Cleaning the interior of your car may not bring back that heady new car smell, but it will certainly improve the air quality. Washing the windows, getting rid of trash and clutter, and cleaning the carpet and seats will make you breathe easier, and having crystal clear windows can improve driving safety.
Professional detailing can be quite costly, but with just a few tools and cleaning supplies that you probably have on hand, you can clean your car interior just like the pros.
How Often to Clean Your Car Interior
How often to clean your car 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. Clean interior windows at least monthly or when grime impedes your ability to see oncoming vehicles. Remove trash and debris from the driver's floorboard and dashboard when it interferes with the vehicle's controls. A thorough cleaning of the car's interior twice a year should suffice. Keep the interior in its best shape to help the car last longer and retain its value when you sell or trade it in.
Equipment / Tools
- Trash bin
- Vacuum with hose, crevice tool attachments or shop-vac
- Microfiber cloths
- Cotton swab
- Stiff-bristled scrub brush
- Garden hose (optional)
- Old toothbrush
- Tarp or drop cloth
- Dull knife or flat-head screwdriver (optional)
- Ruler or paint stirrer stick
- Spray bottle (optional)
- Ammonia-free window cleaner
- Dishwashing liquid
- Disinfecting wipes
- Paper towel
- Baking soda or activated charcoal
- Oxygen-based bleach (optional)
- Leather cleaner/conditioner or saddle soap (optional)
- Upholstery cleaner (optional)
- White distilled vinegar (optional)
- Carpet cleaner (optional)
- Toothpick or pair of tweezers (optional)
Gather Trash and Debris
Gather all the trash from the floorboards, cup holders, door pockets, and seat pockets and recycle or dispose of it. Remove car seats, toys, and other items from the car.
Remove and Clean the Floor Mats
Floor mats are often some of the dirtiest items in a car interior. Remove all of them from the car for easier cleaning. Give each mat a good shake or vacuuming before you begin cleaning. Then place them on a tarp or other type of drop cloth rather than on the dirty ground.
For carpeted mats, use a carpet or upholstery cleaner and follow the instructions.
For rubber, vinyl, or silicone mats, use a 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 let them air-dry before placing them back in the car and continue cleaning the other areas of the interior.
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. Make your own window cleaner by mixing a 1:1 solution of diluted dish soap and water, which is effective at removing dust, fingerprints, and other grime.
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 cleaning product's instructions to make sure it's safe for your windows.
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. Scrub it clean with a sponge. 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.
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.
Disinfect the Steering Wheel
Eliminate the build-up of germs and bacteria from your steering wheel and gear shift knobs with a disinfecting wipe. Buff dry with a clean microfiber cloth.
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 made for automotive care or a solution of saddle soap and water—some cleaning lines like Lexol are made with cars in mind, so the conditioners absorb in less than 15 minutes, and you can get back on the road.
After cleaning the seat, consider using a leather conditioner to restore suppleness and shine.
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 are removed, follow the instructions on the upholstery cleaner for 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. Try not to get the upholstery too wet and blot the upholstery mostly dry with a clean, dry towel before leaving it to air dry. Sopping wet cushions can take a long time to dry and encourage mold growth.
Leave the windows open when air drying, and if possible, open the doors and point a free-standing fan at the damp upholstery, if the car is safe inside an enclosed garage.
Vacuum and Clean the Interior Carpet
Vacuum the car's carpet or floor as one of the last steps to suck away all the dirt and debris that's come out of your vents and crevices. If there are stains on the carpet, use a commercial carpet cleaner and follow the instructions. Don't forget to vacuum the carpet that's in the trunk.
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. Don't forget to clean the back door or hatchback. Keep the doors open when cleaning so the dirt and dander land on the outside of your car.
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.
For truly tough odors, you may need to purchase a commercial upholstery odor remover, like Febreze or OdoBan. If a strong, foul odor like mold persists, it is time to bring the car to a professional detailer, as organic stains that soaked into the seat cushions can grow into a moldy mess that surface cleaning just can't touch.
Tips to Keep Your Car Interior Clean Longer
- Consider keeping automotive gel or putty in your car so you can use it frequently to clean out vents and other hard-to-reach places while you're stuck in traffic or otherwise spending time in your car.
- Put a silicone baking cup in your cup holders to keep them cleaner longer.
- Organize your glove compartment with a mini expanding file so you have more room to hold small cleaning tools for in-between cleanings (and to keep things from falling out of your glove compartment).
- Remember to take along backseat pet covers plus a rubber glove or lint roller to wipe up fur that's settled on the seats or carpet.
- Keep a small sealed container in your car door pocket for bits of trash that ends up on the floor or cup holders. A narrow pet treat holder or cereal dispenser works well.
- If you frequently have kids in the back seat, invest in a pair of kick mats to ward off muddy footprints on the seat backs.
What is the best household cleaner to use for cleaning a car's interior?
Rubbing alcohol is a versatile household item for cleaning and can be used for cleaning hard interior surfaces, leather or vinyl seats, and fabric. White vinegar mixed equally with water also works well.
What are the best tools for cleaning a car dashboard?
To make fast work of your car's dashboard, it helps to have a vacuum with a brush attachment, a soft microfiber cloth, and a toothbrush to get in the tiny crevices.
How do you get a car dashboard shiny?
After cleaning the dust with a cloth, you can use any commercial car cleaners or turn to your pantry and use any oil, like olive, vegetable, or coconut oil, or even petroleum jelly. Add a few drops to the cloth and wipe the entire space.