You turned over a new leaf or gave up smoking for Lent. Or perhaps you got a smokin’ deal on a used car because of the cigarette smell inside. Maybe you still indulge in the habit but it’s time to trade in or sell your car. In any case, you have a challenge ahead of you: Figuring out how to get cigarette smell out of a car.
It’s an odor that can be annoying or repulsive to non-smokers. And it can cause breathing problems for asthmatics and others with respiratory issues. It’s much harder to sell a car with cigarette smell in the fabrics and surfaces. Rather than taking a huge hit on your car’s value, can you get rid of the smell instead? Here’s what you should know.
Why is tobacco smoke so stubborn?
Cigarette smoke is more than just the wisp of white in the cloud you exhale. It contains toxic particles and gasses such as hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, acrolein, benzene, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and a host of other hard-to-pronounce chemicals.
While it looks like they dissipate cleanly into the environment, the chemicals are invisibly settling onto your car’s surfaces and sticking to them. For instance, in a smoker’s car, wipe a clean paper towel against the windshield. You’ll come away with a yellowish-brown film on the cloth. If you use your fingertip, you’d be able to feel a sticky, greasy substance that’s hard to wash away.
In addition to sticking to the surface, many of the chemicals and compounds permeate deeper into the pores and fabrics inside your car. When they do, it becomes extremely difficult to break their bond. That’s particularly true for vehicles belonging to long-time smokers when the smoke gets deep into the cushion foam rather than just on the surface.
How to get cigarette smoke out of a car
If you were to take your car to a professional detailer, they would probably use a device called an ozonator (ozone generator). Tim Rebeck of Crown Detailing and Car Wash in Winnipeg, Canada, says it’s a practice detailers are familiar with, and it’s effective.
“Set the machine into the car, close the doors and plug it in," Rebeck said. “Depending on the severity of the odor, it runs for 45 minutes to 12 hours. It’s an air purifier that sucks everything out into a [HEPA] filter. Depending on how bad it is, a full shampoo might be necessary first.”
But what if you’re doing the detailing at home with readily available supplies? If the smoke smell is really bad, can you get cigarette smell out of a car’s interior?
It’s possible with the right products and cleaning supplies, according to Tim Coats of Ethos Car Care. The longer the car has been smoked in, the harder it will be to remove the smell. And while some vehicles might only need a light interior cleaning or treatment, others may require each of the following steps.
What you’ll need:
- Vacuum cleaner
- Microfiber cloths
- Interior cleaner, preferably containing odor neutralizer
- Upholstery steam cleaner and carpet shampoo
- Cabin air filter
- Duct and vent cleaner spray
- Baking soda
- Soft bristled brush
- Air purifier
Remove anything that doesn’t belong
Remove loose items from the car. Toss what you no longer need and set aside anything you do. You’ll need to wipe down or launder these items later.
If you don’t discard or remove items that have been in your car, the smoke smell is going to stick around. It likely adhered to all of those items just as it has to your car’s interior parts.
Vacuum the interior
The first stage of removing the cigarette smell in car fabrics and carpeting is to take out any loose debris and dust. Yes, even dust can retain cigarette odor. Thoroughly vacuum the carpets, seats and floor mats plus any carpeting or upholstery on the door panels, rear dash and so on.
Clean the glass
Even if you don’t see the haze on the glass, there’s a film clinging to it. High-quality glass cleaners contain cleaners like ammonia or isopropyl alcohol that cut through the tacky particles so they can be wiped away.
Wipe down hard surfaces
Like the windshield, chemicals from the smoke have settled onto the plastic and vinyl surfaces everywhere in your interior. Each part will need to be thoroughly wiped to remove as much of the residue as possible.
This part is tedious. Parts you need to wipe down include:
- The dashboard
- The instrument cluster lens
- The steering wheel and switches
- The center console, including the radio
- The armrests and door panels
- Door sill plates
- Seat risers
- Door pillars
- Speaker grilles
- The glove box, inside and out
Missing any part could result in a lingering source of smoke smell.
