How to Clean a Car Interior

Cleaning products in seat of car

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

We all love the smell of a new car. Cleaning the interior of your car may not bring back that new car smell, but it will certainly improve the air quality in the one you're driving. Washing the windows, getting rid of trash and clutter, and cleaning the carpet and seats will make you breathe easier and can even improve your driving skills.

Professional detailing can be quite costly, but with just a few tools that you probably have on hand and some time, you can clean your car interior just like the pros.

How Often to Clean Your Car Interior

How often a car should be cleaned depends on driving conditions, how the vehicle is used, the number of passengers, and how frequently you drive.

Safety is always a priority when it comes to car maintenance. Interior windows should be cleaned at least monthly or when grime impedes your ability to clearly see oncoming vehicles. Trash and debris should be removed from the driver's floorboard and dashboard when it interferes with the operation of the vehicle controls. For most drivers, a thorough interior cleaning should be done at least twice a year. Keeping the interior in its best shape will help the car last longer and retain its value when you sell or trade it in.

What You Need

Supplies

  • Trash bag
  • Ammonia-free window cleaner or distilled white vinegar
  • Dishwashing liquid
  • Disinfecting wipes
  • Water
  • Paper towel
  • Oxygen-based bleach (optional)
  • Leather cleaner (optional)
  • Upholstery cleaner (optional)
  • Baking soda

Tools

  • Vacuum with hose attachments or shop-vac
  • Microfiber cloths
  • Cotton swab
  • Sponge
  • Stiff-bristled scrub brush
  • Bucket
  • Garden hose (optional)
  • Duster
  • Old toothbrush

Instructions

  1. Gather Trash and Debris

    Before you attempt to clean, gather all the trash from the floorboards, cup holders, and door and seat pockets and recycle or dispose of it. Remove car seats, toys, and other items that have been left in the car.

  2. Remove Floor Mats for Cleaning

    Car floor mats are often one of the messiest areas in the interior. It is much easier to clean them if you remove them from the car. Give each mat a good shake or vacuuming before you begin cleaning.

    For carpeted mats, use a carpet or upholstery cleaner and follow the instructions.

    For rubber, vinyl, or silicone mats, use a garden hose to wash away excess soil. Mix a solution of warm water and a few drops of dishwashing liquid in a bucket. Dip a scrub brush in the solution and clean the mats. Rinse well and allow to air-dry before placing back in the car.

  3. Clean the Interior Windows and Mirror

    Use a microfiber cloth and an ammonia-free commercial window cleaner (ammonia can damage interior plastics) in a spray bottle to remove the haze from interior windows. Lower the windows slightly and start at the top of the window and work down so you will catch any drips. If you have tinted windows, read the label of the cleaning product to make sure it is safe for your windows.

    Tip

    Make your own window cleaner by mixing a one-to-one solution of distilled white vinegar and water.

  4. Clean the Center Console

    The center console usually includes cup holders that can get messy. If the cup holder is removable, allow it to soak in some warm water and a bit of dishwashing liquid. Finish by wiping it down with a soft cloth and rinsing well with fresh water. Dry and reassemble the console.

    To clean the gearstick and other controls, use a clean microfiber cloth that is only slightly damp. To reach tight corners, use an old toothbrush, damp cotton swab, or wrap a damp paper towel around the tip of a dull knife or flat-head screwdriver.

  5. Remove Dashboard Dust and Grime

    Use a duster to remove as much dust as possible from the dashboard and cotton swabs to get into small spaces around vents and knobs. After dusting, use a slightly damp microfiber cloth to remove any grime and fingerprints.

    Tip

    To reach the narrow part of the dashboard where it joins the windshield, wrap a slightly damp microfiber cloth around a ruler or wooden paint stirrer.

  6. Disinfect the Steering Wheel

    The steering wheel and gear shift knobs are some of the most germ-ridden spots in a car. Use a disinfecting wipe to clean away germs and bacteria. Buff dry with a clean microfiber cloth.

  7. Clean Leather Car Seats

    If you have leather car seats, use the vacuum crevice tool to carefully remove dust and grime from stitching and the area where the backs and bottom seats join. Wipe down each seat with a commercial leather cleaner or a solution of saddle soap and water.

    After cleaning the seat, you may wish to use a leather conditioner to restore suppleness and shine.

  8. Clean Cloth Car Seats

    For cloth car seats, begin by vacuuming each seat well. Pretreat heavily-stained areas with a bit of upholstery cleaner or follow the guidelines for a specific type of stain. For dye-based stains like Kool-Aid, make a paste of powdered oxygen-based bleach and a bit of water. Apply the paste to the stained area and let it work for at least one hour before vacuuming away residue.

    Once the heavy stains have been removed, follow the instructions on the upholstery cleaner to clean the entire seat. Use a scrub brush to work the cleaner into the fabric and then use a microfiber cloth dipped in plain water to wipe away the cleaner and grime.

    Repeat the steps if necessary and allow the seats to air dry.

    Tip

    Don't forget to clean your seat belts. Use the upholstery cleaner to clean the fabric straps to remove grime and stains. Wipe down the metal fasteners and molded clasps with a damp microfiber cloth.

  9. Vacuum and Clean the Interior Carpet

    One of the last steps is to vacuum the car's carpet. By doing it last, all of the debris from other tasks will be sucked away. If there are stains on the carpet, use a commercial carpet cleaner and follow the instructions.

  10. Clean the Door Panels

    The door panels may be a combination of carpet and vinyl or leather. Use a damp microfiber cloth to wipe down the finishes and wipe out the pockets.

  11. Tackle Tough Odors

Finally, if your car still smells stale, sprinkle the carpet and cloth seats with dry baking soda. Let it remain overnight and then vacuum it away.

You can also control odors by placing some baking soda or activated charcoal in a sealed plastic container. Cut some slits in the lid and place it under one of the seats. Change the contents every other month.