Most people don’t even think about the quality of the air inside their cars, but it’s a topic that deserves some attention. On average, we spend about 5.5% of our time in our cars, according to one study air quality in vehicle interiors, which is a significant amount of time to imprint yourself with pretty bad air.

Dealing with Bad Air in Cars: The Problem with Car Air Purifiers

Car Air Purifiers exist, and some of them actually work. The problem is that car air purifiers usually don’t work the same as the air purifiers you probably use at home or work. If you are expecting similar results, you will probably be disappointed.

That’s why it’s important to temper your expectations every time you deal with car air fresheners, cleaners, ionizers, and similar devices. Most of these devices are actually ionizers that work by a completely different mechanism than HEPA filters (highly efficient air particles) that are so common in home and office environments.

The fact is that ionizers do not actually filter particles from the air, and even large, expensive devices intended for home use have drawn the ire of consumer advocacy groups. They work because they do what they are designed to do, but it may or may not meet your expectations for an air purifier.

Other types of car air cleaners generate ozone, which is a completely different can of worms. These devices, of course, can suppress some strong smells but are best left to the professionals.

Air quality inside your vehicle

When most people think of air pollution, they think of smog, pollen, and other outdoor air quality issues. The next thing that usually comes to mind is indoor air quality, which usually becomes more of an issue during particularly hot or cold weather, when dust and other allergens can build up inside homes and businesses that are insulated from the elements.

The fact is that indoor air pollution is also a problem inside cars, so the idea of ​​car air purifiers actually has a lot of merit. All the same pollutants and allergens you find outside are also present in your car, in addition to the chemicals and particulate matter that come from the car itself.

For example, analysis conducted by the National Institutes of Health, showed that particulate matter from brakes and aromatic hydrocarbons that come from various internal components can cause health problems. One solution is to simply roll down the window, but this allows all the dirt from outside the car to get inside.

Another air quality problem that many people have to deal with is smells tobacco and other sources. Purifiers and ionizers won’t usually help with this type of problem, but you might have better luck with adsorbents or ozone generators.

Types of car air filters, purifiers and ionizers

There are several different types of air filters and cleaners you can purchase for your car, including:

  • Engine air filters They filter the air that enters your engine for combustion purposes. They have nothing to do with cabin air quality.
  • Cabin air filters — they filter the air that enters your car when you have the system installed heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) for fresh air supply. They can also filter the air that is recirculated.
  • Air ionizers are electronic devices that are usually plugged into a cigarette lighter socket. They work like ionizing pollutants and cause them to stick to surfaces where you can’t inhale them.
  • Ozone generators “These devices actually generate ozone, which can effectively break down the molecular structure of pollutants and unpleasant odors.

Each of these filters uses a specific method to perform a different function.

Air filters in cars

Engine air filters use a filter medium, which usually consists of paper or cloth, to trap particles and debris and prevent them from entering your engine’s intake system. Unlike cabin air filters, engine air filters have absolutely nothing to do with the air inside your vehicle.

Cabin air filters are an important part of keeping your cabin free of allergens and odor. Whereas older cars simply let in fresh air through open exterior vents, newer cars use cabin air filters to trap particles and debris. There are two types of cabin air filters that can help reduce allergens and odors in your car:

  • HEPA Cabin Air Filters These filters use a very fine mesh, capable of capturing large particles, such as a hazard to pets, and extremely small particles, such as those found in tobacco smoke.
  • Cabin filters with activated carbon impregnated filter material — Activated carbon filters are especially good for eliminating odors.

In most vehicles, the cabin air filter still works even if you install recycling governing bodies HVAC . This setting prevents new air from entering the vehicle and simply recirculates the air that is already in the cabin, so it can effectively prevent new pollutants from entering while filtering existing pollutants.

Cabin air filters work better than ionizers, but they need to be replaced regularly.
Mihailo Maricic / EyeEm

Some cars, especially older ones, do not have cabin air filters. And some older cars that have cabin air filters put them in a place where they can’t filter the air as it recirculates inside the cabin.

If your vehicle has a cabin air filter and it is capable of filtering recirculated air, then regularly installing a fresh HEPA or carbon soaked filter is the best way to improve the air quality inside your vehicle.

Do car ionizers work?

Air ionizers designed for automotive use are usually compact devices that can be plugged directly into a cigarette lighter socket. Instead of filtering the air, these devices emit ions, which are essentially just molecules that have a positive or negative charge instead of the normal neutral charge.

The basic idea of ​​a car air ionizer is that the ionized particles of various allergens and odorous materials will stick to the surface or to each other, at which point they will no longer float in the air.

While a good air ionizer should do what it is designed to do, it actually nothing not filters and you might end up with a dark layer of dust, pollen, and whatever else clinging to every surface inside your car.

Another problem to watch out for is that many small, weak ionizers that plug into the cigarette lighter are too anemic to even achieve that.

Do ozone generators work for smelly cars?

Like ionizers, ozone generators do not actually filter the air. They generate ozone, which reacts with various odor-causing chemicals, often leaving them odorless. For some sources of unpleasant car odor this works pretty well.

Large ozone generators, which you can sometimes find at dealerships and independent repair shops, are often capable of generating massive amounts of ozone and removing a lot of accumulated odors.

Of course, there are a number of risks for health, related to long-term exposure to ozone, so it’s probably not a good idea to drive with an ozone generator constantly running in your car.

Car air freshener and purifier limits

Because every type of car freshener and air purifier has such steep limits, the best way to deal with car smells is to avoid creating them in the first place. If it’s too late for that, then it might be worth checking to see if any of the dealers or independent shops on your air can do (or even recommend) an ozone treatment. Substances such as activated charcoal, baking soda, and pumice stone can also absorb bad odors.

Car air fresheners like the symbolic «little green trees» can also help with odors, though they only mask things like smoke and food smells rather than removing them, so your mileage may vary.

If you’re primarily concerned about allergens, then a good HEPA cabin air filter or any cabin air filter with a reasonably tough filter media is your best bet.

While cabin air filters can’t do anything to the air that’s already in your car, they will keep new allergens out. And since your passenger compartment is not a pressurized environment, introducing allergen-free air will eventually force out most or all of the allergen-laden air.

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