The 10 Best Car Odor Eliminators
This wiki has been updated 16 times since it was first published in March of 2018. Whether battling the traffic of a long commute each day or schlepping kids to a dozen activities every week, for many of us, our cars have become a second home. Unfortunately, this closed-in space tends to retain the smells generated by fast food, pets, and sporting gear. If you're starting to cringe each time you enter your vehicle, check out our selection of odor eliminators. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
July 24, 2020:
For this update we removed the Biocide Systems Auto Shocker because of multiple reports of this product exploding inside cars during treatment. It also leaves behind a strong chlorine scent that lingers.
We replaced it with the Smoke Eater spray, formulated by the makers of Mold Monster. This proprietary blend contains no harmful chemicals and its primary active ingredient is tea tree oil. Like the Biocide, the smell does linger, but the scent is pleasant. While the Smoke Eater doesn't reach into the vents like the Biocide formula, our list includes several options that treat your entire car.
Meguiar's Whole Car continues to be the top choice for treating every inch of your interior, as it's cycled through the air conditioning system and requires almost no effort on the user's part.
For car owners who don't have any smells ingrained into the upholstery or vents, but just want to absorb anything unpleasant that comes along, we still like the Moso Natural and Purggo Eco. Both feature bamboo charcoal that leaves behind no scent of it's own while it's constantly absorbing odors.
April 30, 2019:
The Meguiar's Whole Car took the top spot because it's specifically designed to work with your car's fan system, with almost no effort on the users part, just set and forget it, plus it offers a variety of scent options.
We included a few choices to deal with very specific odor issues like the Rocco and Roxie Professional, for stubborn pet-related messes, that must be eliminated quickly in such an enclosed space.
For drivers who don't like the use of chemicals we included the highly-rated Moso Natural for it's long-lasting effectiveness, although it isn't going to clean nasty embedded scents.
What’s That Smell?
When that coffee sits in the car, baking, an exciting science experiment begins, in which bacteria go to town on all that sugar.
When you buy a new car, in addition to the thrill of driving it around town and feeling particularly good about yourself, you’re treated to a sensory experience that is among the most difficult to explain on Earth. I’m talking about that new car smell. Is it the seats? The leather? Or is it the aroma left behind by the rotting corpse of American manufacturing? We may never know.
What we do know about the smell of a new car is that it doesn’t last. What takes its place afterward is dependent on a bunch of different variables, and if one of them should prove malodorous, it could set you up for a long battle with a stinky car.
By way of an anecdote, let’s take a look at my wife. She adores a good coffee on the road, but she takes her coffee with a boatload of sugar and a healthy dose of almond milk creamer. Then, she leaves it in her car, half-consumed, for weeks on end (thankfully, we have separate cars). When that coffee sits in the car, baking, an exciting science experiment begins, in which bacteria go to town on all that sugar. The result is an odor that could only be described as that of a leper who’s decided to soak his feet in some potting soil mixed with rotten coffee grounds.
And that’s just from a little java. If you play a sport of any kind, or hit the gym on a regular basis, and happen to leave your gear in the car for an extended period, the smell could knock you off your feet as you open the door. Then again, some smells don't have a clear origin. They just show up, set up shop, and refuse to leave.
You could try to cover the scent with a simple air freshener, but all you’re really doing in these instances is mixing one awful smell with a more pungent, unavoidably artificial-smelling chemical compound. That usually creates little more than a strong scent of pine of flowers covering up a hint of something offensive, something bitter in the background that never quite goes away.
The superior alternative is the car odor eliminator. This device isn’t designed to merely cover up bad smells, as air fresheners are. Rather, it’s designed to target the airborne molecules in your vehicle that are responsible for any and all foul aromas. To do this, manufacturers employ a litany of tools, from complex chemical solutions to simple charcoal, each of which has its advantages and disadvantages.
Choosing Your Car Odor Eliminator
The choice of a car odor eliminator will have a lot to do with the intensity of the smell that’s making your car a source of embarrassment whenever you let a passenger inside of it. The best way to understand the spectrum of available odor eliminators is to think of them in terms of their toxicity to humans.
The best way to understand the spectrum of available odor eliminators is to think of them in terms of their toxicity to humans.
In that regard, the most effective odor eliminators are often the ones composed of the most heinous chemical ingredients, the kinds of things that might be banned in a couple of years. On the other end of the spectrum, you have natural odor eliminators. They can be very effective so long as the source of odor isn’t too powerful or toxic in its own right, but they rarely do the kind of industrial job you can expect from the big bad chemical compounds. Still, some people prefer the natural options for the fact that they tend to have less of an odor of their own, especially compared with some chemical choices that can leave a sterile smell behind.
Once you know where on that spectrum you feel comfortable, you have to consider your delivery method. Most natural options are designed to sit or hang in place, and to treat whatever air happens to pass through them. If you drive around with the windows open a lot, this can be a boon, but in the dead of winter, it can make this type prove rather ineffective.
Another method is spray-based, and units that employ this method seem a lot like air fresheners at first, but they’re going to seek out and either destroy or envelop odorous molecules that could be offending you. Some of these sprays even work more like insect foggers, and you’re meant to deploy them in a locked car with the windows up and let them settle before it’s safe to drive again.
If you’re concerned with the potential for mold and mildew to build up, especially if you left your car out in the rain with its windows down, look for an option that targets mold. Some even have the ability to help remove moisture from the car’s interior, reducing the likelihood of mold growth.
Keep Your Car As Clean As Possible
One of the most surefire ways to keep the inside of your car from becoming a bio-hazard is to keep it clean in the first place. But with all the junk that so easily piles up in there, that might be easier said than done. Fortunately, there are a few things on the market that can help.
For starters, get yourself some kind of backseat or trunk organizer. When you have a lot of stuff floating around in your vehicle, not only does it automatically look messier, it also makes it easier for you to lose track of that fast food bag you threw in the backseat. When something like that has a chance to go bad, it’ll go bad fast, and then you’ve got a smell on your hands.
Another smart thing to do is get your hands on a car trash bin, so things like that fast food bag will have a clear and undeniable home that you can empty on a regular basis. These partner well with car tissue holders to make sure you always have napkins or tissues on hand for spills.