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Removing Car Odors and Stains

Removing Car Odors and Stains


With our active lifestyles and the amount of time we spend in our cars, the average car interior is easy prey for a myriad of stains and odors. Stain and odor removal is almost a science unto itself. Upholstery fabrics and carpets vary widely, as do the types of stains. However, in my experience, there is a correct method and a suitable cleaner for most car interior problems.



Common upholstery fabrics are more likely to stain than vinyl or leather.  To best prevent stains altogether, it is necessary to properly treat upholstery, carpet, vinyl and leather.  The best treatment for carpet and fabric is a spray-on fabric guard product.  To protect vinyl and leather, simply use your favorite cleaner and protectant on a regular basis.

When the inevitable happens, and your three-year-old drops (or barfs!) his mustard-loaded hot dog on your brand-new velour upholstery, stay calm.  Remove as much of the spill as possible by blotting, not wiping, with paper napkins, paper towels, etc.  Don't let the stain sit too long before you get to work on it.  Within a day or two, most spills will set and permanently stain your upholstery, or become very difficult to remove.  It will only take one such incident for you to realize that a $15 investment in fabric and carpet protection is worth every penny.



Even without protection, you would be amazed at how easy it is to clean up most stains with nothing more than a neutral detergent and water.  A neutral detergent has a pH of 7 (on a scale of 0 to 14).  A detergent with a pH of less than 7 means it is acidic, whereas a pH higher than 7 is alkaline.  Neutral detergents will not bleach fabric or remove fabric protection. Interior car detailing tools you’ll need to remove interior stains include:

  • Spatula or putty knife
  • Clean, white terry cloth towels
  • Upholstery scrub brush
  • Wet-dry vacuum
  • A reliable interior stain remover, such as 303 Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner

Use the spatula or putty knife to remove as much of the solid material as possible.  The vacuum can also be a lifesaver by removing large particles of any substance that would stain if you rubbed it or moved it around.  The idea is to remove as much of the contamination as possible before you begin wiping or scrubbing.

Next, spray the stain heavily with your cleaner, and allow it a minute or so to work.  Don't scrub the stain just yet.  Use a towel and blot it up.  Again, you don't want to spread the mess.

Spray the stain again, and use your scrub brush with warm water to scrub the stain.  This should remove the remaining elements of the stain material.  Rinse with fresh water and a terry cloth towel, and then blot dry and vacuum.

Some stains, no matter what you try, will be permanent.  If an indelible stain has penetrated the fibers of a material, it will not come out.  You might be able to make the stain less noticeable, but no cleaner or method will remove all of the stain.  You will have to live with it or have the section of carpet or upholstery replaced.  In some cases, leather and vinyl stains can be fixed by color-matching the area with a leather or vinyl repair system (a job for a professional).



I get a lot of questions about removing smells. The most common questions are "How do I remove the smell of cigarette smoke?" and "My child vomited. How do I get rid of the smell?" Most bad smells in cars are organic (e.g., food, urine, vomit, tobacco, grass, mold, mildew, etc.). I recently had a professional detailer tell me a client had spilled fish in his car, which I know from experience is not pleasant. As a teen I hid an open can of sardines under the seat of a neighbor's car. They had to sell the car to get rid of the smell!

Odor problems are pretty easy to take care of with some of the new cleaners on the market. Two very popular choices are the Dakota Odor Bomb and Detailer’s Pro Series Dual Action Odor Eliminator. The enzymes kill odors in their tracks by stopping organic material from decomposing. Don't use it, and you'll be smelling that odor for a long time. These products also double as air fresheners and are available in a wide variety of scents to choose from.

Tobacco smoke is one of the most difficult smells to remove from a car. The smoke permeates everything, including the foam rubber used in seat cushions. You can successfully remove most of the tobacco smell by thoroughly shampooing the carpets, upholstery and headliner. After cleaning thoroughly, use Dakota Odor Eliminator to complete the job.



Another common source of interior car odors is the air conditioning (A/C) system.  That foul smell from your car's A/C is not only offensive, but it can also be bad for you.  The air entering into your car passes over the A/C evaporator (the cooling element).  When you operate your car's A/C, water condenses around the evaporator coils.  The moisture on the evaporator makes it a magnet for air pollutants, including dust, dirt, grime, pollen, spores and germs.  These pollutants form bacteria, dust mites and fungi, which all add up to create the bad smell that often occurs in A/C systems.

Most luxury cars now offer filter canisters to remove pollutants from the air entering the car.  However, the smell may still remain.  In any case, it's still a good idea to treat your car's A/C each year with a quality odor remover.  The product I prefer is Dakota Odor Eliminator.  Simply spray the product into the exterior air intake vents and the inside heat and A/C vents.  It eliminates odors caused by bacteria, fungi, mildew and stagnant water.

Dakota Non-Smoke Odor Eliminator
Remove Cigarette Smoke Odor!
$10.99, 3/$27.99
$7.99, 3/$19.99
$7.99, 3/$19.99
303 Spot Cleaner
Clean Even the Toughest Stains!
Regular price: $7.99
Sale price: $5.99
303 Fabric Guard 16 oz.
Covers 50-75 sq. ft.
Regular price: $9.99
Sale price: $5.99
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