Occasionally, the professional detailer will be asked to remove a nasty odor from a vehicle interior. And sometimes, upon completing a normal interior detail, there may still be a lingering odor in the car. Indeed, even the most thorough detailing techniques cannot remove all odor problems.

There are several sources of odors, including pets, mold, food and beverage spills, and a myriad of human-caused odors. Sometimes a vehicle just develops a “used” scent over time and heavy use, like the SUV that taxis young kids all week long. Standard interior detailing techniques will help, but to get rid of that last remnant of odor, special techniques and equipment must be used.


It is important to understand that any deodorization project is a two-step process. The first step is to remove as much of the source of odor as possible. This can usually be accomplished via traditional detailing techniques. You will probably have to spend some extra time around the area from which the odor is coming, however.

The second step is to utilize special chemicals and equipment that “kill” the remaining odor. There are a number of options here and we will discuss each.

There are two basic types of deodorization situations that you will encounter. The first is the most common and involves simply removing any leftover odors during a standard interior detail. The second involves dealing with a specific problem or customer complaint, such as removing tobacco smoke odor.


During your pre-inspection of the vehicle, you may notice an odor to the interior of the car, like that resulting from food or beverage spills. Or perhaps the vehicle is used to take dogs to the park and there is a bit of pet odor. In most of these mild odor situations, traditional detailing techniques should take care of the problem.

A simple way to cover yourself is to add an ounce or so of odor neutralizing chemical to your hot water extractor’s solution tank. As you use the extractor, the odor neutralizer will be “infused” into the carpeting and fabric. Make sure not to use too much odor neutralizer, as the excess chemical left behind in the fabric or carpeting might attract dirt.

At the end of your interior detail, you may want to “spritz” the interior of the vehicle with an odor-neutralizing chemical. I recommend a light spray under the seats or under the mats. If you suspect that a specific area might yield an odor, you can lightly mist that area with the odor-neutralizing chemical.

A perfect example of this is spilled coffee with cream or milk. The spill might be localized to a single footwell, and you may have been able to extract most of it. Nonetheless, sometimes the extraction process “re-moisturizes” the spill, causing a re-activation of the odor. In this case, mist the area with odor neutralizer and work it in with a gloved hand. This is just a matter of “covering your bases” to reduce the likelihood of the customer calling you back in a couple of days with an odor complaint.


Odor situations that are not resolved using standard detail techniques require additional steps that are above and beyond those included in the standard detail. Typically, this type of situation arises either as a specific customer complaint or something that the detailing technician notices during the pre-inspection process.

Technician-Detected Odor

If you smell something funky in the car, approach this delicately with the customer. You don’t want to come out and say something like, “Hey, your car stinks!” In fact you don’t want to say anything that even sounds like “hey, your car stinks” to the customer.

A simple way to avoid any problems is to ask the customer if he or she detects any odors. You might use a line like, “Well, Mr. Jones, I have completed my inspection of the inside of your car and I just wanted to ask you if there is anything special that you would like me to take care of, like special stains or odors?” If the customer says, “Oh, yes! There is a funny milk smell in the car,” this just opens the door for you to offer deodorization service. You can respond with, “Yes, I noticed that odor as well. We can take care of that for you today.”

The next thing you want to do is find out, if possible, specifically from where in the car the odor is coming. Then determine what extra steps will be necessary to eliminate the odor and inform the customer about the additional fees that will be required to do so.

Customer’s Request

Now, occasionally, you will receive a call from a customer who is specifically looking for deodorization service. Examples of calls that I have personally received:
• My child had an accident in the back seat. I thought I got most of it cleaned up myself, but now the car smells every time we get into it.
• I recently quit smoking and I’d like to get rid of the smoke odor from inside my truck. Now that I don’t smoke, I hate the smell.
• I just bought a used car and I don’t know what the person who owned before me did in here, but there’s just a funny smell.
• Got home late last night with the dog, who ran out of the car after a skunk, got sprayed and immediately ran back into the car. Now the car smells like a skunk.

Obviously, each of these situations is above and beyond a standard interior detail. It will take extra time and effort, and special techniques and equipment, to remove these odor problems.

