Woman using a microfiber cloth to clean her car interior and a checklist to detail your own car overlaid on the corner

How to Clean Your Car’s Interior: Checklist and Expert Tips

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Several years back, I took my car to an auto detailer who charged me $200 for a disappointing job. After that rip off, I came up with a printable cleaning checklist that gets a car interior cleaner than the pros.

So, settle in and let me share with how a cleaning expert and real life car owner gets her car spotless. Then you can grab my printable checklist and clean your car’s interior better than the car pro bros, too!

What You Need to Clean Your Car’s Interior

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

Before You Begin

We often think of cleaning the car as a sunny day chore, but this task is best done when it’s cloudy because heat and direct sunlight make cleaning products evaporate too quickly. Then, they either don’t work as well or may leave streaks—or both.

So, if the weather isn’t cooperating, move your car to a shady spot with enough room to work while you clean your car’s interior.

Step 1: Empty It.

Once you’re in the right place, grab a bag and fill it with all the garbage that’s been collecting in your car, including the trunk. Move your seats back and forth to look under them, and peek in the glove compartment, too.

Use another bag to gather items that don’t belong in your car. Then set the bags aside—just make sure you don’t confuse them. Plan to put everything away after you finish cleaning your car.

Step 2: Vacuum the Soft Surfaces.

Ceiling

Now, it’s time to chase the dirt down and out of your car. We do this by cleaning your car’s interior top to bottom, literally. So, 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.

Pro Tip

Use a home vacuum with the dust brush attachment for your car’s ceiling. If you don’t have a dust brush attachment, skip this step. Direct suction—and especially a car wash or commercial vacuum—are too strong and may pull off your ceiling liner.

Seats and Dash

Switch to the upholstery attachment and clean the seats. If you have pets that shed a lot, drag a damp squeegee across the seats front to back then side to side—it will lift much of the hair so your vacuum can do a better job.

Put the brush attachment back on and clean the dash and console, inside the cup holders, and the wells in the doors. Use a dry foam brush or old toothbrush to dislodge any grime too stubborn for the vacuum.

Trunk

Pop the back open and clean the interior of your trunk with the vacuum’s upholstery attachment. Use the crevice tool to get into tight spots and loosen stubborn debris with the toothbrush as needed.

The Tricky Bits

Cleaning the tricky bits like the gap between the seats and console are the difference between just tidying up your car and thoroughly cleaning your car’s interior.

For this step, stick a toothbrush or dry foam brush in that gap and flick out anything too big for the vacuum, like coins or fossilized french fries. (Or is that just me?) Once it’s clear of danger, use the crevice attachment to get down in there, then scoot your seats back and clean around the edges of the seat rails.

Step 3: Clean Your Car’s Dash and Windows.

Wash the Interior

Fill the bucket with warm water and add just a couple drops of liquid dish soap—too much soap will leave a residue.

Wipe the dashboard, steering wheel, console, door panels, door handles, and other non-glass surfaces. Rinse the rag often and change to a clean one if it gets grimy. Then go over the same spots with a clean, damp rag to remove the soap. I like to buff it dry, but there’s no reason you have to.

Pro Tip

It’s not a good idea to use disinfecting wipes to clean your car interior since they typically contain bleach or hydrogen peroxide that dry out and damage vinyl, plastic, and leather.

Clean Your Car Windows

I use homemade window cleaner on my car windows to get rid of fingerprints, haze, and dog slobber, and to leave chrome surfaces shiny, too. You can use my DIY spray or your favorite glass cleaner.

For this, I prefer microfiber cloths over paper towels which leave behind lint that seems to show up the instant I start driving. Just be sure to switch cloths frequently, so you’re always using a dry one—wet rags leave streaks on windows.

Get the Step-by-Step Checklist Sent to You

Step 4: Remove Stains on Your Car’s Floor and Seats.

Soapy water is the best thing to clean most surfaces in your car that aren’t glass—it dissolves grease and soil without leaving fumes that can be overpowering in such a small place.

Regular dishwashing liquid is fine for fabric surfaces but can dry out leather or vinyl. For those, I opt for a mild soap like Ivory, Castile, or another plant-based formula.

Cleaning Your Car’s Seats and Seat Belts

Use a well-wrung soapy rag to clean your car’s seatbelts and fabric or leather upholstery. Scrub stubborn spots with a toothbrush dipped in the soapy water. Then wipe it all down with a clean, lightly damp cloth when you’re done to remove the soapy residue, or it will attract more dirt.

Pro Tip

When you’re cleaning the car’s upholstery, you’ve got to be careful not to saturate it. I wasn’t paying attention once and used too much water. Not only was my seat wet for days but my car began stinking of mildew.

DIY Car Leather Conditioner

To condition your car’s leather surfaces with oil, rub it into the surface with a soft cloth using a circular motion. Wait 5 minutes for the oil to saturate and soften the leather. Then switch to a clean cloth and buff away the excess, first in circles then in long, overlapping lines.

I use jojoba or almond oil to condition and moisturize my leather seats, but Leather Honey makes a great product, too. Avoid using coconut, olive, or vegetable oils to condition leather, because they can go rancid and stink up your car or attract pests.

Stubborn Car Upholstery Stains

Use rubbing alcohol on stubborn messes—it’s a solvent that works on most food spills, grease, ink stains. Dab it on a clean cloth and blot the area, like you’re transferring the stain from the car seat to the cloth. Then wipe it with a clean, damp cloth to remove the alcohol.

Floor Stains

The upholstery attachment of a carpet shampooer is helpful on car floors, but I find it awkward to use for car interior cleaning since it’s such a tight space, and I’m…spacious. So, I go old school for this.

To “shampoo” your carpet if you don’t have rug cleaner, grab a spray bottle of soapy water, a soft-bristled brush, and a wet microfiber cloth. Spritz an area of the floor until it’s slightly damp, scrub lightly with the brush to dislodge grime, then wipe with the damp cloth to rinse away the soap. Use a dry towel to blot excess moisture when you’re done so the floor doesn’t start smelling of mildew.

Floor Mats

I clean both sides of my car’s floor mats by putting them in the driveway and scrubbing them with soapy water, then rinse them off with the hose. Then they get to air-dry in the sun.

Did You Know?

Kitty litter absorbs moisture, so it’s great for controlling fog and humidity in your car. Fill a sock or nylon with cat litter, knot the open end, and lay it at the base of your rear windshield to keep it fog-free. It will neutralize odors, too!

How Often Should You Clean Your Car’s Interior?

Some people enjoy spending their Saturday afternoons cleaning their car’s interior then giving the exterior a good wash, but I don’t.

Since dirt can dull a car’s finish, I go through the car wash weekly. Then every couple of weeks, I use a hand-held vacuum on the seats and floor and clean the inside of the windows because my dog slobbers on them. A lot.

Tips that Keep Your Car Clean

Here are a few more tips to keep your car interior clean and tidy:

  • Don’t treat it as storage. Empty your car when you get home, including the trunk. If you have kids, look under the seats every time, too.
  • Freshen as needed. If your car smells stale or musty, use a homemade carpet deodorizing powder on the seats and floor before vacuuming.
  • Line your cup holders. Use silicone cupcake liners in your cup holders so you can easily clean them.
  • Stash a small cleaning kit. Store a microfiber cloth, some hand sanitizing wipes, and a container of Silly Putty in your console. The hand sanitizer can clean spills before they become stains, Silly Putty gets grit out of tight spots, and you can wipe your dash with the microfiber cloth when you’re stuck in traffic.

Now that your car is spotless, learn how to get your garage that way, too.

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7 Comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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. 🙂

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

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