Cleaning the interior of your car

Isn’t a clean car a treat? I love sliding into the driver’s seat of a tidy, clean car. I don’t love cleaning a car interior the way I enjoy, say, cleaning a room of the house. But I think that’s because I like to putter as I clean, and, well, you can’t really putter in a car. I decided, though, that I can make the task rewarding by treating the interior a bit more like a room. In other words, after I clean it, I think ways to make it more enjoyable to be in, enhancing the reward factor. 

Cleaning

Timing

The very best time to clean your car interior is on a warm, sunny day, at least a few hours before you need to drive the car again. Leave the doors open to give any damp fabric and carpeting an opportunity to dry out nicely before you drive or close the car up again. 

Finding such days is easy in the spring and summer. But I like to give the interior a good cleaning in the fall, too, before winter arrives and I know I won’t be out there cleaning it for some time. If you’re on the lookout, there’s always a nice, warmish fall day that meets the criteria!

aerial view of a convertible vehicle with a silver wheel and teal interior

Supplies

Here are the supplies I like to gather ahead of time, to make quick work of doing a good job:

• A bucket of whatever cleaning solution you’ll be using. My go-to is equal parts vinegar and warm water with a drop of mild dish soap. There are natural car cleaning products available, if you’d like to purchase rather than make your own. If the solution or stain removers you use need rinsing, you’ll want a bucket of plain water, too. Another option is to put your cleaning solution in a spray bottle rather than a bucket.

Tools, such as a hand vacuum (one with an attachment for getting into crevices is especially helpful) and a variety of brushes: an old toothbrush, makeup brush, a new little sponge brush, and/or a new (inexpensive) paintbrush. The brushes are great for cleaning seats and getting into crevices (between seats, inside vents, etc.). The sponge brush is my fave for vents, because the dust particles adhere to it a bit; it doesn’t just brush them into the air. I dip the sponge brush into the cleaning solution, squeeze out the excess water, and wipe.

Stain removers. For cloth seats, use your favorite fabric stain remover. I find rubbing with dishwashing soap usually does the trick. Just rinse well by blotting with a wet cloth afterwards. Toothpaste will get most mild stains out of vinyl or leather seats — but be sure to test in an inconspicuous spot first. For more stubborn stains, try a dab of alcohol (on a cotton ball or Q-tip). Test a spot; alcohol can occasionally remove dyes. Some people like to use Magic Erasers on stains (use it gently on leather).

Window cleaner. You’ll want to make sure your windows are streak-free when you’re finished. Here are some natural recipes for car window cleaners. 

Clean cloths. I grab a pile and use some for washing, some for stain removal, some for drying, some for windows, and some for buffing and polishing. (Yes, it’s a tall pile.)

a brown and black car dashboard

Method

  1. Gather and discard all trash.
  2. Remove floor mats and shake dirt out of them. Remove anything else that can be taken out of  the car. 
  3. Wash floor mats with a hose or (if you’re at the self-serve car wash) the spray nozzle at the car wash. Let air dry well. Note that some floor mats can be machine washed. Treat for stain removal first, if necessary.
  4. Vacuum everything. Start at the top and work your way down (seats, then floors). I like to sprinkle the cloth seats and floor of the car with baking soda before vacuuming. This deodorizes the car naturally and removes musty smells. I add dried lavender flowers to the baking soda. When possible, I’ll leave this overnight before vacuuming. If you’re short on time, leave for 15 minutes or whatever you can come up with.  
  5. Address stains. For stubborn stains on fabric seats, sprinkle with baking soda, then spray with your cleaning solution. Scrub with a brush. Allow to dry, then vacuum. For leather seats, do the same but avoid using any vinegar, which can harm the leather. For grease stains on any surface, sprinkle with cornstarch, let sit half an hour, and vacuum.
  6. Clean seats. To clean fabric seats, wipe with a cloth dipped in your bucket of cleaning solution. (Wring it out well.) Rub in one direction, then the other. Another option is to put the solution in a spray bottle and spray it on, then wipe it. 
  7. Clean the dash, steering wheel, console, vents, etc. — every hard surface. Wipe with a rag dipped in your cleaning solution. Wring it out — you don’t want to get anything soaking wet. Use your small brushes to get into vents. (Just like in your home, when dust collects in the air vents, it eventually winds up in the air you breathe.) If you’d like to add a bit of shine to your dash, rub in a tiny amount of olive oil. Buff with a clean, dry cloth. 
  8. Clean windows. Use your favorite window cleaner. Here’s are a few DIY recipes. (I like the lemon juice one.) To keep track of inside/outside smudges and dirt, wipe in one direction on the inside and another on the outside. (Yes, technically the outside glass isn’t your car interior, but tack the task on here anyway!) Don’t forget your rear-view mirror. (I also do the side-view mirrors while I’m at it.)
  9. Clean flooring. If the floor remains stained after the first vacuuming (above), use the baking soda/vinegar recipe above to remove stains on carpeting (floor or floor mats). Vacuum again. When floor and floor mats are dry, replace the mats. 
  10. Let the car air and dry out (preferably in the sun) before you close the doors.
pink flowers with green leaves in a vial attached to a car interior

Decorating

A car interior benefits from things that are functional and pretty just as a room does. So add a throw blanket across the back seat, make or buy a couple of small pillows, and put a small rug on the floor of the trunk or hatch. 

If you want your car to smell nice, leave a little open jar of baking soda to soak up off-putting smells. Add a little essential oil (I like citrus scents) for fragrance. (Go easy on the oil. A couple of drops goes a long way in a closed car!) You can put the jar in one of your cup holders. Another option is to put a lid on the jar and poke holes in it for the scent to escape. You can also purchase car diffusers for essential oils. 

What have you done to your car interior to give it personality/make it feel more inviting?

Maintenance

Taking a few steps to keep your car interior clean along the way will make major cleans less overwhelming. Here are some ways to do that:

Designate a spot for trash. Include a little trash can, if you have room for it and/or a trash bag. 

Protect your cup holders by tucking silicone cupcake liners in them. When they get grubby, simply pull the out and wash them in the sink. You can even run them through the dishwasher, if you like. Then pop them back in. 

Invest in new car mats, when you just can’t get the current ones clean. Rubber mats made to line the floor of your car do a great job protecting the carpet — and they’re easy to clean. 

Clean up spills as soon as possible. They’re less likely to cause stains (and harbor bacteria) than if you leave them until your next thorough car cleaning.

clean, white console and seat inside a car

Allow only closed mugs or cups for beverages inside the car. I’m not going to tell you not to allow eating in your car! (I’ve made it through many a long car ride with food in hand!). It’s a good idea to be prepared, though. Keep a towel in the car to drape over your child’s lap (on top of her car seat belt) if she’s going to have a snack, for example. 

Keep wipes in the car, for both grubby hands and quick surface clean ups. 

Cover seats, especially back seats that will transport kids and pets. You can buy seat covers for your car, or you can drape towels or fabric over the seats. (Check any car seat information and warranties for warnings before you place anything under a child’s car seat.) I’ve found that a heavier but washable fabric (like a quilted fabric or even a lightweight moving blanket) stays put better than towels. If you’re often transporting a pet, you might want to invest in a pet seat cover or hammock.

How’s the interior of your car looking? Pick a nice day, get it sparkling, add something new and fun, and bask in the job well done!

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