Getting Rid of Mold Odor in Your Car Cabin: Expert Tips for a Fresh Drive

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Updated on:

November 9, 2023

Eliminating Mold Odor in Car Cabin: Effective Tips for a Fresh and Pleasant Drive"

Almost everyone loves that “new car smell” when they open the door and get inside a recently purchased vehicle. However, over time, that pleasing smell diminishes and is replaced by stale air, musty and moldy odors that make the interior of your vehicle unpleasant, to say the least. How do you get rid of them?

Key Takeaways:

  • Identify causes: Mold, smoke, spills, and other substances lead to bad odors in cars.
  • Effective tactics: Vacuum, use baking soda, steam clean, apply mild detergent, vinegar, and repeat cleaning for mold and smoke removal.
  • Maintain freshness: Regularly detail with vacuuming and steam cleaning. Use activated charcoal, fabric softener sheets, odor neutralizers, and apply a ceramic coating.

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Table of Contents (Show)

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9 steps to eliminate odor from car

  1. Vacuum All Surfaces before Starting
  2. Using baking soda
  3. Use a Powerful Car Steam Cleaner
  4. Use Mild Detergent
  5. Apply Distilled White Vinegar
  6. Repeat Cleaning
  7. Steaming of Engine Bay
  8. Use Ozone Generator
  9. Apply Essential Oil

How to Keep the Car Interior Smelling Fresh

1. Why does car smell musty | How Odors Occur

Although upholstery and carpets are generally the areas that harbor bad smells in the cabin, door panels, mats, and other hard and semi-soft surfaces are also to blame for bad air. To understand the process of how car interiors need odor removal, you must first understand how they occur. Bad smells come about in many ways.

1.1 Mold and Mildew

mold inside he car

Odors from mold and mildew are common in older vehicles. If you have ever left the window open and a rainstorm swept past, the cabin probably got wet, especially the doors and upholstery. Such a situation provides a prime growing environment for car mold and mildew. While plastic itself, which comprises the surface of many interiors of the car, is not a surface that is prone to mold and mildew, dirt and other organic material may already be on the interior surface, allowing these organisms to take hold. However, leather is an organic material. Many high-end luxury cars have leather inserts on doors, seats and other similar areas that can harbor mold and mildew if not properly maintained. At the same time, many of these organisms may be on top of your interior car materials which may cause smells of their own.

1.2 Cigarette, Cigars or Marijuana (Weed, Cannabis)  Smoke

Cigarette or Marjihuana smoke inside the car

Cigarette smoke is one of the most strong and hard to remove odours in car cabin. Smoke smell is difficult to remove from cars because it penetrates upholstery, carpet, hard surfaces and it infiltrates the air system. So replacing cabin filter is a mandatory for Cigarette, Cigars and Marijuana (Weed, Cannabis) smoke removal

Check our Complete Guide for Smoke Smell removal

1.3 Other Causes of awful smell in car

Lots of substances can remain in your car cabin, even though you think you may ƒhave removed them by wiping them off. Most interiors on late-model vehicles have drink holders inside doors in addition to the ones in the center console. At some point, most people end up spilling coffee, soda, juice and more on the area around their drink holder, causing a bad smell to develop. Exterior dust, dirt and other microscopic organisms, cigars smoke, spilled food, pet hair and urine, and similar substances can all leave residue that will accumulate inside the car over time, giving your cabin an acrid smell. Some odors are more stubborn to remove than others and may require different methods and substances to remove undesirable smells. However, one thing is for certain. Thorough detailing of vehicle cabin via steam cleaning followed with a mild detergent solution is the most effective way to remove from car doors and other cabin areas.

if car ac smells bad, discover our guide for cleaning air vents

If you got roaches in your vehicle, learn more about killing car insects in this guide.

