How to Clean a Car Interior
Choose the Best Cleaners to Make Your Car's Interior Shine
The main steps to interior car cleaning, like the pros, are to wash the windows, get rid of trash and clutter, and clean the car interior's carpet and seats. You can be the cleanest person in the world, but only after a few days, the car gets dirty when a fine layer of dust accumulates on the surfaces whether you use your vehicle or not. Add in children, the shedding family dog, or a trip to the beach, and your car needs immediate cleaning attention.
Getting professional detailing done by car cleaning pros can be costly, but you can do it yourself with tools and cleaning supplies that you probably have on hand. Some home hacks include rubbing alcohol, distilled white vinegar, or dish soap. Baking soda is also perfect for removing odors and absorbing oily stains.
Follow these steps to keep your car's interior in its best shape, extending its life and retaining its value when you sell or trade it in.
Click Play to Learn How to Clean a Car Interior Quickly and Easily
What You'll Need
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
- Mild dish soap
- 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)
- Rubbing alcohol (optional)
- Carpet cleaner (optional)
- Toothpick or pair of tweezers (optional)
How to Clean Your Car's Interior
Gather Trash and Debris
- Remove car seats, toys, and other items from the car and trunk.
- Gather and dispose of all the trash from the floorboards, cup holders, door pockets, and seat pockets.
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 vacuum and place them on a tarp or drop cloth rather than on the dirty ground.
- For carpeted mats, follow the instructions and use a carpet or upholstery cleaner.
- 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 dish soap in a bucket. Dip a scrub brush in the solution and clean the mats. Rinse well and let them air dry.
Clean the Interior Windows and Mirror
- You will need a microfiber cloth and an ammonia-free commercial window cleaner, or make your own solution (see below). Note: An ammonia-based cleaner can damage interior plastics or dashboard touchscreens, removing anti-glare or anti-fingerprint coatings.
- Lower the windows slightly and start at the top of the window and work downward, catching any drips along the way.
- If you have tinted windows, read the cleaning product's instructions to ensure 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 warm water with a few drops of dish soap.
- 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 or a damp cotton swab, or wrap a wet paper towel around the tip of a dull knife or flat-head screwdriver.
Remove Dashboard Dust and Grime
- Use a duster to remove dust 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 grime and fingerprints. Or, use a specialty wipe like Chemical Guys Total Interior Cleaner & Protectant.
Disinfect the Steering Wheel
Germs and bacteria can accumulate on the steering wheel and gear shift knobs over time.
- Use a disinfecting wipe to wipe clean these high-touch surfaces.
- 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 some upholstery cleaner or follow the guidelines for a specific type of stain. Make a paste of powdered oxygen-based bleach and a bit of water for dye-based stains like Kool-Aid. Apply the paste to the stained area and let it work for at least one hour before vacuuming away residue.
- Use upholstery cleaner on 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 as necessary. Try not to get the upholstery too wet. Sopping wet cushions can take long to dry and encourage mold growth.
- Blot the upholstery mostly dry with a clean towel and allow the seats to air dry. Leave the windows open when air drying, and if possible, open the doors and point a free-standing fan at the damp upholstery.
Vacuum and Clean the Interior Carpet
- Vacuum the car's carpet or floor to suck away all the dirt and debris.
- If there are stains on the carpet, use a commercial carpet cleaner and follow the instructions.
- Remember to vacuum the trunk's carpeting.
Clean the Door Panels
The door panels may be a combination of carpet, vinyl, or leather.
- Use a damp microfiber cloth to wipe down the finishes and clean out the pockets.
- Remember 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
- If your car smells stale, sprinkle the carpet and cloth seats with dry baking soda. Let it remain overnight. Vacuum it the next day.
- Control lingering odors by placing baking soda or activated charcoal in a sealed plastic container. Cut some slits in the lid and put it under one of the seats. Change the contents every other month.
- For persistent odors, purchase a commercial upholstery odor remover, like Febreze or OdoBan.
- Bring the car to a professional detailer for strong, foul odors like mold. Organic stains soaked into the seat cushions can grow into a moldy mess that surface cleaning or other DIY remedies can't fix.
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. A thorough cleaning of the car's interior twice a year should suffice.
However, safety is the priority for 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.
Additional Tips to Keep Your Car Interior Clean
- Consider keeping automotive gel in your car to frequently clean out vents and other hard-to-reach places while stuck in traffic or otherwise spending time in your vehicle.
- Put a silicone baking cup in your cup holders to keep them cleaner for 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).
- Use backseat pet covers and 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 kick mats to ward off muddy footprints on the seat backs.
What can I use to make my car interior shine?
After removing the dust, use a commercial dashboard cleaner and protectant to add shine to the surface. While some owners use a few drops of vegetable oil on a cloth to add shine, it will not prevent fading or cracking.
What do professionals use to clean car interiors?
Among the top products the professionals use are Chemical Guys Total Interior Cleaner & Protectant for the dash and hard surfaces and Armor All Carpet and Upholstery Cleaner Power Foam for upholstery. Also, a good car vacuum is a tool the pros rely on most.
What not to use when cleaning a car interior?
Do not use any heavy-duty cleaning ingredients like bleach, ammonia,
benzene, thinners, hydrogen peroxide, or harsh and abrasive cleaners. These chemicals can damage upholstery and interior surfaces.
What are the best tools for cleaning a car dashboard?
To make fast work of your car's dashboard, use an electrostatic duster, a vacuum with a brush or crevice attachment, a toothbrush to get in the tiny crevices, and a soft microfiber cloth.