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How to keep a clean car interior

minute read

    When you’re busy shuttling from place to place, keeping a clean car interior may not always seem like a priority. But a clean car may make for a more pleasant drive for both you and your passengers. It may also help maintain your car’s resale value when it’s time to say goodbye to your trusty set of wheels. From cleaning tips to the types of equipment you may require, here’s what you need to know about cleaning your car’s interior.

    What you’ll need for cleaning the inside of a car

    To keep a car’s interior clean, it helps to have the right supplies on hand. Some common cleaning supplies for a car include:

    Microfiber cloths or rags

    These special, non-scratching towels are typically soft and highly absorbent. The weave construction of the microfibers is particularly good at grabbing on to dirt particles, whether on your steering wheel, around the center console or elsewhere in your car. Some microfiber cloths are even designed as large mitts with wrist cuffs, which can be helpful for cleaning tight spots with precision.

    Bristled cleaning brushes

    Whether it’s cleaning your dashboard or dislodging dirt in the seams of your upholstery, you may be surprised at how versatile different types of brushes can be. Depending on the size and strength of the bristles, you can remove various scuffs and marks with greater confidence. For dirtier patches such as on door panels and jambs (the section of the car’s frame that your doors fit into), you may wish to use stiffer brushes for better effect.

    Crevice cleaning tools and brushes

    Not everything will respond to even the most precise bristle brushes. If you’re running into challenging patches, hardier tools might be required. You may also consider professional detailing services for the most hard-to-clean messes.

    Vacuum cleaner and hand dusters

    Handheld or hose attachment models are often particularly convenient for outdoor use. For wired appliances, you may need an external power source or an extra-long extension cable.

    Some vacuum cleaners offer wet cleaning modes, potentially helpful for deep cleaning your car mats and upholstery. The mini hose attachments that come with many vacuum cleaners may help with tighter crevices. Some models of vacuum cleaners are even specifically designed for interior car use.

    For flat expanses of interior plastic, you may want to start with a manual approach: the humble duster. Specially formulated mini dusters may be a good option for handling spaces such as the vents of your heating and air conditioning system.

    Car-safe cleaning products

    You’ll likely want to consider a range of car-safe cleaning products, such as:

    • Leather cleaners
    • Disinfecting wipes
    • Carpet cleaners
    • Mild soaps
    • Baking soda
    • Glass cleaners
    • White vinegar

    Note that household cleaning products may sometimes have chemicals that could degrade your car (dish soap, for instance, can potentially strip away protective car wax). It’s generally safer to get cleaning products that are recommended for cars.

    Homemade solutions, like varying concentrations of water and vinegar with a dash of soap, may also be an option, though this may leave a faint (generally temporary) vinegar smell behind. For these homemade mixes, you’ll need some empty spray bottles to use as dispensers. A little soapy water in a small bucket (taking care to use a soap that’s suitable for your interior) together with a clean car sponge is another staple item.

    Customizing your car cleaning kit

    Exactly what you’ll need for your interior car cleaning kit will typically depend on your circumstances and what you immediately have available. Figuring out those items you already have around the house and those you may wish to obtain is usually a good start when preparing to clean your car’s interior.

    How to clean the interior of a car

    Having assembled your kit, cleaning the inside of a car generally benefits from a little extra forethought. Once you’ve determined your plan of attack, it’s time to get to work. Inside the cabin, it typically helps to start from the top down rather than going after those dirty floor areas right away, as you may dislodge additional dirt and debris while cleaning other places. General steps to consider include:


    Unattended, your car’s cabin can quickly become a trash can on wheels. Discarded food wrappers and months-old receipts are only the start of the problem. Regardless of how regularly you remove trash from your car, things will get missed — peer into the recesses of your door sills and cupholders, for instance, and be prepared for things you weren’t expecting.

    That’s why an interior car clean typically starts best with a thorough decluttering. Removing any loose items or trash from the car (including emptying the trunk of its contents) will give you a solid base to work from. Of course, it’s possible some discarded items will be hard to see and even harder to reach, meaning you might find yourself on your hands and knees.

    For families with young children, it’s time to take out those car seats too where a greater amount of debris may accumulate. 

    Cleaning floor mats

    While floor mats benefit from regular cleaning, they also gather dirt underneath. When cleaning your mats, it may be best to decide on your approach before removing them from the vehicle. A good shaking may remove the most visible dirt and be the first obvious step. Additionally applying a carpet shampoo that’s suitable for car mats might be just what the doctor ordered.

    Wiping windows and windshields

    We often pay more attention to the state of our exterior glass than to the inside. However, dirty streaks and other grime collect on the interior of your car’s glass too. When cleaning glass, it’s typically important to use the right cleaning product as well as the right kind of cloth or rag. Read your product instructions carefully to avoid smearing and choose a cloth that’s highly absorbent.