2. How to Remove Mold and Smoke Car Smells

The best way to get rid of bad smells from your interior is to detail the entire cabin thoroughly. Bad smells can migrate from areas like the ventilation system, which blows air into your car interior. Changing ventilation filters isn't enough. You also need to clean the vents to make the cabin once again, but how do you do that? Is washing and scrubbing enough? In most cases, it's not. Consider these tips when detailing your car's interior.

Check our guide for mold and mildew removal in house

2.1 Vacuum All Car Surfaces before Starting

prelimenary vacuu to collect all garbage from car

Prior to steaming, thoroughly vacuum all interior areas, including the door panel. Use a tool that allows the detailer to reach into cracks and crevices where odor-causing debris and decaying food, ashes from tabaccos may lurk. After all, if you don't remove all sources of odor, smells can reappear quickly.

2.2 Baking Soda

Baking soda is another wonderful ingredient that is a great deodorizer. Not only can it remove odors, but baking soda is also great at removing stubborn stains and soap scum. Sprinkle it on the surface of the car door, carpets, seats or anywhere else in the cabin that has a strange odor. Allow the baking soda to sit for at least 15 minutes. For really stubborn smells like smoke, sprinkle baking soda on the affected areas and let it sit overnight.

2.3 Using a Powerful Car Steam Cleaner

use steam cleaner for carodor elimination

Steam cleaning is the best and most efficient solution to detailing all interior car surfaces and freshening the air. Commercial quality steam cleaners, such as the ones manufactured by Fortador, have the ability to deep clean, sanitize and protect every inch of your car cabin. The Fortador PRO Max and PRO  offer steam cleaning at a rate of 295/232 PSI, which blasts away debris and undesirable microscopic particles like pollen, mold, mildew, bacteria and viruses. These machines not only clean your car interior surfaces but they also sanitize them, giving them a fresh scent.

What's also great about the Fortador PRO Max and the PRO line of steamers are all-in-one units. Detailers get a powerful steaming unit plus a shampooer/extractor to clean seats, upholstery, carpets and more. These commercial steamers also come with a complete set of tools that allow detailers to get into hard-to-reach areas where bad odors tend to hide. When using a Fortador steamer, detailers generally only need to use the steamer when removing car odors. However, some grimy car interiors may need extra attention with natural spray products. In such cases, you have the option of several different approaches.

2.4 Use Mild Detergent

using oft detergent to clean interior surfaces

Using a mild commercial detergent made of natural substances along with steaming is one option. Some car commercial cleaners contain even odor eliminating molecules that will leave the car cabin smelling fresher. Always opt for the mildest spray cleaner that will do the job as many of today's customers want green cleaning and deodorizing methods. When you removing cigarettes and marijuana smells out of a car carefully clean headliner as it absorbs all smell inside the materials.

If you have tough stains on cloth seats check this guide.

2.5 Apply Distilled White Vinegar with spray bottle

blow all mall parts with air tosafe time

Blot the area affected with a bad odor with distilled white vinegar, an inexpensive yet incredible odor neutralizer. Be careful with applying vinegar as too much can result in that sour vinegary smell lingering for days or weeks, especially with the car windows closed. To void this issue, always dilute vinegar with about 50% water and spray it onto the area where the odor is strongest.

Learn more about removing water spots from paint and windows, if you have this issue after long storage.

2.6 Repeat Cleaning

Some stubborn areas may need several passes with the steamer and shampooer before getting rid of the smell. Don't neglect to make several passes if needed, as your car detailing work will be more thorough.

2.7 Don't Neglect the Engine Bay

engine steam cleaning

Sometimes unpleasant smells can emanate from the engine due to dirt and grime build-up. These smells can migrate to the cabin through vents. Cleaning the engine with a steam cleaner followed by a degreaser and a water rinse can eliminate the chances of those smells settling on door panels and other interior areas. Finish by wiping down with a microfiber cloth.

2.8 How to deodorize car with ozone car odor eliminator or enzymes.

If you do not have an ozone generator in your arsenal, think about getting one. After deep cleaning, you may still have a light chemical smell that can be easily removed with a treatment of an ozone generator. It usually takes 15-30 minutes for an ozone cycle to be complete, and the vehicle needs to be ventilated with open doors after it's done. This final touch will leave car interior free of any smell.

