If you’ve spent as much time browsing car forums as The Drive’s editors have, you’ve likely seen your fair share of dirty vehicles. If not, you've probably seen our coverage of some of the more dramatic before-and-after basket cases that bubble up. In some instances, it’s like the owners completely forgot that people actually need to be able to ride in a vehicle without catching a bacterial disease in the process. Garbage, old food, and mystery stains are common calls-to-duty, but even a mildly dirty car interior is reason to take action.
Thankfully, you don’t need special skills to clean your car’s interior. All it takes is time, patience, and some common cleaning products that can be found almost anywhere. Sure, you could pay someone to clean your car’s interior, but professional cleaning jobs can be quite expensive. That's why The Drive’s editors are here to help you get started cleaning your car’s interior like a pro. Grab your vacuum cleaner, microfiber rags and a large helping of patience. Let’s get rolling.
Car Interior Cleaning Basics
Estimated Time Needed: 1-3 Hours, depending on how dirty you’ve let your vehicle become
Skill Level: Beginner
Vehicle System: Interior
Just like you’d take your car to a car wash to remove dirt from its exterior, you’ll need to take the time to clean dirt from its interior as well. Unfortunately for you, there’s no magical interior cleaning robot like there is for washing the exterior of your car, and unless you’re willing to pay someone else to do the dirty work for you, it’s time to roll up your sleeves.
Car Interior Cleaning Safety
Believe it or not, you can actually hurt yourself while cleaning your car’s interior.
- It might seem unnecessary, but wear gloves and eye protection while working with chemicals like conditioning sprays and cleaning wipes. Also, good airflow is vital.
- Take care when reaching under seats and other obstructed areas. There are plenty of sharp objects that can cut or scratch your hands.
- Unless you've got no other option, avoid trying to clean your car while parked in a busy lot or on a street with traffic. It’s best to move your vehicle out of the way to a place where you can freely and safely hop in and out as you work.
The Tool List: Everything You’ll Need To Clean Your Car’s Interior
You probably have many items on the list, but even the ones you don’t won’t break the bank to buy.
- Vacuum cleaner
- Towels, both cloth and paper
- Microfiber cloth
- Window cleaner
- Vinyl and/or leather cleaner and conditioner
- Carpet cleaner
- Trash bags
- Extension cord (if needed)
- Gloves (if needed)
- Eye protection (if needed)
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
You’ll also want to seek out a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.
Here’s How To Clean Your Car’s Interior
Let’s do this!
Find a Shaded or Cool Area With Good Lighting
- Working in the sun is not only uncomfortable, it also makes the cleaning products less effective. Product might react to the heat if left on too long and could stain or damage the interior.
Remove Trash and Clutter
- Grab your trash bags and a pair of gloves.
- Start by grabbing all of the old french fry boxes, fast food bags, Big Gulps, and trash that you can find in your vehicle’s interior. Be sure to pay attention to the trunk as well.
- If you have kids, check under seats and in the cracks between seats. They love to hide crayons, snack wrappers, and other trash in hard-to-reach places.
- Take out anything that isn’t vital to operating the vehicle that you’ve been carrying around. Take the time to finally donate that bag of clothes that have been rolling around in your trunk for six months and be sure to remove dirty clothes or shoes while you’re at it.
Clean Interior Surfaces
Because you’ll be vacuuming during this process, it’s best to get the dirt off of the higher surfaces before cleaning the lower ones. Just as you would start washing your car at the top, this will let debris fall to be scooped up later.
- Starting with the dash, wipe away dust and dirt using a microfiber dust cloth, a cleaning/conditioning wipe, or a microfiber towel and a spray designed to remove dirt from automotive surfaces.
- Wipe around the steering wheel, gauge cluster, gear shift, and other tight spaces. Hair, dust, and other dirt tend to congregate in these places, so you’ll want to pay close attention.
- If you’re using wipes, change them out frequently to be sure you’re cleaning evenly throughout the interior. If you’re using a towel and spray, either flip the towel over or grab a new one to avoid spreading dirt around.
- If you want to get really detailed with your cleaning, take a toothbrush to clean hair and other debris from around your climate control buttons and gear shift.
- Use glass cleaner spray and microfiber towels to clean the glass on the inside of your vehicle.
