Why Does Your Car Smell Like Trash? Guide to Identifying and Eliminating the Source

Who doesn’t want to smell fresh air in their cars? Of course, we all do! A sudden trash-like smell makes driving tiring and uncomfortable. Also, it can affect our health. Since I am here, you don’t have to get stuck with that awful smell. In this blog, I will explain “Why does your car smell like trash?”

Car may smell like trash for various reasons. These may include food and drink spills, smoke, sweat, pets, and other accumulated organic materials. Again, water spills may cause mold and mildew growth and leave unpleasant odors. Mechanical issues like exhaust fumes or gas leaks sometimes produce a foul scent.

Dealing with these odors is not easy till you identify the sources. Maybe the smell will go away over time. But it may already affect you and the passengers affected. However, it may remain for a long time in some cases. That’s why you should learn how to identify and eliminate the smell from its sources. I hope you won’t mind spending a few minutes on this blog.

Impact of Trash-like Smell on Your Health

Let’s say – why would you care about a car smelling like trash? Well, poor car hygiene can cause air pollution. It has severe impacts on human (and pets’) health.

Allergies & Respiratory Issues

Mold and mildew exposure are the sources of trash-like smell. They can often exacerbate allergies and respiratory problems. You may experience coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Stress and Discomfort

Some people have severe issues with bad odors. You may also find the trash smell very irritating if you are like them. It may cause unexpected stress and discomfort. Moreover, it may become painful during daily commuting and long trips.

Impact of Mental Health

Our sense of smell and emotion have a strong connection. If we smell good, our mind automatically turns better. But when we are in a smelly environment for a long time, it may surely change our mood and overall mental health.

Common Causes of Trash Smell in Cars & Ways to Remove Them

Most of the time, the leftovers inside the car interior cause different smells. Apart from these, there are other reasons to breathe trash-like odor in your car. I will explain them in detail with the expulsion instructions in this part.

Spilled food and drinks

Do you take your family or other people, or even pets inside your car? While they eat foods like some snacks or drink liquids, they may leave or spill them. And these remnants or spills can start rotting and producing trash-like smell. Particularly, liquids like milk can sour and emit a foul odor.

What to Do

Start by checking the vehicle floor, under the seats, and other hidden areas for any leftover food or spills. Then, thoroughly clean the place from where you are getting the smell.

Use an interior detailer or all-purpose automotive interior cleaner if the source is hard plastic. If it is from the seats or carpet, use an automotive upholstery, carpet cleaner, or steam cleaner (1).

Alternatively, sprinkle baking soda on the carpet and under the floor mats. Then, vacuum the area to pull the smell out.  

Smoke/Smoking in the Car

I guess you don’t have a habit of smoking in the car. If you or your passenger does this, the smell of stale smoke can accumulate over time. Then, it will create a strong, unpleasant odor. Moreover, this smell is complex to remove as it clings to surfaces like walls, clothing, and upholstery (2,3).

What to Do

If you want to eliminate smoke odors, you can adopt versatile methods. For example, ozone generators or enzymatic cleaners can work better. Then, vinegar or activated charcoal can also remove the scent.

Pet Messes

Do you travel with your furry friends in your car? Well, they can leave behind messes in the vehicle like urine, feces, or even vomit. These messes can cause a strong, unpleasant smell if you do not clean them in timely.

What to Do

You can start vacuuming the area where the pet urinated. It will clean pet hair and dirt from the surface. However, baking soda is an effective method for neutralizing pet urine odors. To apply it, sprinkle over the interior, including seats, carpet flooring, and foot mats. Then, let it sit before you vacuum up (4).

You may also lightly spray vinegar and water solution at 1:1 ratio over the car seats and carpets. It will neutralize the funky trash-like smell. Then again, use a pet stain and odor eliminator or an enzymatic cleaner for stubborn stains and odors. If the smell persists, consider replacing the air vent filters and deep cleaning the car (5).

Forgotten Trash

Sounds funny, right? Yes, it may seem obvious. Even a small piece of trash can start to smell bad, especially if you leave it in a hot car. For instance, fast food wrappers, coffee cups, or other trash can start to smell (6).

What to Do

Make sure you haven’t left any trash inside the car. Then, clean the floor mats to eliminate the trash smell. Use soapy water and an old toothbrush to get into the crevices for rubber mats. Then, rinse and let them air dry (7). If fabricated, you can vacuum them and use a steamer to clean them.

Mold and Mildew Growth

Damp conditions and a warm environment primarily cause mold and mildew in cars. It may happen if water enters the vehicle through a crack (like leaving windows or sunroof open during rain). Again, a poorly sealed window or sunroof can make passage for rainwater.

Another common cause is moisture gathering between the door and the belt molding, particularly around window seals (8). It may also happen if you spill a liquid and don’t clean it up properly. However, the smell of mold or mildew can be very similar to the smell of trash. 

What to Do

To prevent mold and mildew growth, keep the car dry and clean. Also, seal the cracks and crevices properly to avoid water leakage into the interior.

Exhaust Fumes or Faulty Exhaust

Have you checked the exhaust to see if it is okay or not? For sure, exhaust fumes can also cause a smell in your car. These fumes may enter the car’s interior through vents, the floor, or the firewall. Once they enter, you can easily notice them by their smells (9).

Usually, fumes enter due to an exhaust leak, a faulty catalytic converter, a rotten heater core, or poor seals on windows or doors (10). One crucial point is that exposure to exhaust fumes inside a confined space like a car can be dangerous. It may cause carbon monoxide poisoning (9).

What to Do

In my perspective, it is entirely a technical problem. So, please call a professional to check the car immediately.

Gas Leaks

Trash-like smell may appear due to gas leakage (smells like rotten eggs). Some common signs of a gas leak are noticeable odor, reduced fuel efficiency, and a gas puddle underneath the vehicle (10).

If the leak originates from the engine, it could potentially cause severe damage and is a fire hazard (11). In extreme cases, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may occur. These may include headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, and confusion (12, 13).

What to Do

Another technical issue! So, address any suspected gas leaks promptly to prevent potential hazards. A professional mechanic can help you in this case.

Dead Animals in the Ventilation System

It is a bit unusual reason to get a trash smell in your car. However, small animals may find their way into the ventilation system. Unfortunately, they may not find their way out and stay trapped for some time. And the result is a smell of decomposition that can be pretty strong and unpleasant.

What to Do

Locate and remove the carcass to remove the smell of a dead animal. To do this, you may need to remove the air intake cover. Then, check under the hood and inspect the cabin air filter (14, 15). After removing it, dispose of it in a sealed plastic bag.

Still, if you get the smell, remove, and clean the heater blower case or other parts of a car’s machinery. In some cases, professional duct cleaning can help to scrub and disinfect the system thoroughly. There will be no more lingering smell.

Final Words

Readers, including you, are always welcome to my blog. Like other posts, this post is also helpful for many car owners. Till now, I have explained all possible answers to “Why does my car smell like trash?”

If you feel terrible in your car, find the sources, as I discussed, and eliminate them accordingly. I hope the methods I have instructed are easy to follow. If not, you may call the experts for quick assistance.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog post. Thanks a lot!

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