How To Clean and Maintain Your Car Interior

Whether you view them as a passion or just a simple means of transportation, cars are objectively major investments. Aside from real-estate, vehicles tend to be the single most expensive item that the average American owns, and as such, is extremely worthy of protecting and actively maintaining the value of. And along with a vehicle’s mechanical state and the condition of its exterior, its interior plays an enormous role in calculating the overall worth of a car or truck. So, with this in mind, we’ve spoken to seasoned auto detailing experts to bring you this definitive guide on how to clean and maintain your car interior.

Antique sports cars, full-size pickups, modern subcompacts, convertibles or open-tops: regardless as to what genre of vehicle(s) you’ve got in your stable, if it’s got an interior cabin, this comprehensive guide will walk you through how to best properly upkeep and preserve the inside of your ride. On top of giving you a step-by-step guide on how to perform routine and deep-cleaning of your vehicle’s interior, we’ll also be delving into our picks for the best auto interior cleaning and detailing products to use while doing so.

Photo: Metrovac Vac N Blo Pro Commercial Series

Vehicular Hygiene Basics

The Fundamentals Of Interior Car Cleaning & Maintenance

Taking Out The Trash: You’re going to want to start by giving the car’s interior a general tidying. This means cleaning out any trash, receipts and scraps of paper, emptying ashtrays, and generally ridding the car of any garbage too big to be swallowed up by a vacuum.

Vacuuming: Once you’ve rid the car of the big pieces of trash, you can move on to vacuuming. It helps to use a detailing brush to break free caked-on dirt or dust — though an old toothbrush or clean paintbrush (albeit of the soft-bristled variety) will also do the trick — before hitting areas with the vacuum, as this will save you work down the road when it comes time to steam or chemical-wipe your interior. A detailing brush is also great for reaching areas like in-between the vent covers, the path of your shift-knob, or the spaces between interior panels where dust tends to build up over time.

When vacuuming the carpeted (or any fabric) parts of your interior, it helps to utilize a carpet brush (again, even an old hairbrush or the like can work in a pinch) in order to agitate the fibers to shake-loose dirt, dust, and other debris. This will also remove stuck-in/on animal fur, though this process is often markedly more time consuming than cleaning regular dirt or sand from fabric upholstery or carpeting. It also helps to remove the floor-mats, as this will allow you to more efficiently flatten them out and clean them, plus it enables you to clean the area beneath said floor-mats.

Soft & Hard Surfaces: Once you’ve vacuumed, you can move on to cleaning the seats and upholstery. This either means more vacuuming or wiping down the seats with all-purpose, vinyl, or leather cleaner. From there, you’ll want to move on to cleaning the hard surfaces of the vehicle with an all-purpose cleaner, wiping down the door panels, trim, steering wheel, etc. For areas like the rear-view mirror and instrumentation covers, you’ll want to use a glass-specific cleaner, which will also come in handy for cleaning the inside of your car’s windshield and windows.

Getting Into The Nitty Gritty

Deep-Cleaning Your Ride

Steam-Cleaning: For more serious detailing and deep-cleaning, there are several supplementary products and appliances that will help you more thoroughly wash and maintain your car’s cabin. The first and arguably most important of these items is an automotive interior steam-cleaner. Before using a steam-cleaner, you not only want the car to be emptied of any and all trash, but you also want to clear out the center console and glove compartment.

In order to get the most from one of these devices, you’re going to want to lay down a thin layer of all-purpose-cleaner on all of the areas you plan on steam-cleaning. Because the steam is doing most of the work here, you can actually dilute the cleaner you’re using for this pre-steaming application at a ratio of around ten-to-one. After letting the cleaner sit for a few seconds to set in and do its thing, you can now begin thoroughly hitting the pre-sprayed areas with the steam cleaner. Next, you’re going to want to wipe down the cleaned area with a microfiber towel, before moving on to the next portion or part of the interior and repeating the process. It’s important to do each area section by section, rather than spraying down the entirety of the interior and then steaming the whole thing in one go.

And, while the immense heat provided by the steam-cleaner allows it to effectively deep-clean the interior of your ride while completely sanitizing surfaces, it also has the potential to damage some materials such as plastic or vinyl. For this reason, you always want to keep the head of the device moving, without remaining over one specific area for too long. You also want to periodically swap your microfiber towel out for a fresh, dry one, as it needs to be dry to most effectively pick up everything the steam cleaner has shaken free. This technique can be used on hard parts and leather alike.

Obviously you want to avoid hitting electronics and infotainment systems with a steam-cleaner. It often helps to stretch a towel over any screen or components you wish to protect from the heat and moisture of the steam-cleaner. And again, we can’t stress how crucial it is to constantly keep the thing moving, as remaining in one place for too long is likely to cause damage.

Interior Ceramic Coating: Once you’ve finished steam-cleaning the car, you can go through and further protect expensive interior components and accent and trim pieces by using a ceramic coating. This will fortify the finish of these aspects of your car’s interior without damaging them. And, though ceramic coatings aren’t cheap, very little is required and it lasts an incredibly long time (especially on a protected interior).

