 2018

Say goodbye to smoke, finally

Of all the offensive odors that like to linger in your car, cigarette smoke is perhaps the most stubborn to get rid of. The smell may not bother regular smokers, but anyone else hopping into a smoky car for the first time will immediately notice.

If you’re sharing your car or trying to sell it, the stench of perma-smoke could cause headaches. Guests are prohibited from smoking in any vehicle on the Turo marketplace and could face fines for violating the non-smoking policy. Many Turo hosts proactively remind guests of the potential consequences to minimize the chances of a smoking incident, and guests can decline a car and receive a full refund if the car smells like smoke. All the more reason to clean that interior!

The easiest way to get rid of lingering smoke is to take your car to a professional detailer, where they can use steam cleaning or other treatments that require equipment that you likely don’t have. However, there are plenty of effective methods you can try at home if you’re determined to clear out smoke odor without forking over the cash for someone else to do it.

To help you in your quest, we’ve put together a guide for eliminating strong odors baked into your car’s interior. In the past we’ve discussed some quick and easy methods for keeping your car clean, but sometimes you need to call the cavalry and go to war on some stank. Try combining a few of these techniques to say goodbye to smoke odor once and for all.

1. Start with a clean slate

Before using any serious odor-eliminating products, it’s important to clean every surface of your car’s interior so you can get the best bang for your buck. Start your de-smoking process by following these simple steps to thoroughly clean your car’s cabin. This will give you a good idea of just how much farther you have to go to appease your protesting nose.

  1. Begin by removing everything in your car, as clothes or other belongings absorb a lot of odor.
  2. Take out the floor mats. Vacuum them if they’re carpeted, or wipe them with a surface cleaner if they’re rubber. Then leave them to air out in the sun for a little while.
  3. Vacuum the carpet, seats, and headliner. A shop vac is preferable, but a handheld dustbuster can get the job done.

2. Wash interior surfaces

Once dirt and debris are removed, you can simplify the task of cleaning your car’s upholstery by using an all-purpose cleaner. There are plenty of options at any price point available just about anywhere. Or you can use products meant for specific materials like glass or leather, but make sure you read labels first to avoid damaging any surfaces.

  1. Wipe down the windows, dashboard, center console, and any other hard surfaces with your preferred surface cleaner.
  2. Use an upholstery cleaner or shampoo for your seats, carpets, and headliner. Work the product in with an appropriate scrub brush (mixed with water, if called for), then towel dry.
  3. Pull the seatbelts all the way out and wipe them down with a damp rag.

3. Baking Soda

An easy method for DIY smell removal is to use baking soda to absorb odor molecules. You can substitute baking soda with coffee grounds, activated charcoal, or a bowl of white vinegar. These products all soak up odor, so once you remove them from your car, you remove the smell.

  1. Make sure all surfaces are cleaned, vacuumed, and completely dry.
  2. Sprinkle baking soda on the seats and carpet, or place a cup of vinegar in a cup holder.
  3. Leave it in overnight, or at least for a few hours. Then vacuum up the baking soda or remove the vinegar.

4. Neutralize duct system

It’s impossible to clean all your car’s air ducts and tubes without pulling everything apart. But you can still address the tarry cigarette residue that may be chilling in the pipes by spraying odor neutralizer into your car’s air intake. You can grab a spray odor neutralizer like Meguiar’s Odor Eliminator online or at any auto parts shop.

  1. With the windows open, put the AC on full blast, on its coldest setting. Set it so the air pipes through as many vents as possible, including the windshield defroster. Make sure that air recirculation is turned off.
  2. Locate your car’s air intake. The vents are usually located by the wiper blades, but go ahead and consult the handy-dandy interwebs if you’re unsure.
  3. Spray the odor neutralizer directly into the exterior vents of the air intake system. Continue this for a few minutes or until you notice the smell reducing.
  4. Repeat, but with the heat all the way up.

5. Replace cabin air filter

Air filters pull dust and particles out of the air, and as a result they trap residue and odor. Even if you’ve cleaned all your car’s surfaces, a dirty air filter can pump smell back into your cabin once you turn on the AC. This is a cheap and easy task to do yourself — don’t let quick oil change shops overcharge you for something that takes five minutes to do.

  1. You can buy a new cabin air filter at any auto parts shop for around twenty bucks. Make sure it fits your model and year.
  2. Most cabin air filters can be accessed through or under the glovebox — Google is your friend here. No special tools should be needed to remove the panel that hides the air filter. Most cars have pull-away plastic tabs or screws that are easily unfastened with a screwdriver.
  3. Remove the old filter, toss it, and replace it with the new one. Snap the interior panels back on and you’re done.

6. Chemical odor bomb

Odor bombs are a very effective and cost-efficient method for tackling smoke or any smell. They release a chemical vapor into the cabin that destroys the molecules that carry foul odor instead of covering them up. Odor bomb cartridges are single-use but most are fairly cheap — Dakota makes a popular odor bomb that costs around ten dollars.

Most odor bombs require a similar procedure, but be sure to follow the instructions on your specific product. You’ll likely close up the windows and leave the odor bomb in your car for a number of hours. Then roll down the windows and flush the air ducts by turning the AC on full blast.

7. Ozone treatment

This is the nuclear option and should be put off until all other methods have been exhausted. Ozone treatment is the most powerful tool for eliminating odor and is better left to the pros, but you can rent an ozone generator and have a go yourself if you have experience around hazardous materials.

Ozone generators use ultraviolet radiation to break down O2 molecules into single oxygen atoms, which then bond with other O2 molecules to create O3 (ozone). Ozone is unstable and will send an oxygen atom to bond with another molecule, one that might carry odor. This process repeats over and over, eliminating odor by altering the chemical structure of odor-carrying molecules.

Ozone is hazardous to your health in large enough quantities, so ozone treatment must be done in unoccupied areas with plenty of space, i.e. not your garage. It can also temporarily leave its own smell behind and permanently damage interior leather and rubber. So, although this is the most effective method for eliminating odor, we recommend leaving ozone treatment to professional detailers.

8. Air fresheners

Once you’ve done some real cleaning and your nose is satisfied with your work, then you can throw an air freshener in your car. A pleasant air freshener could go the final few inches in saying goodbye to bad smells, but remember that it only masks odor, and only temporarily.

9. Add-on air filters

There are a number of air-cleaning accessories for your car that you can plug in and forget about. Small air filters, diffusers, or humidifiers simply plug into a cigarette outlet or USB port and go to town. These are good for continually cleaning the air in your car’s cabin, but are not a complete solution to busting the smell of smoke.

For a DIY approach to continual air filtration, leave dryer sheets or an opened box of baking soda under your seats as you drive around. Just remember to replace them every once in a while.

Steven is an avid car guy and editorial assistant at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.