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How to do odor removal

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Odor removal might be needed when there is a lingering smell inside a vehicle that can be difficult to remove. Most of the time, this originates from a source that can be difficult to reach and/or clean. Certain tools might be needed to remove the odor completely.


Why do odor removal

The air inside a car is not much different then the air inside a house. When the car isn’t used, the air doesn’t move much. When the car is used the air will move due to the blowers in the dashboard, an open window or when you open the door the get in or out. This air isn’t perfectly clean. It contains all kinds of contaminants. When you smoke in the car, transport animals in the car or eat/drink in the car, these contaminants can increase quickly. The dirty air is moved around through the circulation system, which helps to spread it all throughout the interior. If there are stains (like from spilled food or drinks) there will also be bacterial growth that can be transported through the air. All these factors contribute to the spreading of the dirty air. In some cases this air contains certain particles that have a fragrance. Bacteria and fungus is a good example that can cause an unpleasant smell in the car. Another can be nicotine, sweat or fluids that have been spilled.

Some of the sources that create an unpleasant smell can be hidden in places where they are difficult to reach. Like air vents, the foam inside the seats or behind the dashboard. This means that you’ll continue to have these unpleasant smells until the source has been removed. This can be a challenge. If removing mechanically (wiping with a cloth or a similar practice) isn’t possible, other tools will have to be used.

What are odors

An odor originates from one or more chemical compound. These are generally in fairly low volumes. The term “odor” is often used to describe unpleasant scents. The odor can be picked up by our nose when certain airborne particle either carry the particle with the smell, or are the particle that causes the smell. These air-born particles eventually reach our nose and trigger a response from the olfactory nerve. This ends up as a signal for our brain, that interprets it as pleasant or unpleasant. Many scents in our daily environment are ignored by our brains and considered “normal”. This is why some people don’t smell the parfume they are wearing, because they slowly got “used to it”. Other people will still smell it because it is an uncommon smell for them. The smell from perfume originates from volatile chemicals that carry particle that cause the experience of a certain smell. These particles are often mixed together to create a “cocktail of scents”.

The term “odor” (or “odour”) is often considered an unpleasant scent. Other words often used for this are: fragrance, smell, aroma, malodor, stench, reek, stink, bouquet, tang and nose.

Tools for odor removal

There are several different tools that can be used to remove an odor, this often depends on two variables: location of the source and nature of the source.


Chemical liquid (oil/petrol/cleaning liquid)

These can be very difficult to remove, most tools will have little effect on these liquids. In some cases they will eventually stop giving off smell. For example, petrol will eventually evaporate and stop causes an unpleasant odor. However, not all liquids will do this. In some cases there is no other solution then to get to the source and remove it mechanically.

Organic (food/drink/animal)

These should be removed as soon as possible. These materials can cause fungus and spread bacteria. The interior of the car can become an unhealthy please to be in. The scent can be masked by using an ozone generator, but if the fungus or bacteria aren’t removed, the odor will eventually return. Certain car-bombs used for odor removal also advertise that they kill organic particles, but the most effective way is still to mechanically remove them.

Deposits (sweat/nicotine/deodorant)

Some of these materials can either be airborne or are slowly absorbed by the air inside the car (by evaporation and/or condensation). When they eventually attach themselves to a surface, they can cause layers of dirt. A well know example is nictone. The smoke you exhale contains several contaminants from your sigaret. These contaminants will eventually attach to every surface it comes into contact with (such as the window, air vents, fabric and dashboard). These can be very difficult to remove. Some ozone generators or car-bombs advertise how they are able to remove the odor from these sources, but the material itself will still be present. A large part of this odor can be trapped inside the fabric of the seats or the foam inside the seats.