Leather Conditioning: As important as it is to clean leather seats, trim, and upholstery, the material, if left untreated, will eventually dry out, crack, and generally decay. Utilizing a leather conditioner supplementary to a leather cleaner will give your ride’s leather-bound cabin a significantly longer lifespan, and will protect it from suffering stress-cracks in the most commonly-worn parts of the seat.

You also want to remember not to overlook any minor elements of cleaning your car’s interior, as these aspects will look raggedy and will stand out in juxtaposition to the rest of your immaculately-cleaned cabin. This means cleaning areas like the emergency-brake lever, the grommets that connect the wiring to the doors and tailgate, the seatbelts, the knobs or buttons to control the seats, the pedals themselves, and so on.

Automotive Detailing Equipment

The 11 Best Interior Car Cleaning & Maintenance Products

Now that you’re equipped with the knowledge of how to properly clean and maintain the interior of your car, let’s delve into some of the best products currently on the market for assisting in the application of keeping your ride spick and span.

RainX 2-In-1 Window Cleaner

Rain-X has been a household name since its introduction to the market in the early 1970s. Similar to Windex, this chemical-laden solution cleans dirt, grime, smudges, and fingerprints from class without leaving behind unsightly streaks, though it also offers the supplementary advantages of a synthetic hydrophobic waterproof spray, enabling rain and snow to bead and roll off of the exterior of the windshield, providing much better visibility in less than stellar driving conditions. When applied to the inside of your windshield, the formula helps to mitigate fogging, too.

Purchase: $6

Chemical Guys Workhorse Microfiber Towels

Cleaning towels are absolutely essential for keeping a car clean, whether you’re working on the exterior or the cabin. These microfiber towels from vehicle washing specialists, Chemical Guys are sold in three different sizes and are offered in packs of three or twelve. Machine washable, these cloths are absolutely perfect for cleaning all hard surfaces inside your ride, and thanks to their industrial-grade, lint-free construction, they’ll never leave scratches or loose fibers behind. And, because CG’s Workhorse towels come in half-a-dozen different colors, it’s incredibly easy to color code different towels for different vehicle cleaning applications.

Purchase: $8

Adam’s Interior Goo

While it might look like something you’d see in a late-night infomercial, Adam’s Interior Goo is something of a miracle product. Comprised of a sticky, putty-like gel substance, Adam’s Interior Goo is able to squeeze into tight nooks and crannies, grab a hold of dust, crumbs, ash, sand, and dirt, lift it, and leave immaculate surfaces behind. And, despite being incredibly sticky, the goop won’t cling to your hands or interior parts of your car. Cup holders, instrumentation gauges, center consoles, shifter columns, seat belts, glove compartments: you name it and Adam’s Interior Goo will probably clean it. The stuff is also antibacterial, can be used repeatedly before eventually needing to be replaced, and also works wonders on remotes, keyboards, and other electronics and gadgets.

Purchase: $10

Armor All Original Protectant Wipes

Another car-care outfit started in the 1970s, Armor All is a juggernaut in the automotive upkeep industry. And while the company has steadily unveiled new sprays, gels, and solutions over its near half-century-long history, the American brand’s older, and most trusted staples continue to constitute the lion’s share of the Armor All’s sales. Among its long-time best-sellers is the Connecticut outfit’s classic Protectant Wipes. Containing 25 7” x 8” wipes, each bottle of this product relies on a patented silicone-based chemical formula that cleans and conditions interior surfaces in your vehicle, helping to maintain and preserve your car’s cabin. It is worth noting that this chemical formula can have negative effects on some vintage auto interior materials, so keep that in mind before using these in your classic Italian roadster or muscle car.

Purchase: $12

Griot’s Garage Interior Cleaner

While there’s no shortage of companies that make car-care products — and more specifically interior all-purpose cleaners — no one outfit has earned the trust and approval of the elite car collecting world quite like Griot’s Garage. Founded in 1990, this family-owned and operated firm makes a host of general and specialty products to help preserve and extend the lifespan of your four-wheeled investment(s). Formulated to meet the needs of high-end collectors, Griot’s Interior Cleaner is completely free of any added dyes or fragrances and doesn’t leave any streaks or residue in its wake. Despite its lack of smell and its colorless appearance, this cleaner is incredibly potent, capable of busting up stains, dirt, and gunk, while still being safe on vinyl, plastic, and leather. And, unlike most all-purpose interior cleaners, Griot’s also works on fabrics, meaning it can be used on everything from floor-mats to headliners.

