Time Needed: A day, Difficulty: Beginner, Cost: $0-500, depending on how many tools you own
There’s a reason some of the editors here at Car Bibles prefer to drive themselves rather than riding in somebody else’s vehicle. Yes, it’s more fun, and yes, you get to control the music, but those aren’t it. We tend to avoid friends’ cars because their dirty carpets, hair-lined seats, overflowing bins, and smelly air conditioning send our clean-freak mindsets into the blender.
Whether it’s a daily driver, a rideshare vehicle, or a once-a-month classic, its interior should be kept clean for the sake of the material longevity, the driver’s mental health, and the respect for others who ride along. If your car looks more like a junk drawer or a playground than a place to lounge, it might be time for you to give your interior a deep clean.
Deep cleaning doesn’t mean a trip to the car wash vacuum hoses and a few air fresheners. It means inspecting and refurbishing every square inch of your interior. You’ll need quite a few tools and products, but in the end, your car and your pals will be grateful. To make things simple, we’ve laid out an exact plan of attack for deep cleaning your cloth, vinyl, or leather interior. Let’s get it.
The Safety Brief
Cleaning a car isn’t dangerous in the same manner as working underneath a vehicle or tearing apart an engine block, but it’s still important to prioritize safety. Be sure to protect your skin and eyes with nitrile or mechanic gloves and a set of safety glasses.
Extra safety tips include:
- Be careful when cleaning underneath the seats. There are all sorts of sharp edges on the bracketing, as well as wiring you don’t want to damage.
- Make sure you park your vehicle out of the way on a flat surface.
The Tools & Parts You Need
Car cleaning tools and products are investments. Spend the money now, and you’ll have a better-looking car in good condition for longer.
- Air compressor with air sprayer nozzle
- Vacuum cleaner or shop vac with crevice nozzle
- Pressure washer or regular hose and nozzle
- Extension cord
- Square or round cleaning brush
- Spot scrub brush
- Cordless drill
- Microfiber scrub pad drill attachment
- Pet hair removal tool
- Microfiber towels
- Paper towels
- Trash bags
- All-purpose cleaner designed for cars
- Surface degreaser designed for cars
- Carpet cleaner designed for cars
- Window cleaner designed for cars
- Vinyl and/or leather cleaner
- Vinyl and/or leather conditioner and protectant
The Job: How To Deep Clean Your Car Interior
To safely and effectively clean your car interior, follow these steps.
1. Remove All Loose Items and Garbage
Take every single thing out of your car. It’ll give you a chance to file any receipts, organize any equipment, throw out any trash, and find those old items and french fries you’ve been looking for. This will give you a clean slate to work with and ensures nothing will get in the way.
2. Remove and Clean Floor Mats
If you have rubber or cloth floor mats, those hopefully take the brunt of the dirt and grime that enters your car by hitching a ride on your boots.
- Remove the mats in your cabin and in your trunk and set them on clean ground.
- Shake them out and smack them together to get dirt off.
- Thoroughly vacuum.
- Spray them down with a pressure washer or hose.
- Using car carpet cleaner, brush and clean.
- Spray down to remove all dirt.
- Leave outside to dry.
3. Vacuum and Wash the Headliner
You might not notice, but the headliner might be one of the dirtiest areas in your car.
- Lightly spray it down with PH-neutral multi-purpose car cleaner.
- Using a microfiber pad or drill with a microfiber brush attachment, lightly agitate the surface.
- Wipe down with a clean microfiber towel to remove dirt and moisture.
4. Dust the Dashboard, Center Console, Doors, and any other Dusty Spots
Like washing your car from the roof to the side skirts, you want to clean your interior by working your way top-down. First you dust, then you clean, then you protect. For now, just do the dusting to get the loose stuff out of the way. You can use microfiber towels, dust grabbers like Swiffer pads, or dust wands, whichever you prefer.
5. Vacuum and Brush Out Any Bins, Compartments, Nooks, and Crevices
There are hundreds of tiny cracks, nooks, crannies, and crevices where dirt and dust can find a home in your car. Use a semi-stiff brush, boar’s hair brushes are commonly used, to detail clean, and vacuum everything up on the way.
6. Brush Out Any Pet Hair, If Necessary
If you have pets and allow them in your car, your car interior most likely has at least a few strands of hair floating around. These tiny pieces of hair can easily get stuck into fabric and carpeting, which means you’ll likely need a tool to help brush it out. Use pet-specific hair removal brushes or rubber brushes to comb it out.
7. Vacuum the Floor and Seats
Now that you’ve dusted everything and brushed out the seats and paneling, all of that dirt is ready to be removed. Using whichever nozzles or attachments you prefer or have available, vacuum every inch of the carpeting and seats. Pay special attention to the cracks in the seats.
