Estimated Time Needed: Four hours, Skill Level: Beginner, Cost: $20-100, depending on tools
As an enjoyer of depreciated luxury cars, the search for my current daily driver led me to a 2006 BMW 325i being sold for a low price due to an airbag light. That airbag light came with a funky smell that I didn’t think was connected until I unbolted the front passenger seat. It turns out the previous owner had crammed a crude homemade smoking apparatus underneath the seat, disconnecting the pretensioner harness and spilling bong water all over the carpet. Also laying in the stain field was an unsmoked cigarette. That would do it.
Maybe you’re also chasing a deal on a smoker’s car in today’s topsy-turvy market or you’ve bit the bullet on a Newport special of your own. Deals are few these days, so some compromises are required. If a dusting of carcinogens saves you a grand, that’s not a bad chunk of change. That cigarette smell won’t stay forever. You can get rid of it for much less than what a detailing company would charge. I got rid of the smoke smell from my BMW on the cheap and with this guide, you can too.
The Safety Brief
We want you to leave the garage feeling just as healthy as when you walked in. Any time you work on a car, safety is paramount. Thankfully, removing smoke smell consists of detailing, so the amount of protective gear required is minimal. As with any chemicals, we strongly recommend wearing latex or nitrile gloves to prevent them coming into prolonged contact with your skin. As for deploying deodorizer, we recommend the use of an N95 mask since aerosols can be a bit harsh on the lungs. Safety glasses are also a good idea.
The Tools & Parts You Need
To remove the smell of smoke from a car, you’ll need an arsenal of cleaning products, cleaning tools, and deodorizers. There’s nothing worse than having to make a second store run in a car that smells like the 1970s, so I’ve compiled a list of the supplies you’ll need.
- Upholstery cleaner. Smoke likes to sit in upholstery, so a good upholstery cleaner is critical for proper deodorization. Some upholstery cleaners are equipped to handle textiles, leather, and plastics.
- Interior cleaner. If you decide to get a separate upholstery cleaner and interior cleaner, you’ll likely be rewarded with a better job on your carpets.
- Glass cleaner. Don’t forget about the interior glass. A tint-safe ammonia-free glass cleaner is an inexpensive, effective, and safe way of removing that yellow film of filth from your windows.
- Brush set. Once you have a set of soft brushes for detailing interiors, you’ll wonder how you ever went without them. They’re inexpensive, easy to clean, and great for getting in air vents and gently agitating fragile headliners. In addition, you’ll need a stiff nylon brush for the carpets and hard-wearing fabric surfaces to really agitate the dirt loose.
- Microfiber towels. To wipe up all that cleaning product, you’re gonna need some microfiber towels. Not only are they absorbent, they’re soft enough to avoid damaging fragile headliners.
- Cabin air filter. Smoke likes to hide in cabin air filters. To thoroughly eliminate it, you’ll need a fresh filter. We recommend grape-seed polyphenol or charcoal odor-neutralizing filters as they’re cheap and provide an added layer of protection.
- Wet/dry vacuum. Optional but highly recommended is a vacuum. It makes quick work of sucking up carpet cleaner in addition to getting all the Taco Bell crumbs, dust, and stray pocket lint out from the folds in your seats. If you don’t have one, don’t worry. Your household vacuum will work fine on the dry stuff.
- Deodorizer. The last thing you’ll need is an automotive deodorizer. A forest of tree-shaped air fresheners will only mask existing smells. It’s best to do things right and attack odor at the source.
You’ll also need a flat, well-ventilated workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.
The Task: How To Get Smoke Smell out of a Car
1. Clean out loose stuff.
You wouldn’t dust a coffee table when it’s littered with magazines and empty red Solo cups. Quickly toss anything in your car that isn’t bolted down before you go in for the deep clean. Remove fuel receipts, parking cards, rubber mats if you live in a frozen hellscape like I do, maybe not the wheel-lock key, but you get the idea. Also, dump the ashtray if it’s still full of butts.
2. Change your cabin air filter.
While the filter preventing dirt from entering a car’s engine is regarded as critical maintenance, the filter that keeps the air inside a car is often neglected. Not only does it keep nasty particulates out, it also absorbs odors circulating through the climate-control system, including smoke smell. Instructions on changing a cabin air filter vary by vehicle, so have a look at the steps to change your cabin air filter before ditching that smoke-soaked filter.
