Whether you have just bought a used car, given up smoking or have a big date ahead of you, a cigarette smoke smell in your car can be one of the worst smells out there, and you can’t just roll down your windows to get rid of it, because smoking cigarettes leaves a thin film of … smokey nicotine … pretty much everywhere, including all the nooks and crannies.
Imagine a home fire … much of the damage comes from the smoke – you just can’t get rid of the smell, and it’s the same (albeit on a smaller scale) for cigarette or cigar smoke – it just permeates everything – fabrics, air vents, the car mats, headliner … even the places that you can’t see, but the good news is, with a little professional knowledge and some basic tools, you can get rid of it.
Some vacuum cleaners have less suck than an asthmatic geriatric, and while they may be OK for really small bits of dust and dirt, they won’t give your upholstery the deep down attention that you’ll need to remove that annoying smoke smell.
My advice would be not to bother with the cordless hand-held auto vacuums for this, you’re going to need to your domestic vacuum cleaner at the minimum, and even then, you’ll probably need to give your car a good going over two or three times.
There are thousands of people that swear by home remedies for removing that smoke smell, from coffee grinds through to lemons, and even newspapers, and while they won’t hurt, the realty is that there are better products available to purchase, and it definitely will make the job easier.
Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh coffee? The idea behind using coffee is to put some in an open bowl or two and leave it in the car for around 48 hours – not only should your car take on the aroma of coffee, but the grinds should also absorb some of the tobacco smoke smell.
Similar to the coffee, you should peel some citrus fruits – mainly oranges and lemons and place the peelings in a bowl, allow them to sit in the car for as long as possible.
Believe it or not, placing rolled up newspapers under the seats has been proven to have an effect on any odors – the newspaper absorbs any smells. This could be worth leaving them permanently in the car, just replacing them every few weeks.
An air freshener will only really mask the smell rather than remove it, so it’s not a great choice, but definitely useful if you can’t stand to be in the car while it smells so bad.
A powerful steam cleaner can make a huge difference to removing smoke smells from your car – it will give the upholstery a deep clean, and you can also use it on the hard surfaces – windows, dash, center console and any bits of trim.
Depending on the steamer, it can loosen any dirt and then suck it up, although some cleaners just loosen the dirt, ready to be wiped away. Either choice is an essential part of cleaning the car and it’s worth investing in a decent one, especially if you want to detail your car on a regular basis.
Removing that Smoke Smell
The first step in removing smoke smell from our car is emptying the vehicle of any rubbish, and of course, emptying the ash tray (if it has one). Even if you’ve emptied the ash tray in the past, unless it has been cleaned properly, you’ll find that the smokey smell will linger – even just from a small amount of ash left over.
The next step is to remove all of the mats and let them air outside – not only does this allow the smell on the mats to dissipate, but it also gives the chance for the carpet underneath the mats to breathe. If you have a steam cleaner, give the mats a real good once over with the cleaner and just let them air dry.
It’s at this point that I’d get the vacuum cleaner out and give the whole car (including the headlining and trunk) a thorough vacuuming, just to remove any loose debris (don’t worry, you’ll be using the vacuum cleaner again!). Now, whether you have leather or cloth upholstery, you’ll need a suitable cleaner – either some sort of shampoo for cloth upholstery or leather cleaner.
Cleaning the upholstery could be as simple as rubbing the cleaner in while steam cleaning – the steam will give it that little extra penetration, and in theory, should make it easier to clean out. Just as with the seat upholstery, you should treat the rest of the car – the carpets, headlining … anything fabric basically.
A word of caution with the headlining though – try not to get it too wet because it will start sagging, possibly peeling away from the roof.
Next up is the hard surfaces – the dashboard, center console, trim, handles, glass … everything that isn’t absorbent. You’ll need a decent interior cleaner and some sort of glass cleaner, and some serious elbow grease – if the car belonged to a heavy smoker, that tar like smokey substance will take some shifting.
Give all of the hard surfaces a thorough cleaning, if you can’t find or don’t want to use a chemical cleaner, hot soapy water will work, but it will definitely require a bit more effort. I’d recommend the use of small detailing brushes or even paint brushes to get to the hard to reach areas – like in the air vents (although we will be using a deodorizer for the air vents). The trick is not to leave anywhere untouched.
Not quite the final step, but nearly last, you should buy a chemical deodorizer ‘bomb’ that you set off in the car with the air conditioning system working. This has two benefits – it will be sucked through the a/c system and the microbacteria will be killed, which in turn leads to a fresher smell, but it also gets recirculated through the air vents, cleaning the whole system and leaving the car smelling fresh. This really is a win-win, especially if your a/c system doesn’t smell fresh.
Finally, another session with the vacuum cleaner just to pick up anything that’s been missed or dislodged due to the cleaning.
This whole treatment should remove the bulk of the smell, but if your nose is particularly sensitive, you may need to do it another couple of times (it’s worth noting that some professional detailers will tell you that you’ll never totally remove the smoke smell).
Having said that, completing this treatment should be enough for most people, with just simple preventative measures going forwards … a session with the coffee grinds every month or so, but if you don’t smoke (and no one else using the car does), the smell will only ever get better, especially if you like driving with the windows open!
A quick recap – you’ll need:
A vacuum cleaner, steam cleaner, detailing brushes, upholstery cleaners, chemical cleaners, car deodorizer and glass cleaner, and about five hours of your time to complete it properly!