Clean Your Car’s Interior Like a Pro: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Close up of woman's hand using a microfiber cloth to show how to clean your car's interiorPin

Cleaning your car’s interior is not difficult: you need a dry afternoon, some basic cleaning supplies, and this checklist that guides you through the steps to detail your car at home.

Several years back, I took my car to an auto detailer. A day later, I’d spent $200 and, although it was better, it was not spotless. I felt ripped off, so I came up with a checklist that I refined over several months. Follow the steps below, and you can get your car spotless at home, too.

Steps to Clean Your Car’s Interior

It’s best to clean your car on an overcast day or in a shady spot. Using cleaning products on hot surfaces or in direct sunlight causes them to evaporate too quickly, which can reduce their effectiveness or cause streaks.

Equipment and Materials

  • Garbage bags
  • A vacuum cleaner with attachments
  • Foam brush or old toothbrush
  • Microfiber cleaning cloths
  • A bucket of clean, warm water
  • Rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol
  • Glass cleaner
  • Mild liquid dish soap
  • Scrub brush
  • Squeegee (for pet owners)
  • Leather or vinyl conditioner (optional)

Step 1: Empty it.

Put all the garbage in a bag and throw it away. Use another bag to gather items that don’t belong in your car. Set it aside to deal with when you’re done.

Step 2: Clean the soft surfaces.

Work in this order: Using the brush attachment, vacuum the ceiling of your car—this is especially important if you’re a smoker, since that’s where the odors collect. Switch to the upholstery attachment and clean the seats. Finally, switch to the regular brush head and vacuum the floor mats, then remove them and clean the rest of the floor.

Mind the gaps: Use the crevice attachment to clean between the seats and console, and around the edges of the seat rails. Scrub stubborn areas with a dry foam brush or toothbrush to dislodge dust, then go over them again with the vacuum.

Step 3: Clean the hard surfaces.

Dust. Use the brush attachment to clean the dashboard and console, inside of all cup holders, door panels, and pedals.

Wash. Fill the bucket with warm water and add a few drops of liquid dish soap. Use this to wipe the dashboard, steering wheel, console, door panels, door handles, and other non-glass surfaces. Rinse your rag often and switch to a fresh one if it looks dirty. Replace the soapy water if it looks grimy, too.

Clean the windows. To clean the inside of windows and remove fingerprints and haze, you can use glass cleaner or make a DIY spray with equal parts rubbing alcohol and white vinegar. Grab a dry microfiber cloth and wipe away the smudges. Don’t forget to polish chrome or metal surfaces for a shiny look. Avoid using paper towels as they leave lint behind. Stick to a microfiber cloth for better results.

Step 4: Remove stains.

Soapy water is the best thing to clean most surfaces in your car besides glass. Use a mild liquid soap, not a detergent or “dishwashing liquid” which can dry out leather or vinyl surfaces. Castile soap, Ivory liquid dishwashing soap, or a plant-based dish soap are good choices.

Seats: To remove upholstery stains in your car, use a microfiber cloth and soapy water. Wring out your cloth well, so you don’t saturate the surface. If the stain remains, let the area air dry, then use rubbing alcohol on a clean cloth and dab the stain until it lifts. Do not try to speed up the drying process with heat, since that can set the stain.

Floor: The easiest way to clean your car’s floor without a carpet shampooer is by using a microfiber cloth and soapy water. Dab flooring stains with soapy water and scrub the area with a brush. Wipe away the soap residue with a clean damp cloth, then blot it dry with a fresh towel.

Floor mats: To clean your car’s floor mats, remove them and place them on the ground, then scrub them with soapy water and a scrub brush. Rinse with plain water and let them dry in a sunny spot. Make sure your mats are fully dry before you put them back in the car—damp mats can lead to problems with mold and mildew.

Polish leather and vinyl. You can use jojoba or almond oil as a leather or vinyl conditioner in your car. Perform a spot test in an inconspicuous area first. Then rub the oil onto the surface with a clean soft cloth, wait 5 minutes, and buff away any excess. Avoid using coconut, olive, or vegetable oils for this purpose because they can go rancid, attract pests, and leave odors in your car.

Tips to Keep Your Car Clean

Some people enjoy spending their Saturday afternoons cleaning their car’s interior and hand-washing it in the driveway. If that’s not your style, here are ways to keep your car interior clean.

Don’t treat it as storage. The more clutter in your car, the easier it is for messes to go unnoticed. Empty your car when you get home, including the trunk. If you have kids, look under the seats to make sure they have dropped nothing that’s rolled underneath.

Remove pet hair weekly. If your pets frequently ride along, your car’s seats and carpeting have probably collected a lot of pet hair. Run a damp squeegee on the seats to lift most of the hair, so your vacuum can work better.

Keep cleaning supplies handy. Tuck a couple of microfiber cloths in your glove compartment. Use them to dust your car’s dash and console when you’re sitting at stoplights or waiting in line.

