How to make your car smell good

How to make your car smell good

If you’ve ever taken delivery of a new car, you’ll probably recognise this distinctive scent: for the first few months, a fresh aroma of plastic and leather permeates throughout the interior. Unfortunately, this smell fades over time (and is often replaced by a mixture of less agreeable odours).

It’s fair to say that many drivers love that ‘new car smell’! So much so that used car dealers pull out all the stops to recreate it. Most car air freshener products also promise to do the same (although results may vary).

Of course, the importance of maintaining a fresh-smelling motor goes beyond making your regular trips a little more pleasant. When you eventually decide to sell your car, any lingering odours will inevitably affect your car valuation, as they’ll contribute to the impression that you haven’t taken good care of it.

So, what’s the secret to achieving a fragrant interior? In this guide, we’ll cover the habits you should avoid to prevent unpleasant odours, the surprising household items you can use to tackle stubborn smells – and how to choose the right air freshener.

We’ll also delve into some DIY methods and deep cleaning strategies to improve your car’s aroma. Finally, we’ll explain how to develop a foolproof freshening routine to keep your motor smelling great for years to come!

Value your car in under 30 seconds

Prevention is key: Habits to avoid for an odour-free car

  • Eating

    In-car dining is arguably the biggest contributor to car smells. Even if you’re scrupulously careful about it, you’re bound to drop pieces of your lunch – or worse yet, spill condiments on the upholstery. Removing the remnants of a fast-food feast is no easy task.

    So, resist the temptation to tuck into your takeaway in the car. Wait until you get home and flash it up in the microwave if needed!

  • Smoking and vaping

    Smoking in your car leaves a distinctive and unpleasant odour. Cigarette smoke can get trapped in the upholstery and air-conditioning system, making it very difficult to remove. In severe cases, it can damage your car’s interior. This can make it harder to sell your car privately or part exchange it at a dealership.

    Regularly vaping whilst on the road will also create a smell. Vape pens can accumulate e-liquid residue, which produces a noticeable odour. Whilst this is not as pungent as stale cigarette smoke, you should still avoid vaping in your car to keep it smelling fresh.

  • Leaving spills and stains overnight

    Spills and stains in your car are sometimes unavoidable, but when they do occur, the worst thing you can do is leave them for another day. Even if you upset your coffee flask at the end of a long day, you should deal with it promptly. The less time a stain has had to soak into a surface, the easier it will be to remove. You’ll also have a better chance of neutralising the odour if you act in good time.

  • Leaving clutter in your car

    You should clear away clutter such as used bottles, cans and food packaging on a regular basis. Avoid leaving dirty towels and clothes in your car for prolonged periods.

    Don’t forget to clear out the boot regularly and remove anything that could create a nasty odour. You may also find that placing a small bag of charcoal in your boot helps to combat smells.

Everyday items that will freshen your car

  • Baking soda 

    A little baking soda can go a long way when it comes to tackling stubborn smells. Pour baking soda onto the mats and seats, leave it for at least three hours, then vacuum it.

    This method can banish many unwanted odours. However, if a stench persists, leave the open baking soda box in the driver’s side door pocket for a few days.

  • Scented candles 

    Place a scented candle in a secure holding place. In the warmer months, the heat alone should melt the candle enough to release a pleasing scent that will freshen your interior.

    If you do burn a scented candle in your car, proceed with caution and never leave it unattended.

  • Incense sticks 

    Leaving a few incense sticks in your car can help to neutralise nasty smells.

    For more powerful odours, light one of the sticks and allow it to burn for a minute. This should distribute a pleasant scent throughout the interior. Keep a close eye on the lit incense stick and extinguish it before driving.

  • Dryer sheets

    Dryer sheets are conventionally used in tumble dryers to reduce static and depositing scents – and soften laundry. However, leaving a couple of dryer sheets in your car’s floorboards overnight can also revive its stale interior.

