How to Clean Up Spills in the Car


CARS.COM — When you're traveling with family in the car, at some point you're going to be faced with cleaning up a spill. If you're lucky, the spill will be harmless, like water, or maybe even pleasantly aromatic, like peppermint tea. But let's get real: The majority of us have had to deal with spilt milk from leaky sippy cups that have rolled under the car's seats, only to be found when the nuclear stench assaults our senses. Or the worst of all: the aftereffects of carsick children or leaky diapers.

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I was initiated into the club during the Great Strawberry Milk Episode of '09. My daughters each left a box of strawberry milk in the back of my Volvo C30, and the small cartons leaked milk between the car's rear seats and side panels. I'm almost always driving test cars rather than my own, so the milk had several hot summer weeks to spoil and ferment in my garage before I entered the car and proceeded to gag.

What's a parent to do in the event of a potentially noxious spill in the car? Here are our tried and true techniques:

Start with Protective Surfaces: Generally speaking, leather or vinyl seating surfaces will be easier to clean than fabric. However, several automakers offer a stain- and odor-resistant material in some of their cars. GM, for example, uses interior coatings to protect cabin materials from sun, sweat, sunscreen, bug repellant and more. Engineers conduct durability experiments on the surface coatings, some of which involve applying perspiration to the seats for hours (a synthetic simulant, not real sweat, phew!) to see how surfaces hold up. Sweat is just the beginning. GM spills "everything from sewing-machine oil to petroleum jelly," said Doug Pickett, GM engineering group manager. "We do coffee, ketchup, blue-ink pen, regular soy sauce, chocolate milk, red Kool-Aid and black marker."

Act Fast: If someone in your car spills, clean up as much as possible off the car's seats and floor as soon as possible. Scoop up any, um, chunks, and soak up any puddles with paper towels.

Scrape it Up: If you've found your noxious fume culprit and it's had time to dry and harden, try to scrape up any residual particulates first. Gather plenty of fresh towels, wet the area with hot water and soak up smelly aftereffects with the towels. Rinse and repeat.

Buy Stock in Baking Soda: Cover every possible affected surface with a thick layer of baking soda. Let that sit and work its magic for as long as possible (in the legendary strawberry milk episode, I let it sit for three days). The same principle that makes baking soda great for soaking up garlic fumes in your fridge means it will work in your car. After a few days, use a high-powered Shop-Vac or a commercial-grade coin-operated vacuum at the gas station or car wash, to suck up all that odor-absorbing magic powder.

Combat Lingering Smells: By this stage the spill should be gone, but there might be a lingering aroma. Rather than trying to mask one smell with another, try an all-natural product like Moso bags, which are filled with bamboo charcoal that can soak up smells from a mile away. OK, maybe not a full mile, but at least within the confines of your car. They come in several shapes and sizes to fit discreetly in your car, and if they work on my daughter's ballet shoes, they can definitely work on your nasty car smell.

Create an Alternate, Pleasant Aroma: Now that all traces of putridity are a distant memory, you can add a pleasant scent to transform your morning carpool schlep into a feast for your olfactory senses. Rather than adding chemicals to the mix, try a few drops of a favorite essential oil (I vote for grapefruit) on a cotton ball and tuck it into a cupholder or an in-door storage pocket. Breathe deep and enjoy that wonderful family, spills and all.


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Former Senior Family Editor Kristin Varela blends work and family life by driving her three tween-teen girls every which way in test cars.  Email Kristin

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