In our recent podcast, we talked about how to deal with lingering or persistent smoke smell in your car. You or a family member may have put it there during your time as a smoker, or you may have inherited it as part of a pre-owned car that you purchased. Either way, smoky odors are unpleasant, and difficult to remove. Some may have washed their car 20 times in a month in the hope of removing it, only to find that it keeps coming back.
Is there hope?
Does this mean you should give up on smoke smells? Heck, no. In the PODCAST, I shared with you guys some of my best tips and knowledge on dealing with smoke smells. I share these from a perspective of personal experience, having bought a used car before that came with its own particular nicotine-charged smell.
Prepare for a long battle
The first step to getting rid of the smell is acknowledging and accepting just how long this fight might take to win. No matter what some detailers or individual cleaning products might promise, smoke smell will not permanently go away after a single cleaning. It just doesn’t happen. The only single action that might remove it in one go would be replacing all the upholstery, carpets and roof liner. I’m going to assume that nobody really wants to go down that road.
Thorough cleaning will only remove it temporarily
A professional detailing and professional-level tools and products can certainly go a long way to removing the smoke smell for a day or so. When detailers use powerful products, their smells can take over in your car, leaving a fresh-feeling smell that may lead you to believe the smoke is gone. In fact, the smoke is still lingering, embedded deeply into your upholstery, carpets and roof liner.
Tip #1: Patience and Persistence are Key
To read the tip above, you might be wondering why you should bother cleaning or detailing it at all if the smoke smell is only going to come back when the sun’s heat restores your car to its default odor setting. The fact is that every time you do a thorough and deep cleaning, you are taking a step to winning the final battle with the odor.
This is a process, and each cleaning is a step in that process. You may not tell yourself as you clean or detail each time, but the smell is steadily dissipating and going away. Persistently keeping up with cleaning will result in a victory sooner or later.
Tip #2: Shampoo, scrub, steam, repeat
For each cleaning, you should shampoo all the seat fabric, carpets and the roof liner. The roof liner is especially important to remember because as smoke rises up, much of it does get embedded up compared with other parts of your car’s interior.
With each cleaning, what you’re trying to do is remove trapped nicotine that has embedded itself in the surface of the upholstery. Products from the Chemical Guys® are great; you can just mix with water, wash the fabrics and then dry simply with a towel.
After shampooing and scrubbing, I also recommend using a steamer on the seat upholstery and carpets. It’s not ideal for the roof liner since the heat can affect the lining glue. The steamer helps sanitize and kill odor-creating bacteria in your fabrics, so it’s a great step for you or your detailer to take.
Tip #3: OxiClean and similar powders make a good alternative
If you don’t want to use the above cleaning method, then there are powder-based products like those from OxiClean. You sprinkle these onto your fabrics, leaving them for several hours or possibly even overnight. After this period of time, you can vacuum the powder out, helping lift odors and other nasty elements that affect your fabrics. I’ve found these are very effective, but you have to be careful about the powders getting trapped in your fabrics when you leave them on. Some cars’ upholstery is trickier to vacuum, and the powder a bit more stubborn to remove, so take care.
Another product you might consider is an odor bomb, like those from Turtle Wax. These work by filling the air with their compound, which then gets into you’re a/c and circulates properly around your car.
Tip #4: Post-cleaning vinegar always helps with smells
Once you’ve completed your cleaning steps, you should take some white vinegar and blot a towel with it. Apply it directly to your fabrics and roof liner to help combat smells. Vinegar is great for this, but I’m not talking about soaking the fabrics in it. Don’t apply the vinegar directly to the fabric – use a towel to dab and rub it in.
Tip #5: Bringing out the big guns – Ozone machines and similar equipment
There is a special piece of equipment that detailers use to combat odors --- the o-zone machine. This is a special piece of equipment that when used on the interior may have more effect than any cleaning would. This is combating the smell on a molecular level. If not a traditional o-zone machine, then your detailer might use a similar model that generates white smoke, which combats the smoke smell in the same way.
Detailers know about these machines, but if you rent one or get one for yourself, remember to leave the car open after using it, because the after-cleaning smell with the o-zone machine smells a lot like strong Clorox, which is hard to bear for some. Air the car out plenty once you’ve finished using it.
These machines, once again, are not magic. They are effective but can’t do everything in a single session. Many hotels in southeast Asia use them to get rid of the smell of certain fruits like durian when guests decide to eat that in their rooms. They do work, but as with any part of this cleaning process, it takes time and persistence.