Purchase: $13

Chemical Guys Leather Cleaner & Conditioner Kit

As a natural organic material made from tanning animal skins, leather is particularly susceptible to dehydration and cracking, especially over long periods of time, or if left in direct sunlight or humid conditions. And considering this material often comprises the bulk of an interior’s surface space, it’s absolutely essential to properly care for the leather inside your car, as this alone hugely determines the overall state of a vehicle’s cabin. The Chemical Guys’ Leather Cleaner & Conditioner Kit includes a pH-balanced, colorless, odorless cleaning solution that digs deep into the pores of your interior’s leather and lifts up dirt, oil, and other grime, as well as a vitamin E-cream-infused leather conditioner that helps moisturize the hide while mitigating cracking and UV damage. This stuff is also equally effective on leather briefcases, gloves, belts, or leather motorcycle riding jackets.

Purchase: $20+

Avalon King Armor Shield IX DIY KIT

In recent years, ceramic coatings have become all the rage in the world of exotic cars, as this highly-potent stuff does a remarkable job of preserving the paint and finish on your car. Of the available ceramic coatings on the market, AvalonKing and its Nano-Ceramic-Coating is without a doubt one of, if not the very best, and while it’s obviously most often utilized on a vehicle’s exterior, this incredibly-powerful formula is also a fantastic tool for preserving the inside of a car. The majority of the hard parts in your vehicle’s cabin can benefit from a ceramic coating, whether that be instrumentation, tread plates, or any other plastic surfaces. It’s also safe (and wildly-effective) on interior chrome or carbon fiber accent or trim pieces.

Purchase: $70

MYCHANIC Rolling Car wash Stool

Properly detailing your ride means reaching a myriad of difficult-to-reach nooks and crannies, whether that’s underneath your seats, along with the tread plates, in-between the base and backrest of the seats, or wherever else. And these kinds of jobs are made tremendously easier by a quality rolling mechanic’s cart, like MYCHANIC’s Rolling Car Wash Stool. Built around a powder-coated steel frame with a 350lbs weight capacity, the cart features a removable 5-gallon bucket with an integrated removable grit trap, under-seat storage tray, cup holder, and a bevy of openings and slits for hanging spray bottles or shammy cloths. The cart’s soft, water-resistant ethylene-vinyl acetate seat is perforated for added breathability and is designed to double as a removable kneeling pad/stand, too. The kart rolls on five semi-soft 3” caster wheels that enable it to easily glide over cracks while providing a firm, stable platform, as well. These are also fantastic for exterior washing/detailing, and general mechanic work.

Purchase: $115

BISSELL Little Green ProHeat Corded Handheld Deep Cleaner

Vacuums are another essential staple tool in the vehicle maintenance realm, and while any handheld dustbuster will help to clean your seats, trunk, floorboards, and carpets, if you really want to take things to the next level you’re going to want a water-equipped deep-cleaning unit like this item from BISSELL. Boasting a heated 48oz tank, this appliance is able to break up stubborn stains and return fabrics and carpets to their former glory. Armed with the autonomy of a 15’ power cord and a 4.5’ hose, this deep-cleaning vacuum comes with a number of attachments and peripherals designed to tackle specific cleaning tasks such as a crevice tool for reaching in-between or underneath seats. This item also effectively removes dust, hair (animal or human), and allergens, far better than a traditional dry vac, and is offered with a two-year manufacturer’s warranty.

Purchase: $120

Vapamore MR-100 Primo Vapor Steamer

Though your average industrial steam-cleaner will admittedly get the job done, if you’re going to invest in this area, it’s well worth opting for a model that was purpose-built from the ground-up for interior automotive detailing like Vapamore MR-100 Primo. Capable of steaming at up to 215-degrees (and only requiring 11-minutes to heat up), this item’s 1.6-liter tank enables it to dispense steam for more than an hour. The gadget is also sold with an array of auto-specific attachments including a selection of nylon and metal brushes, a microfiber floor pad, fabric squeegee, and a jet nozzle, plus the company sells a slew of additional accessories and attachments. Also great for detailing exterior parts and surfaces, this product is protected by a lifetime manufacturer’s warranty, too.

Purchase: $320

Metrovac Vac N Blo Pro Commercial Series

If you really want to go the professional route, then a simple Dirt Devil isn’t going to cut it. Backed by a five-year warranty, Metrovac’s Vac N Blo Pro Commercial Series is a top-of-the-line, USA-made apparatus that’s made from high-grade steel. The machine comes with a 30’ crushproof hose and an extensive array of attachments and cleaning tools made to help bust loose dirt from your interior so it can be sucked up by the vacuum’s powerful twin-fan 4HP motor — which offers 95” of water lift and can also be used to blow, an application ideal for blasting dust from AC vents speaker covers. And, on top of being equipped with wheels, this product is also sold with an included industrial wall-mount. Obviously, this device is also perfect for drying the exterior of a car.

Purchase: $400

How To Wash A Motorcycle

Looking for more specific step-by-step vehicle cleaning tutorials and buyer’s guides? Well be sure to check out our comprehensive writeup on how to wash a motorcycle, whether you’re looking to do some basic washing or a full-on two-wheeled deep-cleaning.