How to Remove Smoke Smell From Cars: 9 Methods + Tips!

The number of smokers is decreasing year after year, especially in the younger generations. This is very positive, and I know that you agree with me on this one – even if you’re a smoker yourself who hasn’t managed to kick that habit just yet.

Smoking today is not as ‘cool’ as it used to be back in the 50s and 60s. If you’ve watched old movies, you’ll know what I mean.

Everyone was smoking everywhere back then, but that’s not the case nowadays, as people have become much more aware of all the negative health repercussions associated with smoking.

Some of us, though, still choose to enjoy a cigarette once in a while, especially in our cars.

Car air ventilation systems putting out fresh smelling air

Whether you choose to smoke a cigarette in your car or it’s your passengers doing the puffing, one thing’s for sure: you’ll want to do something about that nasty smell sooner rather than later.

If you don’t do this often enough, your car will soon reek like a used ashtray!

Why Is It So Hard to Remove Smoke Smell From a Car?

Cigarettes are made up of about 600 ingredients, and when burned they produce 7,000 toxins.

Just to name a few of these toxins: ammonia, acetone, carbon monoxide, poisons like arsenic and nicotine, lead, formaldehyde, methanol, tar.

There are two main reasons why removing smoke smell from cars is so hard.

First of all, these toxins cling to any surface they come in contact with, acting like a coating.

Secondly, tobacco smoke combines with the moist breath exhaled from the smoker, so it becomes damp. This adds to the clinging power of the vapors.

It gets worse, though. The more you smoke in a small space like a car, the more you add layer upon layer of toxins. They attach themselves to any available surface, making it even harder to remove the smell.

As we’ll be seeing in just a moment, the problem is not only the smell, though – as unpleasant as it is.

Why Should I Remove Smoke Smell From My Car?

The most obvious reason is that the lingering odor is unpleasant.

If the driver is a smoker, they may not notice it themselves, and will likely not be all that much bothered by it. However, passengers surely will.

As we’ve mentioned, however, the reason to remove the odor isn’t only the smell itself. There’s a more important reason, as far as we’re concerned at least.

Being exposed to even the smell of smoke has negative consequences for our health. A recently studied phenomenon, called third-hand smoke, is thought to be just as dangerous as second-hand or passive smoking.

It poses even greater threats for children and babies, which is a huge problem for anyone with a family or pets at home.

Let’s look at what happens:

  • These toxins remain on surfaces, and we come into contact with them by touching them or just breathing contaminated air.
  • They react with chemicals present in the air and form cancer-causing compounds.
  • Over time, the toxins accumulate, layer upon layer.
  • Young children habitually touch and put things in their mouth. They can thus ingest these dangerous toxins as well as breathe them in.
  • Researchers say third-hand smoke can also damage DNA.

How To Remove the Smell of Smoke From a Car

There are some basic steps needed to get rid of the smoke smell in your car.

For starters, each and every single inch of the car interior needs to be meticulously detailed for the best possible results.

For lasting results, it’s better to repeat the entire cleaning process at least two times. This depends on how severe the odors are in the first place, though.

The steps are as follows: (Note that these do not change, even if the cleaning methods and products used may vary)

  1. The first thing to do is open all car doors and/or windows. It’s definitely better if you are doing all of this in a well-ventilated place. Doing this in your driveway on a breezy day, for example, would be perfect.
  2. Remove the car ashtray(s), empty and clean it thoroughly. You don’t want there to be any bad odor remaining when you put it back in your car.
  3. Also, remove and clean floor mats and carpets, then air them out.
  4. Vacuum the interior very carefully.
  5. Clean all hard surfaces, including car windows. Pay special attention to the dashboard and steering wheel, where smoke accumulates. Do not forget seat belts, hard plastic surfaces, metal parts, etc.
  6. Blow out the smell from your air conditioning system. This means turning it on at full power on cold, and spraying a neutralizer in the air intake. Air recirculation should be set to “off” in the car. Then, repeat with the system on full power with hot air.
  7. Check if the air filter needs to be replaced. It does absorb smoke and other smells, and sometimes cleaning it is not enough. Click here for cabin air filter replacement schedule.
  8. Extra: If you have access to a car steam cleaner, steam clean all applicable surfaces.

