Is there any space that seems to accumulate dirt, debris and random stuff more than your car? It makes sense. Our cars are like tiny homes on wheels. Between mid-errand coffee runs, kids’ snacks and muddy paws, our vehicles take a beating, and most don’t have any trash cans. You’re probably not doing the same regular sweeps you do inside your home, either.
A professional detail is expensive, though. For a big SUV, you might pay as much as $80 to $100 to restore the interior of your car to its former glory. Thankfully, cleaning your car at home — car seats and all — is a relatively easy task. With regular maintenance, it’s something you shouldn’t have to do very often, either. About once per month should suffice.
When your car needs more than a quick floor mat shakeout or vacuum job, follow this guide from our experts in the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab to clean your car’s interior like a professional.
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What you’ll need
- Trash bags
- Reusable bag
- Upholstery cleaner
- Handheld vacuum
- Glass cleaner or glass cleaning wipes
- Microfiber cloth
- All-purpose cleaning spray
- Compressed air
- Deep clean brush set
- Dish soap
- Warm water
- Disinfecting spray
How to clean your car, step by step
- Do a quick sweep. Bring a trash bag out to your car and toss any wrappers, empty cups, old receipts and anything else that belongs in the waste bin. Put anything else you come across — rogue kids’ socks, water bottles, pet leashes and more — into a reusable bag to bring inside, so you can return each item to its proper place inside the home.
- Remove and clean floor mats and car seats. Before you even think about vacuuming the carpet, remove the floor mats from the car and shake them out. To get rid of carpet stains, a handheld tool like the BISSELL Little Green Multi-Purpose Portable Carpet and Upholstery Cleaner is most efficient. For stubborn spots on rubber mats, use a garden hose to remove stuck-on bits, then scrub any remaining spots with a mixture of dish soap and warm water.
Now is a good time to remove any children’s car seats, too. Shake them out and vacuum using a crevice tool — there are lots of nooks and crannies in these items, and this will help you do a more thorough job without damaging the seat. You can also use a damp cloth to spot-clean any trouble spots.
- Wipe the windows. Brush away any visible dirt from the inside of the windshield and windows and the tracks below them. Then spritz with a glass cleaner like Invisible Glass, which has a fine mist so the spray drips less — important when you’re working with automatic windows. (You can also use Windex Glass and Multi-Surface Cleaning Wipes if you find that more convenient.) Wipe away all traces of the product with a clean microfiber cloth. Because they’re super absorbent, they’ll leave the glass shiny and streak-free.
- Dust the front panel, dashboard and console. Because it’s the focal point in your car, this is where you’ll first spot dust and dirt. Wipe it down with a microfiber cloth or vacuum away any dirt and grime for a quick fix. To give your dashboard a like-new look, spray nooks and seams with compressed air and wipe it down with a cloth dampened with an all-purpose cleaner like Car Guys Super Cleaner. Finish it off by sanitizing any high-traffic spots with disinfectant wipes, and adding an air freshener to remove odors.
- Clean out cup holders. Don’t sleep on your cupholders. Those hardworking spots can be one of the grimiest — and stickiest — areas in your car’s interior. To clean out these spots before they begin to harbor bacteria, immerse removable plastic cupholders in soapy water, rinse clean, then wipe dry. If yours aren’t removable, you can wipe them down with warm, soapy water. (A small brush set can help you get into those hard-to-reach spots.)
- Clean the seats. Whether you have leather or cloth seats, the first step is to vacuum. For best results, use a cordless handheld vacuum with the upholstery or brush tool. Then use the crevice tool to reach crumbs and dust stuck in seams and between the seats. The next steps vary based on what type of seats you have:
If you have cloth seats, use your upholstery cleaning machine, or for stubborn stains, a carpet and upholstery cleaner like Bissell Professional Pet Stain & Odor Remover. Just spray it on and work it into the stain with a cloth or soft brush, then let it sit according to the label’s directions. Rinse with a damp cloth and blot dry.
If you have leather seats, work a mild soap or a leather cleaner, like GH Seal Star Furniture Clinic Leather Cleaner, into the leather with a soft, damp cloth. Then, rinse with another damp cloth before buffing with a dry cloth. Finally, apply a protectant like GH Seal Star Furniture Clinic Leather Protection Cream to help prevent future stains.
Vinyl upholstery car seats are easy: Spray an all-purpose cleaner, like Car Guys Super Cleaner, over trouble spots, then wipe dry with a microfiber cloth.
- Do a full pass on the carpet. Once the rest of the car’s interior is clean, vacuum the base carpet completely using the mini rotating brush attachment if your vacuum has one. If not, use the upholstery/brush tool. (You want to save this step for last, since debris may fall onto the floor during the cleaning process.) Use smaller nozzles to clean crevices, including seat tracks and even seat pockets. After vacuuming, you may want to use your upholstery cleaner to tackle any stubborn spots.
- Wipe down the steering wheel and door handles: Finally, since these high-touch areas can harbor germs and bacteria, spritz the steering wheel and all door handles with a disinfectant spray. Let sit for the time indicated on the manufacturer’s instructions and air dry, then buff with a microfiber cloth. For leather-covered steering wheels, use a disinfecting wipe.
How often should you clean your car?
Cleaning your car may seem like a daunting task, but here’s a bit of good news: It’s something you really only have to do about once per month. And if you’re diligent about regular maintenance cleaning, the task will become easier to tackle since you won’t have to do such a deep clean every time. Another nice bonus: When you have a clean car, it’s easier to maximize space, which means you’ll be able to fit more sports gear, groceries or whatever else you need to tote around town.
How to keep your car’s interior cleaner
To minimize the amount of work you have to put in each time you clean your car’s interior, follow these tips to keep things in order:
- Don’t eat in the car. This goes for both you and the kids — especially messy foods that crumble easily or sticky things like lollipops.
- Wipe down your pets’ paws before placing them in the vehicle — and, if you have an SUV, consider securing pets safely in the cargo area. You might also want to keep a lint roller in the glove compartment to quickly tackle any pet hair each time your cat or dog rides with you.
- Keep a small trash can in the car for snack wrappers, empty cups and all of those pesky receipts that build up.
- Place protective car seat covers over the seats. If you have young kids, you can also get kick mats to place on the backs of the front seats to keep muddy footprints off the leather, vinyl or cloth seats.
- Apply a leather conditioner such as Furniture Clinic Leather Protection Cream, or a fabric protector such as Scotchgard Auto Fabric & Carpet Water Shield, to seats to help repel spills and make stains easier to remove.
Brigitt is a writer, editor and craft stylist with nearly 15 years of experience. She specializes in lifestyle topics, including home, health, parenting, beauty, style, food, entertaining, travel and weddings. She has written for Glamour, People, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Health, Real Simple, Martha Stewart, Apartment Therapy, The Spruce, and more.