Chemical liquid (oil/petrol/cleaning liquid)

Removing these materials as soon as possible is strongly advised. The longer they remain, the more difficult they can become to clean. In some cases, they can even cause surface damage. In most cases these materials are best removed by a strong cleaning liquid (like APC), followed by the use a wet-and-dry vacuum cleaner. If the material has been removed, you can follow up with a scent-neutral cleaner to remove the scent of the cleaning liquid. The effect the liquid has had on the material (stains or burns) might be irreversible. After removal, there might still be some odor left in the air. Open all windows or doors and let the air blow through the interior for a while. There is a chance that some of the air-born particles have attached to surfaces like glass and/or the dashboard.

Organic (food/drink/animal)

The odor from these sources is often easy to remove. As soon as the source has been removed, the odor will quickly fade and disappear. However, these organic sources can leave certain biological particles behind that can result in fungus and/or bacteria. These will in turn create an unhealthy environment inside your vehicle and create a new unpleasant smell. It is therefore advised to use a strong cleaning liquid that is also aimed at removing biological particles. Using a wet-and-dry vacuum might be needed to do this properly. An ozone generator or car-bomb can remove the biological contamination from the air inside the cabin.

Deposits (sweat/nicotine/deodorant)

Sources like nicotine or often reasonably easy to remove. If the material has been removed from the surface, the odor will quickly disappear. The biggest problem is that these particles are usually located in very hard to reach places. When these are trapped inside the foam of a seat, you might need a wet-and-dry vacuum and really get the foam properly soaked with cleaning liquid. Any part of the foam that has not been in contact with the cleaning liquid, will not be cleaned and continue to be a source of this odor. An ozone generator and/or a car-bomb can help to remove the odor from difficult to reach areas, but seeing it won’t physically remove the source itself, there is no guarantee that the odor will not return. Agitation and rubbing the surface with APC can often help to maximize the results from the cleaning liquid.

Common tools

Often used tools in the above situations can be:

  • Ozone generator
  • car-bomb (also known as: odor bomb, odor eliminator, fogger or smell remover)
  • Odor eliminator spray
  • APC
  • Brushes
  • wet-and-dry vacuum (wet-vac)
  • Vinegar

Preventing the need for odor removal

With little care the sources from odors can be prevented significantly. However, it is impossible to eliminate it completely. Your breath, the air coming in from outside, perfume you are wearing and general wear and tear from your interior can still cause some forms of odors. However, many can be prevented by some reasonably simple practises:

  • Using a de-humidifer
    This will result in more dry air, and less chance for bacteria or fungi to grow.
  • Cleaning the interior
    Keeping the interior clean will help to prevent nasty fragrances, simply because the sources are removed before they can cause any smells. Remember that dirt is not always visible, it may look clean but still contain particles that cause a bad odor.
  • No eating or drinking
    If you don’t eat or drink in the car, you can’t spill these either. No spilling means you don’t have to clean it up.
  • No smoking
    Smoking is a very popular cause for odor in a vehicle. Without any smoke in the car, you don’t have to clean it up afterwards.
  • Open windows
    By opening the windows every now and then, a stream of fresh air will blow into your car. Over time it will have replaced the air inside your vehicle. This can especially help if the vehicle hasn’t moved for a long time.
  • Servicing the airco and engine
    Seeing as the air for your airco goes through an air filter, this air filter benefits from being cleaned or replaced every now and then. This can prevent nasty odors from being blown into the interior. The engine itself can also cause an unpleasant smell, which can be sucked in by the air vents.
  • Using the airco more often
    It depends on the model, but some cars have an extra air filter for the air-conditioning system, meaning the air gets filtered twice. This can be beneficial in order to clean the air inside the vehicle.

Indication of dirty air

An indication of dirty air can be when the windows get dirty quickly. This means that air-born material is getting attached to the glass. This can also indicate that the interior air filter (or pollen filter) needs to be replaced. Another tip might be to invite somebody else to sit in your car, they often smell things that you have gotten used to. They might be better capable of judging the smell inside your car. Remember that many new cars will have a long lingering hint of glue and chemicals. This is due to the material used during fabrication. Many consider this the “new car smell”. If the glass is getting dirty quickly, the leather might also be getting dirty, which will be less noticeable.

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