I have a dog that gets carsick if the conditions are not exactly perfect. I have to withhold food if we’re going to be in the car more than fifteen minutes and reassure her that I’m not taking her to be abandoned. Still, she frequently ralphs, and I frequently clean it up, so I thought I was something of an expert on this. However, when my daughter got heat exhaustion after her first soccer practice and threw up a bunch of water (and a single string cheese) in a rather inconvenient section of the minivan, I realized I needed to up my game. As such, I have researched and tested several methods—here is the definitive way to clean puke out of your car.
What to do immediately after someone throws up in your car
Unless you have plastic coated seats, you need to clean up as quickly as possible if you want to avoid liquid soakage issues. Pull over or get home ASAP. Open all the windows until you can stop and blast the fans. You don’t want any sympathy pukers, so you need all the air circulation you can get.
Once you’re home and/or parked, eep all the exits open for airflow and use baby wipes, paper towels, shovels, scoops, doggie poop bags, or anything you’ve got on hand to get any “solids” (I’m sorry) out of the way and then get something absorbent onto any surfaces that have liquid on them.
Ideally, you have something disposable like paper towels in your car, but if you’re on the go, you might have to use your child’s sweatshirt or the towel you were taking to the beach. Blot, don’t wipe, and try not to push too hard because that’ll push stuff farther into the car seat or car upholstery.
What to do after the initial puke emergency
Once you’re home and the offender has been put to bed or foisted on another adult, survey your resources. Depending on the various affected interiors of your car, you’re going to want different things. While there are several products on the market for stains and odors, the best solution is a combo of vinegar, baking soda, and dish soap, depending on your surfaces.
Double check that you’ve handled the “solids” situation (again, apologies) and that any liquids are wiped and soaked up to the best of your ability. Sprinkle baking soda over any affected soft surface and leave it there for thirty minutes. Then, vacuum it up. (Your vacuum may never be the same.) If the car seat is involved, remove it, take off the cover, and follow the machine-washing instructions. (You may never get the cover back on.)
Next, make a solution of eight parts warm water, one part white vinegar, and a dash of dish soap for any surface (except leather). Spray it on the “affected area,” leave it for a bit, and then dab it off with water and a wet cloth. For leather, make a paste with three parts baking soda to one part warm water; apply the paste and gently caress your seats with a damp cloth. Try to blot everything dry and then keep the airflow moving as long as possible to help it along.
Also, this wasn’t in my research, but I did a final round over everything with bleach wipes. Maybe it was a holdover from the early COVID days, but it just felt right.
Once it’s too late…
In my case, I thought I’d handled it, though I didn’t do the gentle caressing part or the baking soda part because I had not yet researched it. The next morning, when I loaded the kids up for carpool, I was informed in no uncertain terms that the car still smelled. We drove on the freeway with the windows down and then I repeated the vinegar step.
I let the car sit in the driveway all day with the windows down, watching dutifully on my Ring camera to make sure no one came along and stole my catalytic converter. When I went to school for pickup, I was greeted with the pleasantly mild pickle smell of dried vinegar—but the vomit odor was gone.
If the smell persists, you can invest in some car air fresheners or put dryer sheets in your car to help mask offensive odors. If you’ve really tried everything and the car still smells like digested cheese because you missed a spot or it seeped into the innards of the car, you may decide to invest in a professional car detailing with shampooing of the seats and floors. To offset the cost, try to convince your editor to let you write a how-to article on cleaning puke out of your car.