If you have the time and want to be hardcore, you can also remove your seats to better clean your carpets. If there aren’t a ton of electronic connections attached, they can often be removed with a few bolts.
8. Remove Spare Tire, Vacuum, and Wash Trunk
Don’t ignore your trunk! Remove the cover, remove the spare tire, vacuum out any leaves, and don’t forget to inspect for any water damage or critters. If you can, remove the carpet, spray it with carpet cleaner, agitate the carpet with a cleaning brush, and wash it clean with water. If you can’t remove the carpeting, use a carpet cleaner, an agitator brush or pad, and a wet vac.
9. Clean Your Windows
Windows can get nasty due to pets, fingers, condensation, and plastic off-gassing. Use a car-specific PH-balanced window cleaner to wipe down the windows.
10. Clean the Doors and Paneling
Look, we said deep clean, not sleepy clean.
- Use a PH-neutral car-specific multi-purpose cleaner to spray a section of the door or dash.
- Use a detail brush or microfiber towel to agitate the surface and work the cleaner in.
- Use a clean microfiber towel to wipe off the cleaner.
- Repeat until all parts of your doors, dashboard, and interior surfaces are clean. This preps the surface for the dressing/protectant.
- Use a dry microfiber towel or clean any fingerprints off of piano black plastic.
[Note: Using household cleaning products or other acidic options might break down the materials in your vehicle, so stick to products made for use on car interiors.]
11. Condition the Doors and Paneling
- Spray some conditioner/dressing/protectant on a microfiber pad or folded towel.
- In sections, work the conditioner onto the paneling.
- Wipe off excess conditioner.
- Wipe down further if less shine is desired.
- Don’t wipe down anything that requires grip.
12. Clean the Seats
Your seats are dirtier than you think, and vacuuming ain’t gonna cut it.
- Spray down one section at a time with a car-specific fabric cleaner.
- Use a microfiber brush or drill with a microfiber pad attachment to agitate the cleaner into the seat material.
- Use a wet vac to vacuum the wetness out.
- Repeat until one seat is done, then move to the others.
- Spray car-specific leather cleaner onto a brush or cleaning pad.
- Wipe/scrub a section of the leather. Don’t use a brush with too stiff of bristles, or you could damage the leather.
- Wipe down the excess cleaner with a clean microfiber towel.
- Repeat until the whole seat is done, then move to the next!
13. Condition the Seats, if necessary
Like your paneling and dashboard, your leather seats need protection from the sun. Conditioning helps keep the leather in good shape and protects it from future wear.
- Lightly spray leather conditioner onto a microfiber applicator pad.
- Wipe the conditioner over a section of the leather. Don’t use too much and don’t get globby, as the product could work its way into the perforations.
- Work the conditioner into the leather a bit.
- Wipe off excess conditioner with a clean microfiber towel. Repeat until finished!
13. Clean the Carpets
Grab that drill again, it can’t be too far.
- Spray the carpet down with a car-specific carpet cleaner.
- Agitate with a microfiber brush or drill with microfiber attachment.
- Use clean microfiber towels to mop it up or suck it up with a wet vac (wet vac preferred).
14. Replace Your Car Cabin Air Filter
Learn all about car cabin air filters and how to replace them with our article, How and When To Replace Your Cabin Air Filter. This is a necessary step to removing any funky smells you might encounter in your car.
15. Do a Once Over
Grab a microfiber towel or two and inspect all of your work. If you see any leftover product or dust, wipe it up and finish the job.
The Car Bibles Questionnaire
Car Bibles answers all your burning questions!
Q: What’s the quickest way to clean my car interior?
A: As with most work on cars, one of the easiest ways to speed up your job is by using power tools. There’s a sense of pride that comes with cleaning things by hand, but using power tools like a drill with brush attachments or a power washer will not only be quicker, it will also help you achieve a deeper clean.
Q: Do I really need to use dressing like Armor All on my car interior?
A: It’s not absolutely required, and we understand those who hate the sheen that often comes with dressings. However, these products are not just designed to shine up the car, they also have built-in protection against elements like UV rays that could damage or degrade your interior throughout time.
Q: How can I keep my interior clean?
A: The best way to keep your interior clean is to put a system in place and stick to it. Keep a small bag for trash in the vehicle, and empty it every week. Maybe keep a vacuum in your car, or at least vacuum the carpets and seats once a month. Using rubber floor mats during the winter will also help protect and preserve your car’s carpeting.
Basically, be diligent and proactive. And if you don’t want to do that, you can always turn into a Strict Car Person. No food, drinks, pets, dirty shoes, smoking, or any other nasty habit allowed in the vehicle at any time. No exceptions.
Q: Can I use bleach to clean my car interior?
A: Absolutely not. Never use bleach to clean anything on the inside of your car, as it will damage the materials.
The Deep Cleaning Video Tutorial
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