Use a car trash can. Get into the habit of putting things like food wrappers directly into a trash bag in your car. It doesn’t have to be fancy–even an empty plastic shopping bag or an old cereal container works.

Line your cupholders. Car cupholders are not the easiest things to wipe out. Stick cupcake liners in them to make those messes easy to clean.

Use the right floor mat. If your family is very active or you live in a snowy or rainy area, swap your carpet floor mats for rubber ones. They’ll protect against stains and moisture, and you can easily hose them clean in the driveway as needed.

Get the Printable Car Cleaning Checklist

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  1. Samantha Cobb says:

    What vaccum with attachments do you use?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      For cleaning my car, I’ve started using a 4-gal Ryobi shop vac because it’s little, cordless, and has both the upholstery and crevice attachments that I need, plus it’s already in my garage. I have a couple of different vacuums that I use in the house.

  2. Avdhoot Hapse says:

    Can you make a video of cleaning the car by the steps you mentioned above? It would be very helpful!!
    Thank you for the tips!! 🙂

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I will at some point when it’s not 100°F (37°C) outside. 🙂

  3. Mary McLendon says:

    So glad your list included vacuuming the sealing. I cleaned my car last night and forgot that. I found a trick for the windows. I wash them first with baby wipes. They get all the basic dirt off. Then I use a streak free window cleaner. I can’t tell if my windows are up. I live in a apartment building, so I don’t have access to a hose. So I just vacuum them. But I have too tak my car and have it washed. I just can’t do that anymore. I’ve had cancer twice. That takes a toll on the body. Your check list will help me a lot. That way I won’t forget anything. Thank you so much.

  4. Idk if anyone’s said this but please don’t vacuum your cars ceiling. This is the headliner and it is fabric over foam board and if the adhesive us damaged, which vacuuming will DEFINITELY do, then the fabric will seperate from the foam and sag. This is not only unsightly but can be dangerous if it obstructs your view

    1. Katie Berry says:

      The headliner can and should be vacuumed. Professional detail services do this routinely, as do literally millions of people who own cars. Vacuuming doesn’t destroy adhesive, especially using a home vacuum with a dust attachment as described here. Moisture does, however, so you should never steam clean or shampoo a car’s headliner.

  5. I always put a plastic bag with one handle over the shiftstick. That way it is always open and ready for garbage. Maybe a food idea?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Great idea. 🙂

  6. George Sutherland says:

    Very good article, I use Gain laundry soap on my upholstery and then my carpet , I do the worst area last, and dry it as I go with old towels, smells great for a long time. Comes very clean as Gain is designed for different fabrics. I picked Gain because I like the smell Best. The car needs overnight to dry out. Super clean result. Use same amount as a load of laundry and 3/4 bucket of warm water., A 2 gallon bucket would have 1and 1/2 gallons of water. A good size scrud brush is recommended and 6 towels.unless you have a wet and dry vacuum.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I bet your car smells lovely!

  7. Tiffany Angel says:

    Me too! 🙂 You have such great printables that even my kids can do it.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m so glad! Enjoy your clean car. 🙂

  8. Penny Bailey says:

    I’m so happy ( relieved ) to know there are others that like a clean car. I have a plastic tub on the floor of the back seat where Incan put any trash I get during the day in my car. I empty that as needed. I keep napkins in my glove box bc you just never know when you will need them and they do come in handy. Every day when I get home I take out everything that doesn’t belong in my car. I have a hand vac that I use weekly on the seats and floor. I wipe down the dash and anything else as needed. This sounds like a lot but really probably only takes ten minutes .

    I can think better in a clean area and also the Holy Spirit will not dwell
    In messy areas.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I do love a clean car.

  9. Laura Domingo says:

    I would love a printable for this 🙂

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’ll add that to my To Do list!

  10. UpstateNYer says:

    I like to keep a box of used plastic grocery store bags in the trunk. I can use them to clean out the car or take them to Aldi’s when I forget to take my reusable ones. I take an empty square tissue box and stuff them all inside till it is packed. Use them as needed and easy to store away when not in use.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      That’s a very clever idea! I forget my bags half the time when I go to Aldi’s, and having a garbage bag on hand would certainly keep my car neater. Thank you!

  11. Maranda Gaither says:

    I love this! I wish it was a printable like so many of your lovely routines. I have all of them laminated and posted in respective rooms. I clean my car weekly and would love to have a schedule there as well. Thank you so much for all your wonderful tips and schedules they have seriously helped keep my life clean! (I have a seriously messy husband 😉 haha.)

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’ll try to make it a printable by this summer, Maranda. It does my heart so good to know you’re printing and laminating them! God bless you and your messy husband. (I have one, too, though I have to give mine a pass due to the brain cancer. Or so they tell me.)

    2. PickledPeter says:

      Just copy and paste it onto a Word document then done.