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Clean Your Car Interior at Home like a Pro

Signs at car washes are known to proclaim, “A clean car rides better.” That statement intends to inspire you to wash the dirt off the outside of your ride, but don’t ignore the benefits of a clean car interior. Let’s face it: The inside is what you see — and smell — when you’re sitting behind the wheel.

Use this guide to learn tips on cleaning your car’s interior, including how to clean car seats, the dashboard, and the carpet. Find out how to get rid of bad smells in your car. It also provides tips on keeping a clean car interior.

Cleaning a Car Interior

Nobody wants to sit in a dirty car. But sometimes, we let down our guard. Help protect your investment and show some pride in your ride by keeping the inside of your car clean. Automobiles shouldn’t have a “lived-in” look.

It’s easy to remove the accumulated chewing gum wrappers, empty coffee cups, and other garbage from vehicles. Cleaning spilled soda or vomit in your car is a bigger task requiring a bit of know-how and elbow grease. Knowing these tips for cleaning the inside of your vehicle can help you save money by avoiding a trip to the auto detailing shop.

Carpet

The carpet in your vehicle can pick up stains, even with protective mats resting on top. The results of cleaning a car carpet can be like cleaning a room’s carpet inside your home. Sometimes a simple but thorough vacuuming makes the space feel new again.

Remove the car mats to expose the carpeting. Use a handheld vacuum or a larger model with attachments for tight spaces. Vacuum the entire surface, giving attention to the area under the pedals, beneath the seats, and other hard-to-reach areas.

For general cleaning, a store-bought carpet cleaner will work well if you follow the instructions. Spot-clean spills or stains as soon as you can for better results. Some do-it-yourself cleaning solutions may work well on certain types of spills. Be sure to test the product on a hidden spot before applying it to a larger area, no matter what variety of carpet cleaner you use.

Let the carpet dry completely after cleaning and vacuum again before replacing the mats.

Floor Mats

Car floor mats can take a beating. Treat cloth or carpet floor mats with respect by shaking out small debris and vacuuming them routinely. Before using the vacuum, use a stiff brush to loosen anything crusted over and smooth any matted fibers. Shampoo floor mats regularly with a store-bought carpet or upholstery cleaner to keep them looking good and extend their lifespan.

Some carpeted mats may be machine washable. Check the manufacturer’s label before attempting this.

To clean floor mats and floor liners made from rubber or vinyl, start by removing them from the car first. Use fresh water from a garden hose or bathtub to rinse off excess dirt and whatever else you’ve tracked in. Mild detergent, warm water, and a medium-bristle scrub brush can take care of stubborn spots.

Leather Car Seats

Your car’s seats are the first thing you see when you step into your vehicle. Knowing how to clean leather seats is one thing. Performing the simple task is where many car owners fall short. Use the crevice tool with your automobile vacuum (or the smallest attachment on your household model) to suck out dust and debris around the stitching and from the area where the seatback meets the seat.

Use a commonly available leather cleaner or saddle soap and water to wipe down the seats, starting at the top and working your way down. Be sure to follow the instructions included with the products. Apply leather conditioner to help keep the leather seats soft and prevent cracking. Keep leather cleaning wipes handy for touch-ups between thorough cleanings.

Vinyl Upholstery Car Seats

Car seats made from synthetic material are sometimes called leatherette when they mimic genuine leather. Other manufactured upholstery is marketed with various trade names depending on the auto brand. No matter what you call them, vinyl car seats are durable and easy to care for.

In general, cleaning vinyl car seats is simple by spraying them with an all-purpose cleaner and wiping dry. Alternatively, apply a mix of mild detergent and water to the seats. Use a circular motion with a damp sponge to clean the surface. Rinse with fresh water and a clean cloth before using a towel to dry the surface.

Cloth Car Seats

Cloth seats find a way of getting dirty regardless of how hard you try to avoid spills and stains. Cleaning cloth car seats begins with loosening any crusted stuff with a scrub brush. Then vacuum away crumbs, hair, and other debris from the fabric. Follow label instructions on standard upholstery cleaner. Pre-treat any soiled areas, if needed.

Avoid vigorous scrubbing and brushes with stiff bristles. Light scrubbing can help eliminate stains without damaging the car seat fabric. Blot dry with clean, absorbent towels.

Cleaning messes caused by drinks, food, grease, body fluids, or mud can require different methods using various household products. Always test commercial cleaners and do-it-yourself recipes in hidden areas before spot cleaning accidents and spills.

Dashboard and Console

Microfiber cloths provide a lint-free finish, which is what you want when cleaning your car interior. Dampen a cloth with an all-purpose cleaner and wipe down the dashboard and console for a quick fix. Use the end of a ruler or other long object to push a damp cloth into the tight angle where the windshield and dashboard meet.

Vacuum crumbs from the cupholders in the center console and then scrub them out with a sponge. Use toothpicks and cotton swabs to remove gunk from tight corners. Disinfecting wipes are effective cleaners for the steering wheel, gear shifter, knobs, and door handle.

Interior Car Windows

The insides of your windshield and car windows don’t come in contact with road grime, pollen, or bird droppings, but they still require a good cleaning. Remove smudges and hazy buildup by spraying streak-free glass cleaner on a microfiber cloth and wiping in a circular motion. Avoid products containing ammonia because it may damage any plastics in your car.