    Now also may be a good time to go after any remaining adhesive you might have on the glass from expired stickers. One option here is to apply an adhesive remover (again, following the manufacturer’s directions), leaving it to settle and then carefully wiping away the debris. For stubborn patches of old adhesive, some recommend carefully applying a scraping tool to the area, ideally one specially designed for scraping in tight angles.

    While you’re working on the interior windshield, you may also want to take the opportunity to clear any debris from the space where the windshield meets the dashboard.

    Cleaning the dashboard of your car

    If you’re the driver, perhaps you spend more time looking at your dashboard than you care to consider. But how often do you clean it? A little brushing and dusting can help revive your dash. Specially produced dashboard wipes may also help.

    When considering the instrument cluster, it’s generally best to exercise care so as not to accidentally damage your controls. Again, it helps to be mindful of the cleaning products you’re using and ensure they’re recommended for interior car use.

    Cleaning your center console

    The center console is a miracle of modern-day driving, including various combinations of storage spaces, cupholders, cabin controls and armrests. It’s also a magnet for dirt. That’s why, when it comes to interior car cleaning, your center console calls for particular care and attention.

    Being aware of the different surfaces you’re cleaning (from plastic and wood to leather and metal), while using the right product and tool for the material in question, is usually a good approach. It helps to clean thoroughly, applying just the right pressure for the task in hand.

    Cleaning the cupholders

    Who doesn’t look forward to a fresh beverage on the road? But aside from the risks of distracted driving, hot and cold drinks in your cupholders are often a fast track to gunk in the event of a drip or spill. Unfortunately, if you want to keep your car interior clean, there’s no avoiding the clean-up that follows.

    First, it’s best to assess the mess, using the right tool and product for the buildup in question and scrubbing it thoroughly. Consider using a flashlight if needed to make sure you’ve addressed all offending patches.

    Cleaning the interior door panels

    Door panels and door jambs are often overlooked — literally out of sight, out of mind. Removing scuffs and other marks from these areas will typically require a mix of brushes, cloths and other scrubbers in combination with a suitable cleaning product.

    You may want to budget a little additional time for cleaning your door panels. Not only are you working with a relatively large surface area, but this part of the car is potentially more exposed to the outside elements than elsewhere in the interior and may build up more dirt as a result.

    Cleaning the car seats

    The modern-day car seat, with its various upholstery and (in some cases) posture controls, may feel like you’re attending the movie theater. But where there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean. Cleaning your seats, with all their different crevices, angles and seams, is a labor of love.

    Starting with your vacuum cleaner may be a good first move, next wiping down the major surfaces with the right cleaning products. Depending on whether the upholstery is leather or cloth, you may want to use slightly different cleaning methods and products.

    Cleaning the floors

    Before replacing your freshly cleaned mats, it’s time to tackle your floors. This may require getting on your hands and knees to reach all the different areas where dirt can build up, picking up any larger pieces of debris that you missed first time around. Your vacuum cleaning appliance is probably your next port of call. Its various hose attachments, used in conjunction with your cleaning brushes, can make the difference between clean enough and properly clean.

    De-junking the trunk

    There’s so much stuff going into and out of your trunk that it’s hard for it not to become scuffed over time. From brushing the back-seat upholstery to wiping off all the plastic covers, deploying every little trick that you brought to cleaning the passenger area is generally a good strategy when it comes to your trunk.

    Fighting tough residual odors

    Nobody likes a car smell that won’t go away. If there’s a stubborn odor inside your car, you might need to reach for alternative approaches. One option is to sprinkle the area with baking soda, letting it sit overnight before vacuuming it away.

    Additional tips for a clean car interior

    They say a stitch in time saves nine. Decluttering your car on a regular basis to avoid small messes turning into big ones is certainly something to keep in mind. Some additional considerations for keeping your car’s interior clean include:

    • Investing in quality floor mats that respond well to cleaning, as your floors can see a lot of dirt and grime.
    • Buying a car trash bin or otherwise repurposing some kind of lidded container for your vehicle (and remembering to empty it frequently).
    • Setting and sticking to a schedule for your interior car cleaning.

    As a final thought, you may want to remind yourself how good that fresh car smell is. There’s a reason why car dealerships invest time into detailing used cars before they try to sell them.

    In summary

    A clean car interior may not be the first thing you think about in the morning or the last thing on your mind at night. But for every week or month that goes by without an interior cleaning, it’s more time for dirt and grime to build up. Setting a schedule for cleaning your car’s interior and putting to use some of the tips you learned in this article may just give you and your vehicle a new lease on life.

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