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Natural Ways to Keep Your Car Smelling Great

Natural ways to keep your car smelling great header

By Ali Wilkinson on April 27, 2021 in Life Hacks

It’s not easy to keep your car smelling fresh. Throw in a few kids and their forgotten smoothies from last week, the family dog, or a fast-food-filled road trip and a car can get smelly fast. However, chemical car fresheners aren’t necessarily safe. Keep reading to understand the problems with some car air fresheners and learn how to use safe, nontoxic, and DIY methods to keep your car smelling great.

Why Natural Is Better

Many air fresheners and deodorizers, including those cute trees that dangle from the mirror, can contain problematic ingredients such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are synthetic chemicals that can stay suspended in the air, which is what helps that lovely pine smell linger. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists more than 10 adverse health effects from exposure to VOCs, including headaches, visual disorders, and loss of coordination. You probably don’t want to experience any of those symptoms, particularly when you’re driving. Plus, long-term effects from VOC exposure are scarier, and include central nervous system damage, kidney disease, and even cancer.

VOCs aren’t the only ingredients that raise concerns. Many air fresheners also contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen; phthalates, which can cause birth defects; triclosan, an antimicrobial that has been linked to allergen sensitivity and thyroid disruption; and quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”), which are associated with asthma.

Not all car fresheners contain these problematic ingredients. Check the label to see how your air freshener stacks up. But know that even if the label on your air freshener looks good, many companies do not disclose all the ingredients in their air fresheners. Look for a product certified by Green Seal or Ecologo to be sure it’s free of formaldehyde, phthalates, triclosan, and quats.

Natural Ways to Keep Your Car Smelling Fresh

Fortunately, you can safely keep your car from smelling like a wet dog with natural solutions. Use these easy, affordable, DIY car freshener hacks to kiss lingering smells and chemical fresheners goodbye.

1. Clean the upholstery, mats, and vents.

Cleaning your upholstery and mats may be an obvious first step (although not a fun one) when trying to eliminate car odors. When’s the last time you cleaned your vents? Vents accumulate dirt and germs, which blow throughout your car when you turn on the heat or air conditioning. Use a thin sponge or cotton swab to clean the upper and lower vents.

2. Get a washable cover for the seat or cargo area.

If your pooch (or your snack-munching tween) rides with you, consider investing in removable, washable covers for the seats or cargo areas. When your car gets stinky, just remove the covers and wash them.

3. Invest in charcoal.

Just as charcoal absorbs impurities from water in a Brita water filter, it absorbs stinky smells. Fill a cloth bag with activated charcoal discs or pellets and place it in the car to absorb bad odors.

4. Let baking soda do its thing.

Do you keep a container of open baking soda in your fridge to reduce smells? The same trick works in your car. Baking soda is a powerhouse in odor removal. Rather than covering up odors, it absorbs and gets rid of them. Since an open container of baking soda may lead to spilling, put some baking soda in a mason jar and cover it with a cardboard lid with holes in it. Choose a size that fits in your car’s cup holders. Odors will come in, but they won’t come out! Add a few drops of essential oil for an added punch.

5. Don’t put the baking soda away yet.

Many odors get trapped in the upholstery of the car. Put baking soda to work at the source of the smell by sprinkling it over the carpet and seats and leaving it overnight. Vacuum it up the next day — and get rid of the trapped smells at the same time. Pro tip: make sure the area is dry before sprinkling to avoid making a paste that’s difficult to clean up.

6. Leave a bowl of vinegar out.

The vapors from vinegar bond with smelly molecules to neutralize odors. To use vinegar, leave a bowl out in your car overnight. Just remember to remove it before you start driving! Spilled vinegar can damage leather interiors.

7. Make a DIY vent clip.

Add your favorite essential oil to cotton balls or pompoms and glue them to a clothes pin. Then clip the clothes pin to one of the car’s vents. When you turn on the heat or air conditioning, the scent spreads throughout the car.

8. Make a scent sachet.

Use a small mesh bag, a paper bag, even an old (but clean!) sock, and fill it with something that smells lovely. One great idea: coffee beans! In addition to perking you up, coffee beans have deodorizing properties. Other ideas: citrus peels, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla beans, or a combination.


With just a little DIY elbow grease, these natural solutions can make your car smell fresh and clean — without worrying about side effects.

Ali Wilkinson is a consultant for Say Insurance. She's a lawyer and writer based in Portland, Oregon. She has been practicing law for over 15 years, working with clients across a wide range of specialties from accounting malpractice to victims' rights.