Which Products Should I Use When Getting Rid of Smoke Smell From My Car?

There are three main categories of products to choose from when attempting to eliminate smoke odors from your car. These include DIY methods, chemical products and ozone generators.

We’ll now explain each category on its own, and examine its pros and cons so that you can know which is best to use in your case.

DIY methods

The do-it-yourself (DIY) way usually involves natural cleaning products. They generally don’t have chemicals, and are therefore safer for our health and our environment:

Vinegar

Clean all hard surfaces, including windows and seat belts, with a mixture of equal parts of vinegar and warm water. Vinegar is both a sanitizer and a deodorant.

Baking Soda

It absorbs odors and can be used to remove smoke smells from car seats and carpets.

Make sure surfaces are dry, and then sprinkle baking soda on them and leave for a few hours. The longer you can leave it on, the better. Finally, vacuum to remove.

Just in case you’re worried about your car’s interior and whether or not baking soda will cause any damage to it, it’s worth mentioning that baking soda is safe on leather upholstery.

Charcoal

Place a bowl of charcoal in your car and leave it overnight. The longer it is left to work its magic, the better.

Charcoal absorbs odors, and you can still use it for a barbeque afterward!

Coffee Grounds

You can either place an open container with coffee grounds, or make little sachets to hang in your car. These can be made by cutting some socks or stockings.

Coffee has such a strong odor, that it will absorb the smoke smell and replace it with its intense scent. This method is perfect for coffee lovers!

Cat Litter

If you happen to be a cat owner, you’ll surely have some cat litter in the house to use for this purpose.

Place an open container full of car litter in the car, and watch it do its magic in time.

Again, cat litter absorbs and neutralizes smells.

Citrus Fruit Peels

Place some fresh citrus fruit peels in the car and leave them until they are dry. These might be from oranges or lemons, for example. They will leave behind a pleasant scent in your car.

So, what are the cons of using natural, DIY products to remove the smell of smoke from vehicles?

While they are environmentally safe, these remedies only work temporarily. If you’re looking for a long term fix, you’ll need to resort to other measures.

With natural and DIY products, the lingering smell of stale cigarettes is tough to eliminate completely, especially if you continue smoking in your car after you do all this work.

Chemical Products

Chemical Products are what many of us use on a daily basis to clean our homes, whether we realize it or not.

There are a variety of cleaning products, sanitizers or deodorants to choose from. Some of the most common ones are: Lysol, OxiClean, Windex, Clorox, and so on.

Everyone has their favorites, and there’s nothing wrong with having personal preferences because of past experiences. So what will you need to remove the smoke smell from your car?

  • A product to degrease all hard surfaces, including car windows. Specifically, you’ll need one that is suitable for floor mats, upholstery, and carpets. Check instructions for the type of materials you want to clean before you purchase it. Start with a small, possibly hidden part if it’s the first time you use a product.
  • Dryer sheets to place under the seats to freshen them up. Leave them for as long as their scent lasts.
  • A spray to neutralize smells and clean the air ducts as well as possible without having to remove the dashboard.
  • A car freshener or deodorant to leave in your car after it is clean.
  • An odor bomb car odor eliminator. These are aerosol cans that are left in a closed space to get rid of smells. You must leave your car with open doors and windows for at least 30 minutes before entering. The released chemicals will be absorbed by soft surfaces and replace the bad smells with a pleasant scent.

With all that being said, the main downside of chemical products is that they are toxic to us and to the environment. Using a high concentration of chemical products in a confined space such as a car leads to breathing in toxins.

However, many would argue that they are still safer than the dangers of exposure to third-hand smoke.

Ozone Generators

The one sure way to eliminate any smoke odor in your car once and for all is by using an ozone generator.

All the steps we went through to detail your car must still be carried out before using this machine. It actually generates ozone–O3 in chemical terms–three atoms of oxygen.

The ozone destroys any bacteria that cause smells, and eliminates them for good.

