Does Your Car Stink?
What About a Stubborn Stench?
Some nasty bouquets don't go away without a fight. And most experts agree that perfumes, most deodorizers and pine tree car fresheners are essentially just cover-ups that mask the unpleasantness temporarily.
Many car detailers, deep cleaners and used-car salesmen swear by ozone generators, which produce unstable oxygen molecules that react with odor molecules and destroy them. The problem is that ozone also reacts with just about everything else. "It will hasten the aging of just about every plastic piece in your car," Suslick says.
The Environmental Protection Agency's rap sheet on ozone lists it as a respiratory irritant that can exacerbate asthma and increase susceptibility to lung infections if inhaled in high concentrations. The EPA even calls into question ozone's effectiveness in eliminating odors. Whatever the case, gaseous ozone has a half-life of around 20 minutes, so it's advised that you stay out of any vehicle being treated with ozone, then let it air out for around a half-hour before entering.
If you aren't willing to try ozone, there are a variety of odor neutralizers on the market that chemically bond to odor molecules and prevent them from interacting with the receptors in your nasal passages, working as a sort of olfactory antagonist. Some of these are sold as sprays, but for pervasive smells experts suggest a fogger that gets into every surface and crevice where the odors are hiding. "For smells such as smoke, we recommend a fogger," says BioWorld's Barnes. "A fogger mimics the way smoke permeates a vehicle."
Dakota Products sells a canned product called Odor Bomb ($7) that can fog up an entire car (in fact, it's designed to destinkify an entire hotel room). For more serious or recurring smells, BioWorld sells a small fogger machine for $136 that comes with a liter of concentrated solution to eliminate odor in a small environment such as a car.
Then again, to get rid of a simple, localized stink, there's always Febreze. The main ingredient in this popular spray is called cyclodextrin, which Suslick says reacts in a similar fashion to industrial odor neutralizers, with a slightly different chemical structure. "Think of it like an overgrown donut," Suslick says. Cyclodextrin's donut-shaped molecules tend to surround molecules of smelly substances, immobilizing them and weighing them down until they are essentially dust.
Whatever solution you use, the final step is to let your vehicle air out afterwards in a dry environment. Many cleaners are liquid-based and can remain damp inside an enclosed cabin. If, after all of this, the stink remains, that means it has permeated the fabric and possibly the foam of your vehicle. At that point you may want to start saving up for some new upholstery — or a new car. No one wants to drive around in a big rolling stink.
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Sam Foley is a Connecticut-based automotive journalist who has written for GQ, Forbes, USAToday, theNewYork Post and various other publications.
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