- Try to steer clear of glass cleaners that contain ammonia. It can damage plastics and other surfaces inside the cabin.
- If your car has tinted windows, read the cleaner’s warnings to be sure you’re using one that won’t kill your tint job.
- It’s best to work in small areas to avoid having the cleaner dry out or cause streaks before you’re done.
Bust Out the Vacuum
- Before vacuuming, remove the car’s floor mats, if there are any. This will allow you to isolate the dirty mats and shake off dirt outside of the vehicle. More on those later.
- Vacuum the seats before starting on the carpet. If you’ve got a slim-tip attachment for your vacuum cleaner, it’s best to use it to reach into cracks and crevices in the fabric or leather.
- Take your hand and press down on the seat near large cracks between surfaces to better see crumbs and dirt that have fallen into the abyss.
- If you notice melted crayons on the seat, you can chill them with an ice cube, which should make it easier to chip the wax away.
- Vacuum the air vents, at the top of the dash where it meets the windshield, and on the deck behind the back seats if your car has one.
- Move on to vacuuming the floor. Start under the seats and be sure to vacuum between the seats and interior bodywork, such as the center console or doors. Slide the seat fore and aft to get to all those crevices.
- If your vacuum has a small brush attachment, it can help remove hair and other debris from the carpet. Specially designed pet hair brushes can also be useful.
- Before reinstalling the floor mats, vacuum them thoroughly. If your car is equipped with all-weather mats, it’s a good idea to spray them off with a hose and brush them down to remove mud and other debris. Let them dry before reinstalling.
To finish the job, replace the mats and any other pieces of the vehicle’s interior that you removed during the cleaning process. Check your work to be sure you didn’t miss anything big, and take note of stains or spots that weren’t able to be cleaned during cleaning. Stubborn stains, such as the ones left behind after a melted crayon is removed, may need professional help or additional attention with a special stain removal spray or tool. Now is also the time to install an air freshener, if that’s your thing.
Pro Tips to Clean Your Car’s Interior
- If you live in a part of the world that receives significant winter weather, it’s best to leave the deep cleaning for spring. Vacuum and remove trash from the interior, but a deep clean will be ruined the first time you step into the car with sand or salt on your boots.
- Make sure you like the smell of an air freshener before installing it and leaving it in your car. There’s nothing worse than an overpowering smell that you’re not fond of.
- While you’re cleaning the inside of your trunk, be sure to check underneath the shelf where the spare tire might live. Clean any leaves or dirt, inspect for any possible water damage (this has happened to us), and check the air in the spare tire to make sure it’s properly inflated.
- For extreme detailing, Q-Tips can help get into tiny nooks and crannies.
- While cleaning your car’s interior, it’s also a good time to sort through your glove box documents and make sure you have everything up to date.
FAQs About Cleaning Car Interiors
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q: Can I use a bathroom or kitchen cleaner inside my car?
A: In most cases, no. Automotive cleaners are designed to remove dirt without damaging the materials inside your cabin. Bleach and other chemicals in household cleaners can cause damage to both upholstered and plastic surfaces.
Q: I spilled something on my carpet, and it stinks. What can I do?
A: If you’ve spilled milk or some other stinky substance inside your car, you have a few options. Carpet sprays and odor control products work to an extent, as does white vinegar, but for super tough odors you might need to get help from professional cleaners. They have ozone tools and other tricks to get tough odors out of your car.
Q: How do you clean Alcantara and suede?
A: Suede and Alcantara (suede-like material) can be cleaned, but will need to be treated differently than standard leather or cloth. You will need to find suede cleaner that will break down dirt and stains without damaging the material underneath. A detailing brush and microfiber towels will help you work the cleaner into the suede and dry it properly afterward. It’s important to remember that suede and Alcantara both need time to dry out before you start sitting on seats or gripping a steering wheel covered in the material.
Q: Is it best to pay for a deep clean?
A: It’s only best if you don’t have the time or space to clean on your own. Or, you know, if somebody got a little too saucy. Professional cleaning certainly won’t be cheaper than doing the work yourself.
Q: Do I really need Armor All and other protectants?
A: Nobody’s going to judge you if you don’t want to use these products, but they do help protect from sun damage and other age-related damage. Just be sure to apply them as directed and avoid applying the products to the steering wheel or other parts of the interior that you’ll need to grip to properly operate the vehicle.
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