  • Cotton balls (and essential oil) 

    Soak a cotton ball with just a few drops of essential oil and place it inside your car on a plate (or in a small plastic bag). This will create a soothing scent to overpower stale aromas.

    Warning: Many essential oils can be dangerous to pets. So, if you travel with your dog in the car consider alternative freshening methods.

Air fresheners: Choosing and using them wisely

There are various types of air freshener that can be used in your car including:

  • Aerosols - A spray of air freshener can instantly freshen your car, although it will typically fade within a day. However, a typical aerosol contains around 500 bursts, so you can freshen your car whenever you wish.
  • Vent clip - A vent clip air freshener clips onto the air vents and distributes a fresh scent throughout your car’s interior. This style of air freshener typically needs replacing every 30 days.
  • Dashboard air fresheners - This variety of air freshener sits on top of your dashboard and gently distributes a pleasant scent throughout the interior. Some models last around 30 days, although higher-end diffusers may distribute their scent for three months or longer.
  • Hanging air freshener - This style of air freshener is commonly hung from the rear-view mirror. There are many varieties available, although the pine tree silhouette design (made famous by Little Trees) is one of the most enduringly popular. These air fresheners typically last around four weeks.

DIY aromatic solutions

In this section, we’ll cover a few simple but powerful homemade scents that can transform a malodorous motor into a fragrant haven:

  • Lemons

    Whilst conventional air fresheners and deodorisers can be highly effective, their smell isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re looking for a natural alternative, cut a lemon in half and leave it in your car overnight. This will imbue your interior with a nice citrus scent without any added chemicals.

  • Apples

    Slice a couple of apples and place them on a plate in your car for a few hours. You can use this method to tackle any lingering smells or as a preventive measure.

  • Coffee grounds

    Gather a small bowl of coffee grounds and place it in your car overnight. This will help to mitigate any unpleasant aromas and freshen up the interior.

A fresh use for potpourri

Traditionally used in the home, potpourri can also lend a gentle fragrance to your car. Put a little in a mesh bag and leave it in your car for a few days. Try adding cinnamon sticks, dried/sliced orange and rose petals to enhance the scent.

Tips for vacuuming your car’s interior

Before vacuuming the interior of your car, you should:

  • Check the floors and upholstery are completely dry.
  • Remove the floor mats.
  • Sprinkle baking soda throughout the interior of your car (including on and under the floor mats and the area between the back seat and rear window).

This will help to draw out and neutralise the various odours lurking within the floors and seats. Allow the baking soda to sit for 3-4 hours before bringing out the vacuum cleaner.

Thoroughly vacuum the area where you sprinkled the baking soda. Thanks to this hard-working compound, it should now be much easier to lift any dirt, crumbs or debris from the carpet. Use the upholstery attachment to ensure you reach all the gaps between the seats.

After vacuuming, leave the floor mats out of the car and clean them separately.

How to clean your floor mats

  • Fill a bucket with warm water and add several drops of dish soap.
  • Place the floor mats down on your driveway, lawn or garage floor.
  • Dip a shoe brush into the bucket of soapy water and scrub the mats.
  • Once finished, spray the suds away with a hose or pressure washer.
  • Hang the mats to dry on a railing or washing line.

Cleaning and conditioning leather upholstery

Leather cleaner

If you’re lucky enough to own a car with genuine leather upholstery, give it the care it deserves. Periodically brush leather cleaner into your upholstery. Many of these products have an artificial ‘leather’ scent that can help rejuvenate the coveted ‘new car’ smell.

Coconut oil

Once you have cleaned your leather upholstery, use a small amount of coconut oil to condition it. Work it into the material with a clean, dry cloth. Aside from adding a lovely fragrance, coconut oil helps to prevent leather from cracking and rejuvenates its showroom shine!

