Auto Laundry News - September 2013

Odor Control — Know the Science, Generate the Business, Part I

By Sharie Sipowicz

Cars get dirty and stinky. With the stink comes the need to clean and deodorize, to make things more livable. Our noses are sensitive instruments. One whiff of a foul odor can cause the stomach to turn and customers to be upset.

People are conditioned to expect pleasant odors, which are more desirable than no odor at all. Think about it: What if your shaving lotion did not have a fragrance? Your sense of smell would be deprived of input and the experience would not be as pleasurable as it could be.

When it comes to clean, such fragrances as country air, green apple, herbal, orange, and lemon are pleasant odors that people like. These are the ones to use in auto interiors.

Smell plays a big role in everyone’s life. Odors can excite, calm, recall a memory, or even arouse sexual desires. Decisions and judgments are made based on smell all day long. If your shirt or blouse smells of smoke or perspiration, it hits the laundry pile, immediately, or it should.

Have you ever hired an employee who had bad breath or body odor when interviewed? If you accidentally step on some “grass fudge” as you get into the car, it will not be long before you pull off the road and search desperately for a way to get it off your shoe.


Millions of dollars are spent every year making things smell better in many settings, including auto interiors. Odor control and removal has become a specialized field. Entire companies are built around removing odors from restrooms, carpets, homes, and cars.

The cause of the odor can be any source. From a cleaning standpoint, the most common causes of odor are urine, smoke, food, decomposition, particulates, and chemicals. That is right; the detailing chemicals you use can cause odors too.

It seems that every chemical company offers several odor-eliminating products. Most make similar claims: “effective against your worst odors,” “long-lasting,” “odor-neutralizing,” “odor-counteracting,” “not just a cover-up,” and “removes or kills odors at the source” are some of the common statements used to market deodorizers. How do you sort it out? Which one is best? Or are they all the same? Does “fresh apple” really remove the urine odor or just cover it up?

Should I be using an enzyme, bacteria culture, or disinfectant? With all of these claims, it can become confusing for even a seasoned professional.

That is part of the problem. According to many manufacturers, there is not much scientific data on deodorization. The common response to questions about how deodorizers work and how one can sort it all out is: “Test it. If it works, it is effective. If it doesn’t, try something else.” Heard that before, haven’t you?

Odors and their removal can be a complex subject. There are many contributing and complicating factors. Such things as concentration, sensitivity, amount, age, source, humidity, type, and the surface all play a role in removing, controlling, and eliminating odors. And, there is scientific data available to gauge the effectiveness of odor control products, even if the chemicals companies don’t want you to know it.

To help you, the following will provide some information you can add to your data bank.


We perceive odors through thousands of highly sensitive olfactory nerve cells in our nostrils. The average human nose contains millions of sensory neurons.

Scientists say that certain aromatic molecules of essential oils and odor particles react with specific nerve receptors in the nose to trigger impulses that cause our body to release chemicals that the brain perceives and responds to in accordance with past memories associated with a specific aroma. The olfactory nerves are connected to the brain limbic system so our response to odors is immediate and automatic. Because our sense of smell has the longest recall of all the senses, we do not quickly forget a reaction to an aroma once we have been exposed to it.

Chemical vapor sensing systems have developed an electronic nose, composed of many vapor sensors coupled to an artificial neural network and are being tested for the automated identification of smells. However, these systems are costly, bulky, and limited in the number of odors they can detect. At this time, the best odor detector is still the nose.

FYI, plans for the electronic nose include using it to detect wound infections, food freshness, food and beverage odors, microwave oven cooking controls, grading whiskey, gas identification, oil and hazardous leak detection, and gas and oil identification and analysis, to name just a few of the many possibilities.


The most important step in effective odor removal and control is to first identify the cause and source of the odor. If you cannot remove the source of the odor, all you are doing is masking or covering it up. Chances are the odor will return sooner, rather than later.

Once the source has been identified and removed, go to the next step, which includes several options. If used improperly or in the wrong situation, you will not remove the odor.

1. Absorbents
These are generally solid materials such as baking soda or activated charcoal. They work by capturing and holding the odor on the surface of the compound. They are used where odor molecules are airborne or are gasses and pass through a filter, chamber, or confined space such as an air duct where they can come in contact with the absorbent medium.

2. Neutralization
This process implies a balance or equalizing where a chemical is add-
ed that neutralizes an offensive odor. Neutralization is effective against chemical odors such as chlorine and various acids. As an example, sodium bicarbonate and water will effectively neutralize odors from an acid spill.

3. Oxidation
This process involves a chemical reaction where oxygen combines with another substance and basically burns up odor-causing molecules. Some common examples are ozone, peroxide, and bleach. These can be very effective in eliminating odors caused by organic decomposition. Some experts suggest using oxidation to remove skunk odor.

4. Biocides
This process involves the application of chemicals or light to kill or inhibit the growth microorganisms that are causing the offending odor. These odors are normally the result of decomposition or fermentation of organic matter; a common by-product is ammonia. Biocides are effective against odors caused by mold, mildew, and other unsanitary situations.

5. Digestion
This process uses genetically engineered bacteria and/or enzymes to
actually consume the odor causing materials. They are used in port-a-potties.

6. Counteractant
This process uses various procedures that work to counteract or replace existing offensive odors. Some complex odors such as smoke respond well to counteraction. This can include spraying and fogging.

7. Masking or Pairing
Some claim that this is just covering up the existing bad odor with a more acceptable odor, which could be the case, but this can also take place in some of the other processes as well.

There are multiple definitions for different terms that are applied to deodorization. No one seems to agree on what qualifies as an odor counteractant or neutralizer. Chemists at many companies would not be interviewed or had “no comment” answers to many questions asked. Like all detail chemicals, the claims seem to flow freely, but scientific data are much harder to come by.

Most detailers want a deodorizer that solves all of their odor problems. Unfortunately, with odor control, one product does not do it all. Different odors require different types of products and treatment.

What is really needed is training so end-users know which products to purchase and how to effectively use them.

What detailers and their customers really want is a good result. To get that, users have to know what they are doing.

  • Look for companies and individuals that can give you good information on odor control and removal products.
  • Deal with people who have experience; it is one thing to talk about a chemical and it is another to have used it in actual situations.
  • Determine whether the manufacturer has a free technical support hotline.
  • Ask if the products are guaranteed to perform as advertised.
  • Realize that people and companies have different levels of skill. We may all work in the detail field, but some are apprentices and others are masters. There is also a difference with knowledge about odor control.

The sales of automotive deodorization products and services are increasing, but so is the responsibility. If you do deodorization work, you have to perform or you will have unhappy and lost customers.

In next month’s issue of Auto Laundry News, we’ll continue our discussion of odor control, and take a closer look at masking agents and biological odor eliminators.

Sharie Sipowicz is aftermarket sales manager with Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems Inc. She has been involved in the detail industry for over 20 years, both as a vendor of products and equipment and as a hands-on operator in a retail detail environment. You can contact Sharie at

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