Master of Public Administration. Married with 4 boys and 4 girls. Wealth of humorous, faith-filled, and fascinating experiences.
I inherited a 2008 Ford Focus from a lady who was like a grandmother to our family. Hoarding was a problem for her. She filled her vehicle up to the windows with papers, shopping bags, clothing, etc. in every seat. She apparently had spilled milk or something in the front passenger seat. It had been sitting idle for an entire summer with the windows closed and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. By late Fall, when my wife and I opened the door, the stench was so bad it could knock you off your feet. The odor might be described as a dead animal, a skunk and rotten eggs combined. Dead bugs and flies were found everywhere, including inside the air vents. Our eyes burned. My wife wore gloves and a mask to clear it. Once we removed all the trash and could begin some surface cleaning, the arduous task of removing the stench for good ended up taking about 7 months. I used about every method of cleaning and deodorizing that exists to human-kind. Local friends and neighbors, church associates and relatives were amazed, amused and interested in this roaming lab experiment on wheels.
Ways to Deodorize Your Car
- Clear out the junk.
- Disinfectant and spray deodorizer.
- Use vent clips and air fresheners.
- Go to a professional car detailer.
- Use a car odor bomb/fogger.
- Use Ozone.
- Shampoo with pet deodorizer.
- Use a syringe with liquid deodorizer.
- Remove seats-wrapped in plastic.
- Completely replace the seats.
The Odor Project: 2008 Ford Focus
1. Clear out the junk.
We inherited the car In November. It had sat idle at least an entire summer, loaded up to the windows with papers, plastic grocery sacks, clothes, uneaten fast food, etc. We opened the front and passenger doors to begin the cleaning. My wife and I nearly filled an apartment dumpster with trash bags full of the unusable items. We cleared out the dead bugs. Even after these measures, there was still a terrible stench.
2. Disinfectant and spray deodorizer.
We used disinfectants sprays like Lysol to clean the dash and seats. The goal was not necessarily to get it completely deodorized, just make it suitable to drive. My wife wore an N-95 mask because of the stench. We used a generic spray deodorizer similar to Febreze but the odor persisted.
3. Use vent clips and air fresheners.
I hung “Little Trees” air fresheners from the rear view mirror and attached Febreze vent clips. These methods offered temporary help, often covering up the odor instead of eliminating it. Once we made more progress with additional cleaning methods, I returned to using vent clips as part of an ongoing maintenance to keep the car smelling fresh. Febreze offers a variety of delightful scents. But for now, more odor elimination was needed.
Febreze Vent Clip
4. Go to a professional car detailer.
A professional car detailed cleaned and shampooed every surface, inside and out of the vehicle. He used a spill proof organic air freshener by California Scents available in Coronado Cherry. A single canister was placed under the seat. This had a light fresh smell but seemed to get a little overpowering over time. You can regulate the amount of scent by opening or closing the air holes as needed. It lasts up to 60 days. It seemed more like a cover up than an odor eliminator but provided some delightful relief.
5. Use a car odor bomb/fogger.
I deployed the Dakota Odor Bomb. It claims to be a one-time, permanent odor eliminating fogger. You place it in the middle of the car and depress and lock the canister button in place while it sprays a fog until it completely empties. You are not to disturb the area, keeping the doors closed for at least 2 hours and then ventilate for 30 minutes. The smell was eliminated for a day or two, but then the odor returned. I was becoming puzzled by the persistence of the smell.
6. Use Ozone to Attack Odors.
Oxidizers like ozone attack odors very effectively. Baking soda, peroxides, fresh air and ozone react with and neutralize odors including skunk smell. Oxygen in the air that you breathe has a chemical formula of O2 while ozone has an extra oxygen and the chemical formula O3. It is produced in electrical storms. You might smell it’s fragrance after a spring thunderstorm. The chemical formula reacts with and eliminates strong odors, especially cigarette smoke.
I took the vehicle to a local dry cleaner who placed an ozone machine in it for about 24 hours. While this vehicle had some traces of cigarette smoke, it was the rotten stench odor that needed to be removed. After treatment, the vehicle smelled like ozone, somewhat pungent and somewhat like the smell after an electrical storm. I could smell a combination of the foul odor and the ozone together for a day or two. After about three days, the odor was still present. I was starting to conclude that the odor was deeply embedded into the seats.
7. Shampoo with pet deodorizer.
I went to Petsakes and was recommended a product called OdorPro, a non-allergenic, non-toxic, not a perfume cover up type of shampoo. I used it in conjunction with a small portable carpet shampoo machine called the SpotBot by Bissell. Its brushes are designed to fit over the size of a "pet accident." It automatically applies the soap and scrubs the spot. It has a timer and stops when complete. It works especially well on flat surfaces like the seats and floor boards. I shampooed the carpets, floor mats and headliner. It smelled fresh for about a day but the odor returned.
SpotBot Carpet Cleaner
8. Use a syringe with liquid deodorizer.
I identified that the front passenger seat seemed to have the strongest odor. I filled a 20 mL syringe with OdorPro liquid deodorizer from the pet store and injected it two inches into 10 areas of each seat, front and back. It provided some temporary improvements.
9. Remove seats-wrapped in plastic.
This arduous deodorizing project carried into early spring. On a warm, sunny day, I removed both the passenger seat and driver's seat from the vehicle and placed them in the yard to air out. I sprayed them down with a whole can of Lysol spray deodorizer (about a half can for each seat) and wrapped them in a clear plastic bag in hopes that the deodorizer would penetrate deeply into the seats. After a couple hours, I removed the plastic and re-installed them into the vehicle. It smelled fresh for about a day, but, you guessed it, the odor returned.