It’s worth the time up front to inspect the vehicle, determine the extent of the odor problem, and try to pinpoint the source of the odor. Ask the customer where in the car he or she suspects the problem. Ask the customer what he or she believes the smelly item to be (e.g., food, beverage, urine, etc.). Get down into the area and smell around yourself.

All of this information gathering will help you determine a fair price for the service. We will discuss pricing for deodorization services later.

So the deodorization process begins with traditional detailing techniques to remove as much of the odor problem as possible. With a de-smoke situation, the entire interior will have to be detailed. With a milk spill on the back seat, maybe just that area needs to be detailed, although I would certainly try to sell the customer a complete interior detail — “why just clean this part when, for a little bit more, we can clean the entire inside of your car?”

In some cases, your detailing work will include some dismantling of portions of the interior. For example, that milk spill in the back seat may require removing the seat bottom to wipe up residue that seeped behind the seat. Similarly, spills in the carpeting can soak all the way through to the padding. In some cases, it may be necessary to lift the carpeting in an area and replace the padding, which acts like a sponge. Factor into your price all of these potential dismantling activities — they take time and add value to the service.

Once the area has been cleaned, you can proceed with the actual deodorization techniques.


True deodorization occurs when the source of the odor is neutralized so that it can no longer produce odor. Most odors come from microscopic organisms that are feeding off of the original spill (thus, the reason why it is so important to remove as much of the source as possible).

Spraying a fragrance onto the odor will not kill it. Fragrance simply masks the malodor by overpowering it with a “more pleasant” scent. Once the fragrance wears off, the malodor will return. Thus, it is important to use an odor-neutralizing chemical, not just a fragrance. An odor-neutralizing spray attacks the source of the odor. The advantage of an odor-neutralizing spray or liquid is that you can put it exactly where you want it. For example, you can pour some odor neutralizer directly onto a localized carpet spill, work it in with a gloved hand, and remove the excess liquid with your extractor.

In some cases, it’s easier to “broadcast” the odor-neutralizing agent throughout the interior of the car. A fogger is a device that atomizes your favorite odor-neutralizing chemical by creating a mist that can flow into all the areas of the inside of the car.

Another general deodorizing machine is the ozone generator. Like the fogger, the ozone machine broadcasts odor-neutralizing agent throughout the interior of the car, but does not require any separate chemicals. That’s because the ozone generator converts air into ozone, highly charged particles that attack and kill the microscopic living organisms (e.g., bacteria) that give off odor.

Foggers and ozone machines are great for general interior deodorizing, when you are not sure exactly from where the odor is emanating. They are also great for smoke odor removal. On the other hand, odors that are coming from deep in the carpeting or fabric seats are better treated by direct application of a liquid odor-neutralizing chemical.

A newer deodorization technique involves an activated chlorine “bomb,” a special device that is placed in the cleaned vehicle for several hours. The device produces a chlorine fog that goes everywhere inside the car, sanitizing every surface. I have recently used this technique and found it to be quite effective. The cost per application is less than $30.


Odor removal is a specialized service that requires special equipment, chemicals, and knowledge. The greatest value of odor removal service lies in the fact that most consumers don’t have access to the information or equipment required to perform the service. I believe it is reasonable to charge a substantial supplemental fee that is above and beyond your standard detailing fee for odor removal. In some cases, like de-smoking a car, it is fair to charge twice your standard interior detail fee.

A simple way to justify your deodorization prices is to warranty the work. Simply guarantee that the odor will not return. I do not recommend a money-back guarantee, however. Instead, simply offer a “re-treatment” of your odor neutralizing system, should the customer detect the odor within six months of the initial treatment. Of course, your guarantee will be limited by any re-occurrence of the odor-causing problem.


Deodorization is an important part of interior detailing that requires special equipment and techniques. As an adjunct to the standard interior detail, simple deodorization techniques add to the final presentation of the car to the customer by adding a fresh, clean smell. As a special service to solve a specific odor problem, deodorization is a valuable service that, when priced accordingly, can be quite profitable.


Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or prentice@detailinprogress.com.