10 Ways to Deodorize Your Car
I inherited a 2008 Ford Focus from a lady who was like a grandmother to our family. Hoarding was a problem for her. I will write about that in another blog. She filled her vehicle up to the windows with papers, shopping bags, clothing, etc. in every seat. She apparently had spilled something in the front passenger seat, most likely something with milk. It had been sitting idle for an entire summer with the windows closed and temperatures well into the 100 degree range. 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 best 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 clean 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.
The Odor Project: 2008 Ford Focus
Step 1: Clearing out the junk
The month was November when we inherited the car. 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 swept out the dead bugs. Even after these measures, there was still a terrible stench.
Next: Disinfectant & Spray Deodorizer
The first few products my wife used were 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 a paper mask because of the stench. We used a generic spray deodorizer similar to Febreze but the odor persisted.
Vent clips and air fresheners
I hung air fresheners from the rear view mirror and attached vent clips. The rear view mirror type was the typical "Little Trees" available in pine, vanilla and other scents. These methods offered temporary help, often covering up the odor instead of eliminating it. As I will outline later, 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.
Professional car detailer
I have a friend from church who is a professional car detailer. He cleaned and shampooed every surface, inside and out of the vehicle. The deodorizer he used was a spill proof organic air freshener by California Scents available in a round canister. He used 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.
Car odor bomb/fogger
The product I used was 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 and investigated further.
Chemically speaking, oxidizers like ozone attack odors very effectively. Chemical substances that contain oxygen groups found in baking soda, peroxides,fresh air and ozone react with and neutralize nearly any odor including skunk smell. Oxygen or fresh air that you breathe has a chemical formula of O2 while ozone has an extra oxygen and the chemical formula O3. It is typically produced in a thunderstorm and is that fresh smell you might detect after a rain with lightning. The chemical formula is designed to react with and eliminate 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 of the vehicle and still capable of exuding the smell.
Shampoo with pet deodorizer
I went to Petsakes, a local pet store 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. It has a unique design in that it has brushes designed to fit over the size of a "pet accident." You turn it on and let it automatically apply the soap and scrub 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 all of the carpets, floor mats and headliner. It smelled fresh for about a day but the odor returned. It was becoming obvious that the odor was harboring deep into the foam of the seats.
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 a couple inches into at least 10 areas of the seat, front and back. It provided some temporary improvements.
Removed seats-wrapped in plastic
By now 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 then 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.
Complete replacement of seats
I finally concluded that the seats needed to be replaced because the odor had completely saturated the foam. I went to the local salvage yards to find matching seats. I was able to replace the driver and rear bench seats but unfortunately not the passenger seat where I thought the spill and odor originated. When I removed the rear seat, the odor from the bottom of the seat and foam transferred to my hands; they reeked. I knew at that point that 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 even 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 has to be secured. I was able to keep an eye on my vehicle from my office window. Opening the windows regularly seemed to diminish the last bit of odor in the passenger seat.
Whatever the source of the odor was, we may never know. It is obvious 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 has been handed down to our oldest daughters who are in high school. I will never forget the day oldest one said, “This car actually smells good!” I knew at that point it was mission accomplished.