Few smells ignite the senses as much as cigarette smoke. But unlike other iconic odors (see freshly baked cookies or lavender-scented bubble bath), cigarette smoke isn’t exactly enjoyable.
This persistent pong is made up of over 400 VOCs and particulate odorants that are released when burning tobacco. Once these fumes are in the air, they cling onto your car’s surfaces, upholstery and even the dust on your dashboard. Leaving a lingering smell long after your journey has ended.
Recent studies have found that exposure to this smell also harms your health. Tobacco byproducts responsible for the odor, like carbon monoxide, tar and formaldehyde, exist in the atmosphere for months to come, contributing to third-hand smoke risks.
Fortunately, you can remove cigarette smoke from your car, creating a cleaner, fresher and healthier environment to travel in. Just check out our easy, actionable steps to eradicate odors and prevent them from returning in the future.
5 steps for removing cigarette smell from the car
Whether you’ve inherited this stale odor from a previous owner or would rather go without the smoky scent each time you jump in the car, follow these 5 steps to eliminate even the most stubborn cigarette smells.
1. Increase ventilation
The first step to remove odor is to increase airflow inside the vehicle. Open all windows and doors and let the breeze work its magic.
Better yet, take a drive around the block with all your windows rolled down to really flood fresh air into the car.
Repeat this as often as possible throughout the remaining steps.
2. Dust that dashboard
Smoke particles can affect the whole interior of your car. With particles embedding into the car’s trim – including hard surfaces like plastic – and onto any unnecessary passengers such as personal belongings, trash or even the dust on your dash.
To freshen up the interior, start by removing any trash, emptying ashtrays and decluttering the cabin.
Once you’ve got a clean slate to work with, deep-clean every surface inside the car.
Feel free to use whatever cleaning supplies you’re comfortable with, but to reduce VOCs from infiltrating your vehicle further, I recommend using a natural solution that doesn’t just mask the scent but removes it.
Simply add white vinegar and water in equal measure to a spray bottle and apply to any hard surface. Once you clean the surface, you can kiss goodbye to any odor and bacteria.
If you have plastic footwell mats, remove these and deep clean them using hot water and a soapy solution or 50/50 vinegar mix. Allow them to dry completely before replacing.
3. Deep clean upholstery
The car’s upholstery is often the root cause of your smokey odor. Studies have shown that fabrics commonly used inside vehicles, including polyester and wool carpets, absorb high quantities of smoke particles and retain them for months and years to come.
To uproot this ingrained odor, try the following three tips:
- Remove mats and vacuum the seating and floors. Get in between crevices and cracks to capture any loose dirt or debris.
- Liberally apply an odor-absorbing substance, such as baking powder or fresh coffee grounds, to any upholstery and the mats you removed earlier. Leave these to soak up odors overnight before vacuuming any granules away in the morning.
- If you are facing a particularly stubborn odor, try using a steam cleaner on your seating and carpeted flooring. This will penetrate further into the fibers and reach deep-rooted smoke particles.
Remember that cars with leather seating will require a slightly different approach. Start by gently vacuuming the seats to remove debris, then use a specialist leather shampoo to clean affected areas safely.
4. Replace the car’s air filter
Your car’s inbuilt air filter can quickly become clogged with dust and other odor-absorbing pollutants. This can be a nightmare for smokers as cigarette fumes make their way inside the vents, attach to debris and recirculate any time you use your climate control.
General advice is to change the air filter every 15,000 miles or once a year (whichever comes first). However, for heavy smokers, you may wish to replace the filter more frequently.
5. Run an air purifier
Specialist air purifiers designed for use in vehicles can transform the air you breathe while out on the road.
These units can circulate the air when opening your windows isn’t an option and capture a whole host of particulates and VOCs as the dirty air passes through.
When choosing a unit, make sure the purifier you’re about to buy uses HEPA filters to capture minuscule cigarette pollutants alongside an activated carbon filter to tackle odors.
- With a huge HEPA and activated carbon filter, the IQAir Atem is the best purifier to eradicate cigarette smell from your car, as we found when testing the unit for ourselves inside our Tesla Model 3.
- If you have a smaller vehicle, take a look at the Westinghouse 1804, this purifier combines an H13 HEPA with an NCCO reactor for impressive particle removal.
- Last but not least, I recommend the Smart Air QT3, this lightweight and rechargeable purifier offers excellent results for a fraction of the price of other portable units.
How to smoke inside the car without leaving a smell
After putting the hard work into getting cigarette smells out of your car, don’t take your foot off the gas and coast back into a smelly environment. Maintaining a fresh-smelling car only takes a little effort, which goes a long way to keeping cigarette smells at bay.
