A car that reeks of smoke smell and cigarettes can lead to a host of problems. Those issues can range from small inconveniences such as dealing with uncomfortable passengers in your vehicle to major ones such as consistent exposure to third-hand smoke, which can be dangerous to your health.
“Third-hand smoke is harmful to our genetic material and the contamination becomes more toxic with time,” says Bo Hang, a chemical research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. The more exposure you have to toxic chemicals from smoke, the more dangerous the effects can be on your health.
The smart thing to do when attempting to eliminate smoke smell in a vehicle is to fix the problem as soon as possible. Maybe you bought a used car that stinks of cigarettes or you’re a smoker hoping to sell — either way, it’s healthier for everyone to get rid of the stink.
How to Get Rid of Smoke Smell in Your Car
Despite their ability to neutralize unwanted odors from your car’s interior, store brand air fresheners and odor absorbing beads will not do much for removing smoke smell from a car’s interior. You need to go deeper.
“Smoke smell is hard to remove initially, but continuous cleaning will eventually cause the smell to fade out. 80 percent of the cars I have worked on were successfully rid of smoke smell after a specially tailored deep cleaning process,” says head detailer Jeremy Martins of Midtown Honda of Toronto.
The other 20 percent? Some vehicles may have ventilation systems that trap smells more aggressively than others. Smoke smell can end up settling in internal crevices that will, unfortunately, be near impossible to remove.
Martins has had extensive experience detailing car interiors for more than five years and adds that cloth seats are more predisposed to absorb smoke smell than leather due to the foam fibers in cloth seats being more porous.
Although every situation will be unique, the sun visors, seatbelts, driver’s side roof liner and windows are areas where nicotine particles will quickly settle in and begin to slowly disperse chemical pollutants into your car’s interior anytime the air in the car becomes unsettled.
The lead detailer from a shop in Chicago says, “The headliner is affected differently because due to gravity, smoke compounds moving upwards in the vehicle’s interior are forced to concentrate in that singular spot and the distribution of nicotine particle, in this case, is less dispersed.”
Look out for a brown/dark brown discoloring on the headliner before commencing shampooing and scrubbing. Be prepared, however, for the possible loss of your headliner. A few expert detailers we spoke to warned of likely headliner damage that would require a replacement.
The interior of a smokey vehicle is a chemically imbalanced environment and using white vinegar is a great way to initially absorb surface smoke smells and residue that left on the seats, dashboard and little nooks and crannies that are hard to reach.
Start by putting cups of fresh white vinegar in your cup holders and a bowl of it in one of the footwells. Make sure the windows are all sealed shut and leave your car in this state for a day or so.
One thing you can do by yourself before having your car prepped by a professional is to change the cabin air filter, which is where trapped smells can continuously recirculate in the interior when the climate control system is used.
After that, a surface wipe will help get the process started.
“Wiping down all exposed interior surfaces with a surface cleaner with a formula that breaks down enzymes will quickly wipe out surface residue and provide a protective layer as you keep cleaning other interior areas that may be re-exposed to smoke deposits during the entire cleaning process,” says Rick Nercesian, owner of Rick’s Professional Auto Detailing in Haverton, Pennsylvania.
After an initial wipe, using a steam cleaner on carpets and cloth surfaces will loosen and force hardened nicotine and other smoke compounds to come to the surface, making it easier for shampooing to reach all areas needed for cleaning.
After that, apply the shampoo directly to the carpet and seat surfaces. A drill brush is the best tool to use for this part of the process. The shampoo must have an odor removing compound and you must shampoo at least two times. Shampooing from the outside edges of the headliner towards the center of the affected area is a useful technique. This avoids spreading thicker parts of the smoke residue onto unaffected areas as the cleaning is ongoing. After shampooing is done, use a vapor steamer to slowly start extracting all the difficult dirt underneath surfaces. Once that is all done, use a wet vacuum to gently start drying seating and carpeting.
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Microfiber cloths used in this process must be able to absorb lots of dirt. Flatweave and less absorbent microfiber clothes should be used for window areas and flatter surfaces. That way, smoke residue is not retransferred as cleaning is being done. It’s different for seats and headliners where you need more absorbent cleaning cloths to absorb as much residue as possible.
Maintaining the Smoke-Free Atmosphere
After the first wave of cleaning is done, some smoke smell can still linger in the interior. The cleaning process is usually repeated as needed. After that, an ozone generator may be used to help by further breaking down air molecules in the interior too small to be filtered out by a regular air purifier. Ozone generators use ultraviolet radiation to break down O2 molecules to their core and ozone becomes a byproduct. A professional detailer knows how to use this machine properly and it would be a wise decision to use their services if an ozone treatment becomes necessary.
Getting rid of the smoke smell in a car is an intense undertaking and if you’re buying a used car that reeks of cigarettes, it may be worth it to avoid the headache of buying it altogether unless you’re getting a really good deal on the car.
But if you do make the plunge, expect to pay between $60 and $200 depending on the stink’s severity for a suite of cleaning tools to go about this yourself. One of the most expensive tools will be the steam cleaner, but renting one will soften the blow.
For an interior detail, Rick’s Professional Auto Detailing in Pennsylvania charges $100 for a car and $125 for an SUV or truck, but getting rid of the smoke smell will likely take more time and effort.
Arm yourself with as much information about the vehicle’s smoking history if possible. That way, if you need the services of an expert detailer, that information can be used to design an effective process to attack the smell.