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Detailing

Can malodors in cars cause road rage?

October 11, 2010
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A November 2009 study released by Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management determined that “scents play an active role in [stimulating] positive or negative experiences.” The researchers found that when participants were placed in pleasantly smelling rooms or rooms that had no odor whatsoever, they were trusting, fair, charitable, and pleasant to their partners in the experiment. However, just the opposite occurred, in varying degrees, when malodors were present.

Applying this research to automobile drivers, malodors in a car may play a part in a driver taking greater, potentially dangerous risks while driving; being less patient with other drivers, becoming bothered more easily, and having less focus. So although malodors may not cause road rage, studies show they can be a contributing factor.

As the survey pointed out, odors can have a real impact on people. In addition to the emotions they can evoke, smells can also cause physical effects, including nausea, throat and nose irritation, and a host of other health-related problems. For these reasons, it is very important to remove odors from cars.

Eradicating odors from cars
Professional detailers and car care experts are often called upon to rid cars of a variety of different odors, including those from food and beverage spills, cigarette and cigar smoke, and animal “accidents.” There are different ways to tackle odor problems, and which products to select and how to proceed require some understanding of odors and what causes them.

For our discussion here, we will focus on two different types of odors:

• Cigarette and cigar odors can be very difficult to eliminate because they are so pervasive. The smoke travels almost everywhere in the vehicle and can permeate the car’s carpets, upholstery, headliner, and just about every nook and cranny.

• Putrefied odors usually refer to odors emanating from decomposing animal proteins. This can includes foods, beverages, and a host of other liquid and dry items that can decompose over time. If sufficient oxygen and moisture are present as the substance decomposes, bacteria can develop and cause odors.

Simple odor eradication
There are many different ways to eradicate odors from the inside of a vehicle. The following terms are used to identify these different procedures and the different types of products used to treat relatively simple odor problems:

• Maskers: As the name implies, these products mask odors. They are fragrances or deodorants that overwhelm the malodor. They can be used as the final step in the odor eradication process or as a temporary measure.

• Distorters: These products work on the theory that molecules causing the odor can be distorted in such a way that they are no longer detected by the human brain.

• Odor eliminators: An odor eliminator does not mask or distort odors. Instead it is designed to attack the molecules and odor-causing bacteria causing the malodor. In some cases it can be sprayed directly on the problem area; in others it is mixed with a cleaning solution and then applied to the area.

Whichever process is used, the first step in eradicating an odor from the inside of a car is to locate its source. If it is a spill or a stain on the carpet, for instance, finding the source may be very easy. In many of these cases, properly applying an all-purpose cleaning chemical, possibly a disinfectant, and/or an odor eliminator to the area and allowing it to air dry will be enough to eliminate the problem.

A similar procedure can also work to eliminate cigarette and cigar odors; however, locating the actual source of the odor may prove to be impossible. Because of this, you need to clean all surface areas that might be permeated with the cigarette or cigar smoke, including the dashboard, the carpet, and all leather and vinyl areas.

Cleaning the carpets
The carpets in automobiles should be viewed as a sponge. They absorb airborne impurities, spills, and soils and hold on to them. The most effective way to eliminate carpet odors is by cleaning the carpets using an extraction process.

Once referred to as steam cleaning, carpet extraction involves releasing a cleaning solution into the carpets and then extracting, or removing it all in one process. In homes and buildings, it has proven to be the most effective way to remove deeply embedded contaminants, such as those causing odors.

The most effective extractors made today are low-moisture extractors, which are designed to release about 0.3 gallons of water per minute into the carpets. This way, the carpet dries faster and the possibility of mold and mildew developing is minimized. Some systems also have adjustable psi. This allows more power for deep cleaning carpets and less power for cleaning more delicate fabrics.

Additionally, the extractor should have “instant” heat to heat the water/cleaning solution to more than 200° F at the wand tip. Instant heat means the machine is ready to work as soon as the operator is ready. Heat improves the effectiveness of the cleaning chemicals, so that more soils, impurities, and odor-causing bacteria are removed and less chemical is necessary, which helps protect the interior health of the car.

Consider ozone for stubborn odors
Even after following all of these steps, it is possible for a malodor to persist. In this case, car care professionals still have one more remedy in their arsenal: Ozone.

Ozone generators have been used for years to eradicate odors in buildings after fires and natural disasters. Ozone is a gas, and it is very effective at eliminating odors. However, there are some concerns surrounding safety when using ozone. When using ozone, you must ensure there are no people or living things in the vehicle.

There are ozone kits specifically designed for use in automobiles. Typically, the unit sits on top of the car with a sealed hose placed inside the window. The system must run about 20 to 30 minutes to eliminate all interior organic odors.


Charlie Marinella is head of the auto care division at U.S. Products, a leading manufacturer of professional carpet, floor, restoration, and auto care products.

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