When it comes to car smells, most people can readily identify new car smell or their favorite air freshener. Sometimes, you’re greeted by a different sort of car smell. What causes mildew and musty smells in your car? More importantly, how do you get rid of musty car smells?


The sense of smell is remarkable, able to detect some 10,000 different odors. Depending on the origin and the person, these can range from pleasant aromas to unpleasant odors. Fortunately, the human sense of smell isn’t nearly as acute as most animals’ sense of smell – where we might smell a rotten apple in a barrel of good apples, a dog could smell a rotten apple in a warehouse of good apples. When all these come together, you smell something. If your car smells like a gym when you open the door, whether you work out or not, it’s likely none too pleasant.

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Musty smells and mildew smells are caused by colonies of fungus releasing their reproductive spores into the air. Such car smells can usually be traced to excess moisture, over 50 percent relative humidity, providing the perfect breeding ground for these microorganisms. Add heat – mold grows best between 77 °F and 120 °F – and your car is the perfect place to raise a nation of mold and mildew colonies. Mold usually lives in porous materials, like leather, foam, felt, and paper, while mildew usually grows on non-porous surfaces, such as vinyl and plastic. What might give mold and mildew a place to live in your car?

  • Forgotten Food – Most food items and all drink items are moist to some extent. Similarly, spilled drinks can soak into the seat cushions and carpet padding. As food dries out and water evaporates, the humidity rises everywhere in your car, even places you can’t see or access.
  • Forgotten Clothes – Not exercising, the average person sweats about 20 oz per day, though strenuous exercise can push that over 1 quart per hour. Much of that soaks into your clothes, socks, and shoes. Drying off after a dip in the pool or ocean will soak your towel. Forgotten in a trunk or in the back seat, evaporating sweat or water raises the relative humidity in the car.
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  • Water Leaks – Damage and aging can create water leaks into the car. Poorly sealed body work or body panels can leak. Aged, loose, or cracked door or trunk seals are common problems that afflict many vehicles. Clogged sunroof drains are another common problem, and mistakenly leaving the window or sunroof open in the rain might give your carpets and seats a good soaking.
  • Weather – Rain, snow, and mud are another source of water and fresh mold spores. If it’s on your shoes, it can soak into the floor mats and carpet, where it is slow to evaporate. In a closed car on a warm day, this water can evaporate and permeate the entire vehicle.
  • Evaporator – On vehicles equipped with air conditioning, the evaporator is inherently wet when in use, as it forces water out of the air. Normally, this water drips through a tube outside the vehicle. A clogged drain tube might allow this water to pool or even leak into the vehicle, soaking the carpets. If left in recirculate mode, the evaporator may not dry completely, leading to mildew growth on the evaporator and in the air box.

Besides being offensive and possibly embarrassing, musty smells might even cause allergic reactions, but is there a way to remove mildew smells from your car? Even better, is there a way to remove musty smells from your car without using harsh chemicals?

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Because it’s a living organism, though microscopic, the only way to stop mildew smells is to stop its growth – you can’t just cover up car smells with an air freshener. There are two basic steps to remove musty smells from your car.

  • Removal – Start by removing any visible mold and mildew and possible sources, such as old food or clothes. Because mold can’t survive above around 140 °F, steam cleaners are a great non-chemical method to kill mold both seen and unseen. White vinegar and water is an excellent alternative to harsh chemicals. Leaving your car out with the windows open on a sunny day helps dry everything out, even better if it’s breezy.
  • Deodorize – For hard surfaces and smooth surfaces, like door panels or dashboard, use Turtle Wax Power Out! Odor-X Spray and a soft cloth. Odor-X Spray can also be sprayed into the air conditioning vents or air box to eliminate musty smells from the air conditioning system. For porous surfaces, such as seats and carpets, Turtle Wax Power Out! Upholstery Cleaner and its built-in brush work both on stains and odors.

A great way to remove lingering musty smells in your whole car, after you’ve cleaned everything out, is to blast it with Turtle Wax ODOR-X Whole Car Blast Kinetic. The fine mist circulates through the whole car, under seats, in the air conditioning system, even inside door and roof panels, eliminating musty smells in just a few minutes.

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Now that your car is clean and fresh, mold and mildew evicted, how do you keep musty smells from returning? Because mold needs heat, humidity, and food, eliminating these will keep mold and mildew from moving back in.

  • Be Unhospitable – Make your vehicle as unhospitable to mold and mildew as possible. To reduce humidity, repair water problems and don’t leave anything wet in your vehicle. Leave the air conditioning system in fresh air mode when parking the vehicle to allow for air circulation. In rain, snow, and mud seasons, all-weather floor mats keep most water from soaking into the carpets. Keeping your car clean inside and out is the best way to help it last longer and stay fresher. Our convenient travel size Turtle Wax Power Out! Odor-X Pump Kinetic is great for occasional touch-ups.

Truly, the sense of smell is a wonder, with which we can smell the morning brew, evening snifter, significant other, even detect danger. Car smells can be pleasing or displeasing, too, but using the right products can eliminate musty smells from your car and prevent mildew smells from returning.

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