If you decide to use one of these, here are the basics of how to use it:

  • It’s very important to have people, pets, and plants out of the car before turning on the machine. It is not safe to breathe ozone!
  • Allow the power cord to pass through a crack in a car window.
  • Place the machine in a central place in the car, such as the dashboard, armrest or the back seat.
  • Set the timer to 30 minutes if the smoke smell is strong. If the odor isn’t too heavy, even 10 or 20 minutes should be enough to get the job done just fine.
  • Close all doors and windows of the car before starting the machine.
  • Plug in the power cord to start the machine, or start it manually, depending on the model. Some are even equipped with remote controls you could use.
  • Let it run for a maximum of 30 minutes.
  • Unplug the machine, even if it does turn off by itself.
  • Open all car doors and windows and let the car air out for at least an hour before driving it.
  • Make sure the area is properly ventilated. If you are in a garage, use fans.
  • If there’s still a faint ozone smell, drive with your windows rolled down until any residual odor is gone.

The only negative to using an ozone generator is that it is more costly than cleaning products, whether you’re going the natural remedies route, or opt for chemical products instead.

On the positive side, though, it is certain to eliminate any smells permanently. Out of all three different methods, it’s the best method to use if you’re looking for a long term fix.

Check out this video if you want to see one in action:

 

Tips on How to Prevent Smoke Smell in Your Car

By now, you’ve probably realized that getting the smell of smoke permanently out of your car is hard work!

It can be done, but it’s serious business, and not everyone has the time or energy to be doing stuff like that.

If you are a smoker yourself, we really urge you to reconsider getting all the necessary help you need to kick this habit – in case you’ve tried to do that before but haven’t succeeded.

If you’re adamant on not getting rid of this bad habit anytime soon, though, then here are a few tips to make it easier for you to enjoy this guilty pleasure and avoid (as much as possible) stinking up your car in the process.

  • Always smoke while you are actually driving. If you smoke when the car is not moving, the smoke smell will be much worse.
  • Leave the windows open on both sides to have as much air as possible circulating while you smoke. This will lower the number of smoke particles depositing in the car.
  • Keep your cigarette out of the window as much as possible when you are smoking. The smoke will still get inside the car, but the less, the better.
  • If you leave your car AC or heater on when smoking, make sure the recirculation button is set to “off.” At least you will not recirculate the smoke over and over in the car.
  • Make sure not to leave any traces of ash or smelly cigarette butts in the car. Empty and clean the ashtray, which is the main source of stale cigarette smells. Better yet, do not use the ashtray. Throw cigarette butts in a separate disposable container and replace it often.
  • De-grease all hard surfaces regularly, including car windows. The smoke forms a thin layer and clings to them.
  • Vacuum your car frequently.
  • Use a car freshener or deodorant.
  • Leave your windows open a crack overnight–on both sides–to allow air circulation. Obviously, only do this if you are able to. If you live in a big city, you may not want to do that, for obvious safety reasons.

Note that none of these prevention tips will avoid the potentially dangerous effects of third-hand smoke. Only eliminating the smoke smell for good will make your car a safe place for people and pets.

Wrapping it Up

Smoking an occasional cigarette in your car while driving, windows down, will not stink up your car terribly.

If it’s a daily habit though, one that you’re indulging in regularly over time, then your car will become a source of third-hand smoke.

This means that it’s not only smelly, but is also hazardous to the health of anyone in it.

However, all is not lost! Even if stale smoke smells are tough to get rid of, it’s not impossible to do so. This just means that there’s more work and effort involved.

Whether you choose natural DIY remedies or chemical cleaning products, we’ve walked you through each essential step you need to take to succeed with all possible methods.

For the more demanding cases, using an ozone generator machine is probably going to be the best solution.

With the right products and a little bit of elbow grease, your car’s interior will be smelling all good again real soon!

From childhood go karting and motocross, to collecting and obsessing over scalextric, matchbox and radio controlled cars, I've always had an obsession with cars. Learning through manuals, books, trial and error, and more knowledgeable family members, I've also enjoyed tinkering with the mechanics and electronics of any vehicles I've owned. Now, over 3 decades later, I've started this site as a place for me to share my knowledge, to teach others how to care for and maintain their vehicles themselves, at home, so they can get the most of their vehicles and save a pretty penny compared to always seeking out professional help.

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