To complete the job, lower the side windows slightly to expose the top edge that fits into the door frame. Rub away the line of crud that has accumulated.

How to Eliminate Car Odors

Funky smells in your car can come from many sources. Various remedies use properties that can help get rid of certain unpleasant odors in your vehicle.

Vinegar

Place a bowl of white vinegar on the car floor overnight to reduce strong odors. Carefully remove the bowl in the morning and keep doors open to remove the vinegar smell. For specific areas that smell bad — maybe because of a spill — lightly spray a 50-50 solution of water and vinegar on the spot and blot it with a damp cloth.

Baking Soda

Baking soda should be your first choice when dealing with vomit. Wipe up as much of the mess as you can and mist the spot with fresh water. Liberally sprinkle the area with baking soda. Let it sit for a few hours and vacuum. Repeat.

Separately, you can keep some baking soda in a sealed container with a few holes in the top, which acts as a natural air deodorizer.

Charcoal

Activated charcoal is porous and can absorb some odors that might be floating around the air inside of your vehicle. Neutralize your car’s environment by leaving an open bag of charcoal briquettes in your vehicle overnight.

Carpet Cleaner

Some automotive carpet cleaners use anti-odor properties that are helpful if the foul smell in your car comes from the floor mats or is trapped within the carpet. Be sure to follow the instructions on the product label. Some harsh cleaners require dilution before use.

Air Freshener

Rule No. 1 of air fresheners: Never attempt to use an air freshener to cover up a foul smell. Instead, locate the source of the odor and take steps to neutralize the funk in the air. Air fresheners, fragrances, and other things can add a particular scent to your ride, but only as the final step after you deodorize the car’s interior.

Car Interior Cleaning Products

Sometimes you need to spend money to save money. Invest in the products and tools you need to keep the inside of your vehicle clean. Eliminating just one trip to the auto detail shop will cover the cost of basic car cleaning supplies and equipment:

  • Vacuum
  • For deeper cleaning, choose a portable carpet cleaner
  • Microfiber cloths
  • Cotton rags
  • Leather wipes
  • Leather cleaner and conditioner
  • Disinfecting wipes
  • All-purpose cleaner
  • Streak-free glass cleaner
  • Cotton swabs, toothpicks
  • Carpet cleaning foam
  • Stiff-, medium-, and soft-bristled scrub brushes
  • Upholstery cleaner

How to Keep Your Car Interior Clean

The comfort and joy that comes with driving a clean car should be an incentive to keep it tidy. If you still find it challenging to pick up after yourself and your passengers, consider these tips for keeping your car interior clean longer:

  • Make a fresh start with a clean car.
  • Always use sealed cups for drinks.
  • Keep a trash container in the vehicle. Use it. Empty it.
  • Shake out your floor mats regularly.
  • Consider a no-eating-in-the-car rule. If that’s a no-go, store a towel under your seat to use as a lap mat for crumbs when you or passengers must eat on the road.
  • Alternatively, cover your seats with a fitted sheet so you can shake out stray French fries rather than vacuum them out.
  • Use that same sheet to catch pet hair when your animals ride along with you.
  • Keep clutter out of the car by taking out what you (or your kids) put in. A car fun bag containing books, toys, stuffed animals, and whatever else is “needed” for a trip across town can be taken inside when you get home.
  • Clean up spills and accidents immediately.
  • Keep a container of disinfecting wipes or baby wipes available for quick touch-ups to remove dust or smudges.
  • Invest in a pair of kick mats to prevent muddy footprints on the seatbacks if you frequently have kids in the back seat.

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Chris Hardesty
Chris Hardesty is an author specializing in general car tips and electric vehicles. He spent more than 25 years in newspapers, including leading editorial research efforts at The News & Observer in North Carolina, The Mercury News in California, and Newsday in New York. After that, he was an online news editor at The Wall Street Journal before moving to the Atlanta area. He didn’t have a... Read More about Chris Hardesty

FAQ

What to Use to Clean Car Interior?

In general, you can use many everyday household cleaning products to clean the inside of cars. Use ammonia-free cleaners on hard surfaces and upholstery cleaners for fabric. Always follow label directions.

How to Clean Vomit Out of the Car?

Many parents will tell you that baking soda is your ally in the battle against puke. First, remove as much of the vomit as you can from the car seat or floor. Loosen dried vomit by spraying a small amount of water onto the stain. Sprinkle baking soda directly onto the area, and let it sit for a few hours. The baking soda will soak up a good portion of the vomit stain over time. Use a wet/dry vac to vacuum the baking soda from the car.

Spray the stain with a second round of water, apply a second sprinkle of baking soda, and let it sit for another few hours. Vacuum the baking soda and then dab club soda onto the area. Next, rinse the fabric by dabbing with a clean cloth dampened with fresh water. Then, dry the area by blotting with a clean microfiber cloth.

Is it Worth Paying for a Professional Cleaning?

Professional detailing should give your car a thorough cleaning both inside and out. It will save you time and effort, but the service can cost several hundred dollars. If done correctly and periodically, professional cleaning will keep your vehicle closer to the way it was when new.

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