2.9 Apply Essential Oil with spray bottle or applicator

Protecton and Conditioning of leather seats

If you've tried everything else and a vague bad odor still lingers, you can still remedy the situation with a few drops of essential oil. While essential oil won't take away, it will mask foul smells like smoke for long periods, plus act as a pleasant air freshener. Essential oils come in various fragrances, including blends. However, you should be aware that essential oils can overpower if you use too much scent. Just place a few drops on a handkerchief and tuck it away in the glove compartment or somewhere in the back seat.

3. How to Keep the Car Interior Smelling Fresh with odor absorber

The best way to keep the interior smelling fresh is through regularly scheduled detailing with a vacuum and a steam cleaner. Several other substances can help keep away odors in a clean cabin in between detailing appointments.

3.1 Activated Charcoal

Another great all-natural air freshener is activated charcoal, as this substance readily absorbs smells. Place multiple packages of charcoal in auto door pockets, the glove box and other small areas inside the car cabin. Remember to change the charcoal packets periodically as they will eventually lose their ability to absorb smoke and other smells in the air.

3.2 Other Ways to Eliminate Car Odors

Some people like to use the hack of placing fabric softener sheets in car doors, tucked under upholstery and other interior spaces. Pet owners may appreciate the power of an odor bomb neutralizer for neutralizing pet odors.

3.3 Apply a Ceramic Coating

leather seats protectionwith evlar Ceramic Coating

Protect the entire cabin by applying a coating of Kevlar after detailing is complete. Kevlar is a ceramic coating that protects many different areas, including fabric seats, floor mats and hard surfaces. Fortador's Ceramic system has everything a professional detailer needs to protect clean surfaces. Your customers will not only have a cleaner car with odor-free upholstery but one that also smells great and cleans more easily during future car detail appointments.

4. Commonly asked questions about mold smell removal

Q: Can mold be cleaned out of a car?

A: Yes, sure. Mold removal is a multi step process, but it is completely doable. You need to preform dry clean, apply solution of vinegar or pro chemicals, and use ozone after cleaning to remove mold smell

Q: Can mold in car make you sick?

A: Yes, this is a real danger thing and yes, it could be affecting your family. Dry car first and make deep cleaning of car interior with replacing all filters in your a/c system

Q: How long does it take for mold to grow in a car?

A: Mold can grow in a car in about 12 hours in the warm climate. Often times you will get that mildew smell in 6-10 hours. So it is important to dry your car same day if it get extremely wet. You can use your A/C on heat for 20-30 minutes to avoid mold grouth

Q: How much does it cost to clean a moldy car?

A: The average cost of mold removal in a car is $175-$275. If you catch the problem early and only need one spot removed, you'll pay far less ($75),  standard steam cleaning can fix mold problem, Average price for big mold removal is much higher ($475-$750), because it is needed to perform deep cleaning, mold cleaning and ozone smell removal treatment. Also add costs of air filter replacement"

Q: What is difference between mold and mildew?

A: Mildew is usually flat, begins as white, then turn brown or gray, while mold tends to have a higher profile and can even become foamy, exhibits darker colors such as black or deep green.

Q: Is Ozium safe?

You need to ventilate car after using Ozium or ozone machine to overexposure. Simple open all doors and leave them for 15-20 minutes.

About the Authors

Sergey "Serg" Paskevich
Panama-based detailing pro, proud owner of Car Care Performance Detailing studio in Panama-City. Specializing in Paint Correction, Ceramic Coating, and comprehensive Car Detailing services
Ugur Sezmis
Renowned in the world of Professional Detailing, Fahrzeugaufbereitung is not only a master in restoring automotive brilliance but also a distinguished Rupes Trainer based in Germany. With a commitment to perfection, he enhances car aesthetics while sharing his expertise through top-notch training.

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