Follow these simple steps before, during and after smoking to prevent long-lasting odor from taking hold.
Before you smoke: 3 tips to prepare the cabin
1. Keep a clean cabin. Smoke particles can cling onto just about any surface, so clear out unnecessary items and regularly clean the inside of your car.
2. Set odor-absorbing traps. Charcoal, baking soda and dryer sheets are known for their odor-absorbing abilities. Strategically scatter such materials around the car, then periodically replace them.
3. Replace your car’s air filter. Keep clean air flowing throughout your vehicle by replacing your air filter every 12 months.
While you smoke: 3 ways to prevent smoke from sticking to your car
1. Allow smoke to escape. Rule number one when smoking in a vehicle is increasing ventilation. Roll down your windows before you light up and don’t close them until all residual smoke has dispersed.
2. Switch on your activated carbon air purifier. Air purifiers help to circulate air and remove harmful smoke particles. If your unit has an activated carbon filter, it will even eliminate odor particles.
3. Consider using smokeless alternatives. Cigarette smoke occurs from burning tobacco. Switching to a vape or nicotine gum while on the road can prevent your car from becoming filled with smelly smoke in the first place.
After you smoke: 3 ways to get rid of cigarette smell after smoking in your car
1. Remove cigarette butts. Discard any cigarettes you’ve finished smoking as soon as possible. Don’t forget to empty and clean any ashtrays between uses, too.
2. Continue to ventilate the car. Keep windows open for 15-30 minutes after smoking to flood the cabin with fresh air, then use your air purifier for the remainder of the journey.
3. Clean down your cabin. Regularly wipe down surfaces and clean upholstery. For a quick fix after smoking, target places you touch frequently, like the steering wheel and consider using an odor-busting fragrance or essential oils.
States where smoking in the car is banned
One foolproof way to eradicate cigarette smoke odor is to stop smoking in the car altogether.
For many smokers across the U.S., this is no longer a matter of personal preference either.
State legislators are increasingly clamping down on smoking in vehicles. With eight states outlawing smoking in a workplace vehicle and nine states prohibiting smoking in any vehicle with a child passenger present.
Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Rhode Island.
As part of wider Smokefree Air Laws implemented in 28 states across the country, banning smoking in workplace vehicles was designed to protect non-smokers from the ill effects of secondhand smoke.
The CDC states that smoking inside a car poses both short and long-term dangers as high concentrations of smoke are generated in the small volume of a vehicle.
It is estimated that laws such as these have reduced non-smokers’ exposure to secondhand smoke by 63% since they came into force.
Arkansas, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Virginia.
Similarly to workplace vehicle laws, smoking has been banned in cars carrying children in 9 states to protect minors from inhaling harmful smoke particles.
Across the 9 states that enforce this law, age restrictions vary. In Vermont, this only applies if a child under the age of 8 is present, while in California, Illinois, Maine and Oregon, this extends to anyone under 18.
Children are particularly vulnerable to secondhand smoke, causing asthma, bronchitis, respiratory infections and is a key factor in premature death and disease amongst children. Despite this law, 35% of children in America have been exposed to secondhand smoke.
Cigarette smoke is thick and pungent, so it’s no wonder it can overwhelm a small enclosed space like a car.
Tackling the deep-rooted odor caused by cigarettes will require plenty of fresh air, odor-absorbing materials and a lot of elbow grease.
To keep your car free from smokey odors, the best advice I can offer is to stop smoking in your car altogether. Failing that, increasing ventilation, cleaning regularly and using a car air purifier equipped with activated carbon filters will help to maintain a fresher and healthier space for you to travel in.
- American Lung Association. (2023). Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke. lung.org
- American Lung Association. (2023). Smokefree Air Laws. lung.org
- American Lung Association. (2023). What’s In a Cigarette? lung.org
- Burton, A. (2011). Does the smoke ever really clear? Thirdhand smoke exposure raises new concerns. Environ Health Perspect.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). STATE System Vehicles Fact Sheet. cdc.gov
- Hamilton, J. (2017). Tobacco-smoke residue that lingers in furniture, curtains and house dust can still be harmful. theconversation.com
- McClintock, TS, et al. (2020). Encoding the Odor of Cigarette Smoke. Journal of Neuroscience
- Pozuelos GL, et al. (2021). Adhesion and Removal of Thirdhand Smoke from Indoor Fabrics: A Method for Rapid Assessment and Identification of Chemical Repositories.International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health