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Car Paint, Horrible Smell and...Formaldehyde?


I recently had a guy hit my car in a parking lot. I had to get both passenger side doors fixed, and when I picked it up from the shop today (had been there about 10 days), there is an overwhelming smell. I mean, it’s awful. It reminds me of the formaldehyde they preserved the dissecting frogs with in high school biology.

Figuring it just needed to air out, I drove to work (about 25 minutes on the interstate) with the windows down and the AC blasting. I did it again at lunch and on my way home. I went out to my car for a late-night trip to the store, and it’s just as strong.

I’ve noticed that it’s much stronger when the ventilation is on - either AC or heat, compressor on or off, it doesn’t seem to matter.

I’ve never had a car painted before so I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve read some other posts and some say it just takes time, but I haven’t heard anyone else draw the formaldehyde similarity. So now I’m wondering if there’s something wrong, and I bring myself to you, the glorious Car Talk community. The body shop was crappy - they left masking tape marks on the back quarterpanel, and their customer service was abysmal, so I’m trying to figure out what I can without having to call them or (God help me) go back up there.


That’s the smell of a freshly painted car. Give it another week and the smell will disappear. Or by then you’ll get use to it. Did they also tell you not to wash the freshly painted panels for thirty days? It takes that long for the paint to fully cure.


They said nothing to me - they took my loot, gave me the key, had me sign my insurance papers and I was out the door.

So I’m not supposed to get it washed for 30 days?! That sounds like something they would have told me. They did give me a packet of information, but that wasn’t in there.

So it absolutely poured rain here this afternoon (and has been a lot recently) - is that going to cause issue with the panels? Or is it more the soaps and cleaners and such at a car wash?

Thanks -

They said NOTHING because it’s NORMAL and they assumed you’d know. I can think of worse things to get upset about.

I wasn’t terribly upset; just curious, since I’ve never had a car painted before. I didn’t realize it would smell like that for a while, and nobody there made any effort to tell me. While it may be common knowledge to some people, I don’t think all that many people get their cars painted frequently enough to know that it reeks after you get it back.

The smell will start subsiding in a week or so. You can always buy one of those ionizers, although I’m not sure how well they work with an odor as strong as paint.

I don’t think water itself should hurt the paint - just the soaps/chemicals that comes from getting it washed.

also, I don’t think it is necessarily common knowledge to most people but only those who are lucky enough to have had their car painted, so don’t worry about asking the question!

Washing is not recommended due to the soap and the possibility of scratching the soft paint. When it’s fully cured, the paint will be harder and less prone to scratching. Water will not hurt the paint. Waxing is very bad. The new paint has to outgas as it cures. Wax will seal the surface and inhibit this process. By now, you know what the outgassing process smells like. Most low end shops do not “bake” the paint. Heating the paint surface speeds the curing process. If all they did was shoot and scoot, it’ll stink more and take a bit longer to cure.

Ha, there are things far worse than formaldehyde on modern automotive paint.

I’ve noticed that it’s much stronger when the ventilation is on - either AC or heat, compressor on or off, it doesn’t seem to matter…it is possible what you are smelling is mold in the HVAC ducts. The conditions are perfect this time of year for the mold to grow rapidly. Try replacing the cabin filter if equipped and spraying an entire can of Lysol in the filter opening with the blower on high. If the doors on your vehicle were bent to the point that they were not sealing properly then rain could have gotten into the cabin and then the sun could have turned it into a mold farm. It happens.

I am in a body shop every day and when a vehicle is complete I only occasionally get a whiff of new paint. Call a dedicated detail shop and see if they have a machine called an “ionizer”. When this machine is used for a couple of days, continuous, it just might do the trick if it is not to bad.

Wash the car all you want, provided you use mild soap and very clean rags/sponge. BUT, do not wax for 60-90 days so the paint can cure.