Others shoot cheap "smell good" car fresheners into the air conditioning intakes just below the windshield wipers. If it's oily and they spray a lot it can last for months or even years every time you turn on the AC.
How can you neutralize the unwanted air freshener odor, not just mask it?
First, understand the myths out there on the Web.
- Myth - spraying some company's standard "air cleaner" or "odor neutralizer" will eliminate it. In most cases you will likely put even more unwanted sent in your system. For many people "clean" equals more perfume. So watch out! Few products marketed for auto have any chemical that can actually neutralize odors at the source.
- Myth - Febreze will cure it. While Febreze does trap already air borne sent particles, it does not neutralize the source. Repeat: Febreze cannot actually neutralize the source of the smell. The smell will return unless you treat the source. You can spray Febreze on a glob of the stuff but as soon as the Febreze evaporates the smell will continue where it left off.
- Myth - Baking soda or coffee beans sitting in an open container can eliminate it. Even a perfect odor absorber could only remove already air borne sent molecules. So, if the odor was already on it's way out, because the source had evaporated away, then yes, baking soda or coffee beans might help. But opening the windows would too. However, it is possible that if the oily auto perfume was sprayed into the carpet and mats that applying baking soda to them and then vacuuming well would remove it. The same would work with any carpet cleaning method that extracted residue or chemically broke down the cause of the scent in the carpet.
- Myth - spraying a germ killer, per se, in the air intakes of your car's air conditioner will get rid of the smell. It might temporarily cover it up. But the problem is not bacteria. It is a substance designed to keep omitting an aroma.
But strangely, Lysol brands a wide number of chemicals as "Lysol" these days. Some are literally nothing more than alcohol! Read the ingredients carefully. It is somewhat possible that the alcohol version might interact with the gooey source of the auto fragrance and neutralize it. The same could be said for a hydrogen peroxide based product. It might possibly oxidize the source, breaking down the molecules into something non-stinky. But that depends on what they used. It might do nothing.
One part white vinegar to three parts water.
- First, it uses chemistry to potentially break down the source of the air freshener inside your car's air conditioners system and probably doused over the evaporator coils. The same could be said for your mats (though you can just take them out and hose them with some detergent and let them dry in the sunshine) or carpet. Many of these oily based car fragrances can be broken down by the weak acid in white vinegar diluted with three parts water.
- White vinegar leaves no residue and within a few minutes it's own smell disappears completely.
- It is dirt cheap.
- You can treat the AC several times in a couple hours until it the smell goes away forever or is greatly reduced. Here's how:
- Turn the AC on Full and with external venting selected.
- Raise your hood and spray in the intake vents that are just below your windshield wipers. Spray a generous amount so that the vinegar water can soak any residue of the auto air freshener in the ducts or on your AC evaporator coils. Let the air run at least 10 minutes on full. Evaluate. Better but not gone? Hit it again. Let the vinegar smell completely dissipate, maybe 15-30 minutes. Evaluate again.
- You can spray your carpet and very lightly spray some on a paper towel to clean seats and dashboard.
- Don't forget to clean all inside glass after you've treated the air conditioner
We bought a used Toyota Highlander at a great price from the dealer. We picked it up the next day after they had "detailed" it. Gag! It was totally filled with a mind-numbing level of cheap brothel vanilla sent. I'm sure the bottle the detailer used said something like, "Smell Eliminator," or "Car Fresh--everyone loves it so spray lots of it!"
My wife has become very sensitive to artificial scents in recent years to the point of being hospitalized on one occasion. We thought it might die down, but the next day she called the dealer. They were happy to spray some "neutralizer" in it. They did but it was now far worse. I'm not at all sensitive to fragrances but after riding in it for 5 minutes we had to roll the windows down and I was just wanting to get home and get out of the car! A great car ruined!
We cleaned every surface inside and hosed down the mats with detergent. It persisted, coming out of the AC without any let up for the next week. She had to drive with all windows wide open and the air off. Even then I could smell it on her when she entered the house. After two weeks we were talking about having to turn it back in for a credit but knew no other Highlander in the area was as good a deal. And the dealer had nothing similar.
So I did what all red-blooded DH's do. I searched the Web: Baloney. Baloney. More "stink to cover up stink," etc. Even the sites that understood that it would take chemistry usually were just selling more scents--but these were "organic." Wooo! Did you say, organic. I must buy it then. Not. I did learn how the car AC system worked and the AC "detailing" worked. And that was crucial. So, these guys sprayed a ton of "freshener" into the intake vents. All that goo is in there.
Finally a couple not-for profit common sense sites began to agree on vinegar water spray could be very effective at actually neutralizing it, as well as being a mild germ killer. I knew my wife had no issued with white vinegar as a cleaner and we had a generous supply.
It can't hurt! That was my thought as I talked to her and as I mixed up a pint in a spay bottle. We ran the AC on full with external air. I raised the hood and spayed in a generous amount to soak the interior surfaces. Of course it instantly masked the stale vanilla reek. But was it actually doing anything? 10-15 minutes later the vinegar smell was nearly gone. Another 5 and we sat in the car. Definitely better. Even if temporary this would have been something she could have done each morning. Since it can't hurt, we did a second treatment and now the smell was nearly gone after three weeks of torture.
Later that evening we drove it and after twenty minutes I realized it was the first time I had not consciously hating being in the car. Only a faint hint of the vanilla remained. Just that morning it had been intolerable and just as strong as at the first.
Will white vinegar work for you? Perhaps! If an acid is what is needed to break down the source then yes. It certainly will.
But if not, you might try the Evaporator Core Cleaner below--except try to find one that has no scent of its own.
What if mildew or mold and bacteria ARE the problem?
- One word: use a quat cleaner. Quaternary ammonium salts (they don't smell like ammonia or even have ammonia in them) are absolutely the best time-tested mold eliminators and preventors too. While hospitals and janitorial supplies use them all the time, consumers are sold lots of other products that do not work so well or at all. Quat cleaners are cheap. They kill bacteria and viruses too. Quat cleaners, unlike bleach, penetrate into each mold spore and kill the root. Bleach only kills the surface. Mold can regrow very quickly in a moist environment. Quat cleaners produce little fume compared to bleach. Very mild.
- Never use bleach in your AC ducts! While it is a great oxidizer and germ killer it could ruin your AC evaporators coils. And it does NOT kill the root system of mold spores like a quat cleaner does.