10. Completely replace the seats.
I finally concluded that the seats needed to be replaced. I searched local salvage yards. I was able to replace the driver and rear bench seats but unfortunately not the passenger seat where I thought the odor originated. When I removed the rear seat, the odor from the bottom transferred to my hands; they reeked. the foam was completely saturated with the odor inside and out. Replacing the seats made a significant difference. Yet I could not find a replacement for the passenger seat, so it remained.
Fresh air over time
In between all of these methods, I put down the windows and opened the trunk for several hours 3-5 days a week from the month of March through June. I realize not many people can do this during work hours because their car needs to be secured. I was able to keep an eye on my vehicle located outside my office window. Opening the car windows regularly seemed to diminish the last bit of odor in the passenger seat.
We may never know the source of the odor but it was industrial strength. Each of the methods improved the odor at least to some degree. The most significant measure I took was to replace the seats. I also believe that good old fashioned fresh air made a significant difference. I would recommend that everyone regularly practice keeping the windows down, especially in cool dry weather. For ongoing maintenance, I might recommend the vent clips by Febreze, especially the ocean scent.
The car was handed down to our oldest daughters. I will never forget the day oldest one said, “This car actually smells good!” I knew at that point it was mission accomplished.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
David Ortega (author) from Altoona, Iowa on March 16, 2018:
Bennett Auto-I tried to verify whether OdorPro was an enzyme cleaner as I was thinking it said so on the label. From PetSakes the product says, "Originally created for the hog industry, this multipurpose odor eliminator smells like bubblegum and will knock out odors in just seconds!" Since it was non-toxic and I believe used "natural ingredients" I was under the impression it was an enzyme, but for now, can't substantiate. Never-the-less, in your case it would be difficult to follow through with my recommendation to occasionally "air out" the vehicle since that is more of a long-term solution. With blood and similar body fluids, I would guess that the enzyme would be the best solution. Thanks for sharing!
Bennett Auto on March 15, 2018:
Enzyme sprays and cleaners also seem to do very well I’m actually neutralizing unwanted odors from vehicle interiors.
I own a small used car lot and we have had hundreds of cars come through over the past 20 years with god knows what in them.
I’ve literally spent thousands of dollars trying different products out for every imaginable scenario including body fluids (blood etc).
And honestly the best product I’ve found so far is enzyme cleaners and deodorizers.
Plus they sanitize everything also which helps tons!
I was talking to a family friend just a couple years ago about a couple different vehicles I was having an extremely hard time getting rid of unpleasant smells inside of them in order to sell them. 1 had a disgusting cat urine type smell and the other had a smell that I couldn’t even begin to explain which came from human blood.
She stated that years and years ago when she was a housekeeper at the Hilton they used enzyme cleaners on everything and it worked. I was skeptical but heck anything was worth a try so I got on Amazon and ordered me a large can. I was amazed at what that $17 can did! I’ve bought numerous different brands since with different scents etc they all seem to work very well without 1 being “better” than another but I will never buy another deodorizer that doesn’t have an enzyme cleaner in it.
David, UK on August 19, 2017:
I really dislike the fragrance they now always seem to have in the cleaning chemicals they use while valeting a car. During repairs at my local dealer I always tell them not to valet it. The other day they made a mistake and did valet it after the repair. It takes many days to go and never actually really goes. It even seems to impregnate any paper I've left in the car. The smell also seems to be more on the plastic dashboard area, rather than the seats.
I've increasingly found that fragrance with fixatives are used in modern life. I've found it also in washing powders. After inadvertently washing clothes using certain powders you'd think the scent would go after airing and even rewashing, but it never, ever does, which sounds unbelievable, but believe me, it's true. Over the last year I've had to dispose of quite a few bed sheets and towels because of this problem. This is new. It never used to be the case that fragrance was immovable.
I've also find a similar problem with (believe it or not) polymer spectacle lenses. Got some new ones recently and they had a fruity smell to them which I found distracting while reading. I washed them thoroughly twice. The smell seemed to go, but an hour so later it's back. It's the lenses and not the frame. The opticians then cleaned then in something they say removes all odours. But the smell is still there. Thankfully they're giving me a refund. I'm hoping glass lenses from a different opticians will be odourless.
David Ortega (author) from Altoona, Iowa on January 26, 2017:
If I understand you correctly, it sounds as though the skunk smell transferred from your clothes to the car after being sprayed. In that case, it probably did not penetrate deeply into the foam or cushion of the seat(s). The fogger might be a solution. The one I used did not have a chemical smell to it. Otherwise, in my case, again, when I removed the back seat, the underside of the foam cushion was moist and the smell transferred to my hands. So whatever it was soaked through to the very bottom.
LisaM44 on January 25, 2017:
What would you recommend for getting rid of skunk smell in the interior of a car? I was in the car for about 30 minutes right after being sprayed. I've tried a neutralizing air freshener, wiping down surfaces with Skunk Off, then vinegar-water spray the next day, and then Murphy's oil soap-water mixture after that. Also tried sprinkling baking soda on seats and carpet, leaving it overnight and vacuuming. And have been leaving windows open but the car is in a garage so there's not much air circulation. Thinking a fogger might work but I'm leery of creating a lingering chemical smell.
David Ortega (author) from Altoona, Iowa on August 01, 2016:
Thanks, Whitney. I see you joined recently. Hopefully you will develop and post some well-written blogs yourself!
Whitneysm on July 17, 2016:
David your writing style is great. Flows well. Your life is an adventure and I look foward to reading your blogs.