From the steering wheel to carpet and the best products to use, here's everything you need to know about how to clean your car's interior.

By Caylin Harris
March 12, 2019
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Your car is basically an extension of your home, but on wheels. Between a morning commute and carrying around the kids, things can more than a little messy. If we’re being honest, it’s pretty incredible how quickly your car can go from pristine to looking like an outtake from an episode of Hoarders. Dirt, stains, dried-on mystery gunk in your cup holders—the silver lining is that at least your car is a lot smaller than your house. Meaning it’s much easier (and faster) to clean. We got some expert tips on car interior cleaning that will make it easier to walk you through every step of how cleaning your car's interior.

Before we get into the cup holders, car mats, and car cleaning products, let’s address some general car cleaning tips that will help keep your vehicle in good shape, longer.

  • Toss the trash. Every single time you leave your car, so going into a store or even when you get home, throw the trash away. Trash is the biggest mess maker leading to mystery odors, spills, crumbs, and stains, explains cleaning expert and author of The Cleaning Ninja Courtenay Hartford. Even car clutter like papers, bags, and gym or sports equipment should leave the car regularly.
  • Prevent sticky situations. Cup holders get gross fast, especially if you have young kids. You won’t believe what you can find in the bottoms. Prevent those messes going forward by sticking silicone cupcake liners inside at least the cup holders in the back seat, recommends Jennifer Gregory, brand manager for cleaning service Molly Maid. They can get tossed into the dishwasher if they get sticky.
  • Do a quick dusting. Waiting for the kids at soccer or letting your car warm up? Keeping a microfiber cloth or Swiffer duster in the car will let you clean up smaller messes in-between major cleans. Taking a minute to do that when you have time will really minimize the need for a deep clean.

While the goal is not to have it get to this point, sometimes you need to do a deep interior car clean. So, here’s how to clean your car's interior from top to bottom–which is exactly what you want to do. Start from the upper surfaces and work down. There’s no point in cleaning the carpet to have dirt fall right back on the floor, after all.

RELATED: Speed-Clean Your Car Interior Checklist

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How to Clean Your Steering Wheel and Dashboard

The first thing worth mentioning is that materials in your car are different than those your home, so you want to err on the side of caution when cleaning. You don’t want the finishes to break down. “Start by removing dry dirt and debris from the small seams and crevices. You can use a dry toothbrush (cleaning dedicated, of course) or canned air to clean them out, then vacuum,” says Gregory.

For additional dirt and germs, a damp microfiber cloth will actually remove 99 percent of bacteria thanks to the unique fiber structure. It’s a great item to keep in your car cleaning kit– but since you’ve got dirty hands touching the steering wheel and sweat building up, a little disinfecting could be just what you need. “For a synthetic steering wheel, you can wipe it down with a microfiber cloth and a solution of two cups water and few drops of dish soap. You don’t even want it to foam up,” she explains. 

After the dashboard and steering wheel are clean, treat them to prevent cracks and wear. For leather, you can use Weiman’s leather wipes ($4; target.com), while for interior plastic, vinyl, and rubber, you can use Armor All’s protectant wipes ($5; target.com) to help fading and discoloration. They’re some of the best car interior cleaning products out there.

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How to Clean the Center Console

The center console gets treated almost exactly like the steering wheel and dashboard, except you’ll want to spend more time on it with the vacuum. “You’ll really want to get in there with an attachment, and while you can use your regular vacuum, a small Shop-Vac will help you get into all of the small crevices and cup holders. Plus, it’s for wet and dry use,” says Gregory.

Be sure to work any stubborn dirt out again with a toothbrush or canned air, and clean with a damp microfiber cloth and the cleaning solution above. “There are parts of the console that can sometimes be removed and washed separately, as well. If that’s the case, do it,” says Hartford. “In between deep cleanings, I like to use baby wipes to clean small spills and dirt, too.”

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How to Clean Car Seats

The next area you’ll want refresh are your car seats. With any luck, you’re only dealing with dirt–but who are we kidding? The cleaning method is different if you have leather or cloth car seats, but first you want to start out by doing a really thorough vacuuming using a stiff brush attachment to loosen any stuck on residue. Here’s how to handle the rest:

How to Clean Cloth Car Seats

If you want to go the all-natural way with stains, mix up a combination of one-cup water, a half-cup of vinegar, and a half-tablespoon of dish soap. Spray it on stains and blot with a wet microfiber cloth until they’re removed. “I’ve also had great luck with Turtle Wax upholstery cleaner ($5; target.com). You spray the foam on the stain and you can use the built-in brush to work it out. It really refreshes the fabric,” says Hartford.

How to Clean Leather Car Seats

Leather is a breeze to care for after vacuuming: Just wipe it down with a solution of two cups water and five drops of dish soap. Put your mixture in a spray bottle and set it to a fine mist. Spritz down the seats and wipe until completely dry. You can use the same leather conditioning wipes as you did on your steering wheel afterwards.

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How to Clean Car Windows

Car windows can be a huge pain to clean–obviously you need to clean the outside windows along with the outside of the car, but you have to clean the windows on the inside, too. “Use horizontal strokes on one side of the window and vertical strokes on the other,” says Gregory. “That way if there are streaks, you can tell what side they’re on. On the inside window, use a combination of 50 percent white vinegar and 50 percent water in a spray bottle, then use a microfiber cloth to wipe it down. Don’t worry, it won’t leave a smell!”

If you want to buy a product to use, try the ammonia-free Windex ($7 for a 2-pack; walmart.com), which is safer on car surfaces. If you’re running into issues removing stickers from back windows (left there by kids or your own), Hartford has found that the most effective way to remove the adhesive is applying a paste of olive oil and baking soda to the area. Let it sit for 30 minutes, then scour with a non-scratch Scotch-Brite pad ($5 for a 6-pack; homedepot.com).

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How to Clean Car Carpet

This might be the dirtiest area of your car! To clean your car's carpet, start by removing and shaking out the floor mats. Hopefully they’ve taken the most abuse. “Sprinkle the mats and the car floor with a thin layer of baking soda, then let it sit for as long as you can or at least a half hour. Vacuum up the baking soda completely and with it as much dirt you can remove from the floor,” says Gregory.

Now it’s time to treat any lingering stains. Gregory recommends using a store-bought, heavy-duty brand for tough ground-in dirt like Turtle Wax Power Out! Carpet & Mats cleaner ($5; walmart.com) or Car Guys super cleaner ($17; amazon.com). Use according to package directions. After that deep clean, it might be time to consider using a quality floor mat if your rug and mats are taking a beating. A brand like WeatherTech practically covers the entire floor.

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How to Get Rid of Your Car's Odor

Odor comes from dirt or garbage you leave in the car. As much as you can keep your vehicle clear of clutter, the fewer odors you’ll have to deal with, says Hartford. Baking soda sprinkled on the floors and seats will help eliminate odors, and if that still doesn’t work, try an enzymatic cleaner like Nature’s Miracle. It works especially well for pet or kid-related accidents, explains Gregory. If you still smell something that’s off, you can stick a dryer sheet under your car seats or leave a small dish of baking soda and a few drops of your favorite essential oil in your car overnight. It’s a better alternative than overkill artificial fragrances.

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