Unpleasant or musty smells in cars make driving an awful experience. The good news is that many car smells can be removed through DIY techniques such as placing baking soda in a car or using vinegar. Only rarely will car odors require professional help.

Most common sources of car odors

Foul odors in car seats come from many different sources, but the most common are cigarette smoke, pet odors, mildew, and spilled food and drink. You might also smell odors coming from the engine, indicating potential mechanical problems.

Another source of odor is the air conditioner. It takes in air from both outside and inside the car, often near the floor mats. If your floor mats are damp or a mildew smell comes from wet carpets in your car, it can affect the odor of the entire vehicle. An easy fix for this is to clean the source of the scent and change the cabin air filter in your air conditioning system. Learn more about car smells and what they mean.

How to remove odors from cars

There are many different approaches to getting rid of smells. According to Matthew Hart, owner of AxleWise, the first thing you should try is “cleaning the upholstery first with baking soda, vinegar, or club soda mixed with a bit of dishwashing soap. I would then follow that by wiping down with a mixture of distilled white vinegar and fabric cleaner if possible.”

Hart suggests, “You may want to open windows at times during both procedures to remove excess vapors from the car’s interior. Finally, if the problem persists, you can use an ozone generator either at a service station or a rental store to clear any remaining odors that could be pretty strong if not dealt with properly.”

If your efforts to deodorize your car fail, the problem might require more detailed cleaning. According to Patrick McCann of WeTryTires, “Lingering smells that won’t disappear by themselves usually indicate that the cause of the odor is deep within the fabrics or the carpet of your vehicle. The only real solution is to use a wet and dry vacuum to deep clean and bring up all the dirt that is causing the odor.”

If you don’t have a wet/dry vacuum to deep clean your car, you can rent one from a hardware shop. Most car odors won’t require professional cleaning, but some situations might go beyond what you can do on your own.

Moldy smells in cars that happen when the air conditioner is running can be caused by mold buildup within the system. According to Fidel Lerma, business manager of EBA Automotive Repair, “This will likely require a repair shop to treat it with an anti-mildew cleaner.” Lerma goes on to say, “Rotting odors can be caused when mice get into the car when it is parked for a long time. Sometimes the rodents end up dying in the car, with a powerful stench that’s difficult to remove. The source has to be found, which may require serious detective work and even disassembling the dashboard, if necessary. A thorough cleaning may still require an ozone generator treatment to follow.”

When to seek a mechanic

You may need to hire a professional to detect the source of some odors that could indicate mechanical problems. For example, Lerma says, “Rotten egg smells can be an indication of a failing catalytic converter.” If you’ve taken steps to deodorize your car, but a foul smell still lingers — or you only smell it when the vehicle is running — it’s time to take your car to a trusted mechanic. Talk to a mechanic if you smell an acrid odor like something burning as it points to problems with the electrical system. Also, the smell of hot rubber can mean a belt is wearing thin.

With a new vehicle, you may keep that new car smell for a while but it can be difficult with used cars, because you can’t control the source of interior smells. If the previous owner smoked or had pets, the vehicle will likely have a few lingering odors that you’ll have to deal with.