Shampoo the upholstery
Because upholstery is made up of tiny individual fibers, there’s an immense amount of real estate for smoke particles to cling to. This step also requires attention to detail or you risk leaving behind particles that will eventually overwhelm other scents.
Whether you rent a machine or you own one, the process is the same. Remove the floor mats, the door sill plates, the center console and even the seats so you can access every square inch of carpet. Then, use the steam cleaner with an odor-killing shampoo. Make sure to get the carpets and upholstery as clean as possible. If you’re treating heavy smoke, plan on doing a second steam cleaning before reassembling the interior.
Don’t forget to steam clean the headliner if it’s upholstered. Be careful with this because the backing is basically cardboard in most vehicles. Getting it saturated could cause it to sag or become misshapen.
The steam heats the oily smoke particles to loosen them from the fabrics so they can be washed away. If you check the water after you’re done, you’ll be able to see yellowish-brown water, laden with smoke. It won’t smell very nice.
Wipe down leather
If you have leather seats instead of fabric, they need to be cleaned differently. The leather is porous so smoke might’ve seeped into those tiny pores. Use a leather conditioner to wipe the seats clean. Don’t use normal all-purpose cleaners on leather because that can strip out the natural oils, causing them to wear and crack sooner.
Replace the cabin air filter
Your HVAC system has been circulating stale, smoky air. If your car is equipped with a cabin air filter, it’s going to be chock full of smokiness. Pull the old cabin air filter and replace it with a new one.
Deodorize the HVAC ducts and vents
Unfortunately, you can’t hand clean the ducts buried in your dash. To get the smoke off the surfaces inside the ducts, you need to use a vent and duct cleaner. Unloading a can of this stuff into the vents will attack the smoke particles and neutralize them on the spot. For heavy smoke, you might need more than one treatment.
Clean the seat belts
Seat belts are often missed in car detailing. Extend the seat belts and clip them into the buckles, then treat them with an odor-killing all-purpose cleaner. If you miss this, you get a whiff of smoke every time you buckle up.
Neutralize smoke smell in upholstery with baking soda
Even with all the cleaning, there could be a smell that lingers. If you can identify where the smell is coming from, sprinkle baking soda onto the upholstery or carpeting and agitate it with a soft-bristled brush. Leave it for a few hours or overnight, then vacuum it out.
Baking soda is famous for neutralizing odors, which is why so many people keep a box in their refrigerator.
Install an in-car air purifier
If all else fails, put a portable air purifier unit into your cupholder. They ionize the air inside your car to eliminate odors. They plug into the car’s 12-volt accessory port, which ironically enough was where the in-dash cigarette lighter was kept in older cars.
Can you prevent your car from smelling like smoke?
The best way to prevent the smell of smoke inside your car is to not light up in the first place or use a vape. If that’s not a viable option, you can take a few steps to keep the smell to a minimum. But avoiding it altogether is almost impossible.
Keep the windows open while you puff
The fresh airflow of an open window can disperse much of the smoke from a cigarette. To achieve a cross breeze that sucks the air out, open another window on the opposite side of the car.
Use an odor sponge
Some auto detailing supply companies have carbon air neutralizer blocks or air sponges that can absorb smells inside your car. These work to a degree and can help prevent your upholstery from being a massive sponge that sucks up the smell.
Clean it more often
The typical driver should get their car detailed twice a year. For a smoker, get your vehicle detailed more frequently to wipe away the smoke residue before it gets bad. Every one to two months is a good idea if you’re a heavy smoker.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to get the smell of cigarettes out of a car?
For light treatments, it can take a few hours of cleaning and detailing to get cigarette smell out of car surfaces. If the smell is strong or the vehicle has been smoked in for a long time, it could take two to five days of intense detailing to get rid of the smell.
How much does it cost to get the smell of smoke out of your car?
The materials you need to clean smoke from a car interior vary depending on the products you choose and if you need to rent a steam cleaner. Expect between $50 and $100. Professional detailing to remove smoke smell can easily be $250 to $500 depending on the labor required to get the job done.