When you turn on your car’s air conditioner, you should receive a flow of cold air that cools the cabin. It shouldn’t have any discernible smell. If you’re noticing strange smells coming from the AC vents, there’s a problem. The actual nature of that problem will depend on what you’re smelling.
Causes of bad odors
If you’re smelling a musty/moldy smell (think dirty socks), then what you’re smelling is mildew growing in the system. This is actually a very common automotive problem, and it’s generally caused by running your air conditioning system only on recirculate, and not blowing the fan for a minute or two after turning off the AC and shutting off the engine.
Mildew can thrive in many areas of your car’s AC system, but you’ll find it’s particularly fond of the evaporator core and the condenser. These areas are moist and enclosed – the perfect habitat for bacteria. While it doesn’t really present much of a health risk, it certainly is unpleasant.
How to prevent bad smells
There are several ways to treat this, but the best solution is not to experience it in the first place. Always switch between fresh air and recirculated air to help dry out the interior of your car’s HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system. Additionally, always try to run the fan without the AC on for at least two minutes before turning off the engine (again, this is to help dry the system and avoid creating a habitat conducive to mildew and mold growth). The problem can also be treated by spraying a disinfectant through the fresh air intakes under the hood, as well as using a foaming system cleaner (both of these should be done by a professional).
Another potential cause here is that your cabin filter(s) needs to be changed. The cabin filter does the same job as the air filter under the hood, but it’s responsible for filtering the air that makes its way into the cabin. Over time, the filter becomes clogged with dirt, dust, and pollen. Mold, and mildew can grow here as well. The cabin filter(s) can be found behind the glovebox, but it takes a considerable amount of teardown to remove and replace them.