3. Break out the vacuum.
Smoke likes to trap itself in soft stuff, so start by vacuuming the carpets and seats. Be sure to take your time, make overlapping passes, and get in there deep on cracks and crevices. While it may be tempting to unbolt your front seats, doing so may set off an airbag code so it’s best to move them forward and backward to clean under them.
4. Clean the plastic.
Any cleaning fluid you spray onto interior plastic will drip down onto the carpet, so it’s best to tackle the plastic first. To avoid excess splatter when cleaning lightly soiled surfaces, spray your cleaner onto a microfiber towel, wipe down the intended surface and then dry with a second microfiber towel. Pay special attention to high-touch surfaces such as armrests, the steering wheel, and shift knob because smoke smell can transfer to them from fingers and clothes.
5. Tend to the seats.
In the best-case scenario, your car has either vinyl or coated-leather seats. Both are nonporous, so a spritz of cleaner, agitation with a soft brush and a good wipe with a microfiber towel will sort them out nicely. Better leather requires a bit more care by gently agitating a special leather-safe cleaner and conditioner with a soft brush to draw out dirt from the pores. Cloth upholstery is by far the hardest to clean, so get in there with a stiff-bristle brush before you set that brush to work on the carpets.
6. Shampoo the carpets.
Now’s the time to really put in some elbow grease. Normally, this amounts to saturating the carpets, giving them a good scrub with a stiff nylon brush and daubing off the moisture with a microfiber towel. If you have a wet/dry vacuum, feel free to speed up the drying process by vacuuming the saturated, scrubbed carpets.
7. Careful with the headliner.
Start by very gently brushing away surface dirt with a soft brush and then a light application of upholstery cleaner on the stained parts. Be careful when wiping the headliner dry, too much pressure could separate the adhesive, and reupholstering a headliner is about as much fun as trying to kick one of the giant red balls outside of Target.
8. Clean the glass.
Now it’s time to get the yellow nicotine haze off the interior glass. The trick to getting a streak-free finish with glass cleaner is to have one towel for wiping and another for buffing. Take your time with the windows and interior mirrors and be sure to buff thoroughly. Not only will you remove a layer of smoke smell, you’ll noticeably improve your outward visibility.
9. Spray and pray.
Now’s the time for the signature finishing move: blasting the deodorizer. Instructions vary, but I’m a huge fan of Meguiar’s Whole Car Air Re-Fresher as it simply requires blasting the air on recirculate, placing the can on the center console, locking the tab and closing the door. In roughly half an hour, it’ll stop feeling like trench warfare in there, and you’ll be able to appreciate a pleasantly smoke-free interior for years to come.
Learn More From This Helpful Video Tutorial
Text-based learning isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For all the visual learners out there, we’ve got you covered with a step-by-step video that’ll show you how to get smoke smell out of your car. It’s produced by Chemical Guys, one of the most trusted names in detailing. While your order of operations may vary slightly, most of the techniques in our how-to guide are there.
FAQ on Removing Smoke Smell from a Car
A. This depends on a lot of variables. How frequently was a vehicle smoked in? Were the windows up or down while the occupants smoked? One cigar with the windows down typically produces odor that dissipates after a few hours, but the smell from habitual smoking won’t be erased without a deep clean. Even after a deep clean and deodorization treatment, it can still take up to 48 hours for the smell to disappear. Certain vehicles may even require a second run with the deodorizer.
A. While car dealers start with detailing, their big weapon for getting rid of smoke smell is usually an ozone generator. While an ozone generator is an effective tool in the right hands, it can do some serious damage when used improperly. Leave an ozone generator in a car for too long, and it can cause damage to leather, rubber, vinyl, and soft-touch plastics. In addition, ozone is incredibly toxic. Ozone exposure greater than 0.07 parts per million over the course of eight hours can cause lung damage. As a result, using an ozone generator requires serious experience and personal protective equipment. We don’t suggest the use of ozone generators at home.
A. While vinegar certainly reduces cigarette smell, it’s unlikely to completely eliminate it. Vinegar works on smoke because it has a low pH value that helps counteract the high pH level of cigarette smoke, reducing its offensiveness. If you’re on a tight budget, vinegar is worth a shot. However, modern chemistry has produced low-cost compounds that are more effective at neutralizing smoke odors than vinegar, so it makes sense to spend a few dollars for a much more effective deodorization treatment.
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