Spot cleaning stains

If you want to tackle a stubborn stain or mark, try spot cleaning it with a rag and a cleaning solution. The optimal cleaning solution will depend on the nature of the stain in question:

  • Disinfectant sprays are effective at removing mould and mildew.
  • Bio-enzymatic cleaners are best for tackling food stains.
  • Oxidising cleaners can be used to remove pungent smells.

Cleansing pet and cigarette odours with an ozone generator

  • Ozone generators are ‘air purifying machines’ that intentionally produce ozone gas. Ozone (O3) is a molecule comprising three oxygen atoms that can be used to tackle odours by breaking down (and neutralising) other molecules in the air.
  • You can remove pet and cigarette odours from your car by placing an ozone generator inside, closing all the windows and doors, then activating the machine. The ozone gas that is released will react with the odour-causing compounds, neutralising them and leaving a fresher scent.
  • Allow the machine to run for 1-8 hours (depending on the model). Please follow the manufacturer’s safety guidelines carefully.
  • Next, open all the doors and let the air out. You can also add a little interior fragrance if you wish.

Cleaning air vents

  • Remove your car’s cabin filter. If you are unsure where to find this, a quick online search should reveal its location for your specific model.
  • Carefully vacuum the filter (or replace it).
  • Spray the filter with an antibacterial deodorising spray (and spray the air conditioning intake).
  • Vacuum your car’s interior and finish by spraying the fabrics.

Maintaining freshness: Long-term strategies

Run the air conditioner and blower

Your car’s air conditioning system can get damp, which may cause mould and bad odours to develop. To prevent this, you should run the air conditioner and the blower for around 10 minutes every 1-2 weeks.

Schedule deep cleans periodically

The longer you wait between deep cleans, the more difficult it will be to remove stubborn odours.

To make things easier (and keep your car smelling fresh all the time), you should take a proactive approach and nip nasty odours in the bud before they present an issue. So, how often should you deep clean your car?

Many automotive experts recommend giving your car a complete detail at least once every 4-6 months. How often you deep clean your car should be determined by how much wear and tear it goes through.

Consider professional detailing services

Although you can achieve good results with the right equipment and a little know-how, it may be worth investing in a professional detailing service once in a while, especially if you are preparing to sell your car. Remember, the exterior is equally important, so don’t forget to wash your car!

Scents for every season

As the seasons change, you may want to switch up your car fragrances:

  • Warm scents such as vanilla or caramel will set a cosy ambiance in the wintertime.
  • Considering opting for lighter floral scents such as jasmine or lavender in spring.
  • Tropical scents such as pineapple, coconut and watermelon will capture the easy-going spirit of those languorous summer days.
  • Apple and other harvest-inspired scents such as cranberry - and woody aromas such as cedar and pine can complement cosy autumn days.

What creates the ‘new car smell’?

According to studies conducted by health organisations, the ‘new car smell’ can be attributed to the odour of plastic and glue ‘breathing’.

Most car interiors comprise plastics and synthetic fabrics held together by glues and sealants. Wood and leather finishes also incorporate synthetic components. Over the first few months of use, these substances slowly release chemicals into the car’s cabin, although this aroma will fade over time.

TLDR: How do I make my car smell good?

  • Avoid odour-generating habits such as eating, smoking, vaping and leaving clutter in your car.
  • Tackle any stains and spills promptly. Never leave them overnight!
  • Don’t leave wet or muddy clothes in your car overnight.
  • Clear and clean out the interior (and the boot) on a regular basis.
  • Try freshening your car with everyday items such as scented candles, incense sticks and dryer sheets.
  • Try a few varieties of air freshener and decide which scent you like best. Aerosols will freshen up your interior for a day or so, but a high-quality diffuser can release its scent for three months or more.
  • Try out our homebrew car deodorising hacks: a lemon cut in half, sliced apples, coffee grounds and cotton balls (soaked in essential oil) have all been proven to subdue stubborn smells.

Don’t forget to keep on top of your car odour cleansing routine to maintain a fresh interior all year round.