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How to Clean Your Car’s Interior Like a Pro

February 23, 2021

If you are like many drivers, February may seem like a less-than-ideal month to clean your car’s interior. Six inches of snow on the ground and frigid temperatures are more of an incentive to stay indoors than to detail your car. Still, just as the outside needs a winter wash, the inside of your car needs attention if you want it to last for the long haul and to look good when the season ends.

Cleaning the inside of your car means more than taking out the trash and wiping down the dashboard. If you intend to clean it correctly, you will need some tools and materials – and maybe someplace a bit warmer and cozier than the driveway. You could schedule an appointment with a professional car detailing service to get your car cleaned. After all, a professional detailer has the space, equipment, and materials to get the job done during any month of the year. If you prefer to do it yourself, you will need to gather a few things on your own.

To do the job well, you will need the following:

  • Shop vacuum
  • Microfiber towels
  • Carpet and upholstery brush
  • Detailing brushes or soft paint brushes
  • Can of compressed air (or air compressor and blowgun)
  • Cleaning chemicals:
    • All-purpose automotive degreaser/cleaner
    • Carpet and upholstery cleaner or shampoo
    • Leather cleaner and conditioner
    • Multi-surface interior detailing spray
    • Plastic surface protectant
    • Air freshener spray
    • Automotive glass cleaner
  • Optional:
    • Carpet extractor
    • Fabric protectant

With the equipment and materials in place, whether you decide to brave the elements or wait until spring arrives and the weather warms up, consider these eleven expert tips to clean your car’s interior like a pro.

1. Empty everything

You really do not need advice for a cursory cleaning. Anyone can accomplish that. Assuming you are looking for more (pardon the built-in pun) detail, the first step is to empty out your car. Before you begin the actual act of deep cleaning, take the time to remove everything: the fast food wrappers, the coffee mug, the child seat, the emergency kit, the ice scraper, the papers in the glove box. Everything. Even the floor mats, since those will be the first thing you clean.

(Read “How to Keep Your Car Cleaned and Organized”)

2. Clean the floor mats

One way to keep your car looking great through the winter – and protect your carpets at the same time – is to invest in custom-fit rubber floor mats, such as WeatherTech All-Weather mats. Many vehicle manufacturers also offer a similar product custom made for their cars, trucks, and SUVs. If you currently have them, you will find that the steps to cleaning your carpet are made simpler. In any case, all of your floor mats should be cleaned first so that they have time to dry.

Rubber mats need little more than a spritz of general purpose cleaner and a scrub brush. Rinse the mats thoroughly and hang to dry. Carpeted mats should first be vacuumed. Then pre-wet with water, apply carpet and upholstery cleaner, and agitate with a carpet brush. Rinse the mats completely, squeegee the water out or blot with a towel, and hang to dry.

3. Vacuum the carpet and seats

Before you clean anything else, you need to remove the dirt and dust that are trapped in the carpet and seat cracks with a shop vac. Make sure that the wand is free of contaminants so that you do not stain the seat fabric. If you have access to an air compressor, it can help to alternate between vacuuming the carpet and blowing the dirt from deep in the fibers. A carpet brush can also help loosen up debris, and a toothbrush can help in the crevices of the seats.

You will want to move the seats forward and backward for this step. That way, you can make sure to get access to the entire carpet. Vacuum inside the seat folds as well – just make sure not to scratch any leather with your vacuum.

4. Dust

The majority of the dust and dirt you track in your car is trapped in the floor mats and carpet. Once those are vacuumed, remove the dust from the rest of the interior surfaces. Take care not to scratch sensitive areas, like the dashboard display, navigation screen, or woodgrain trim. Do not simply brush the dust, since the dust itself can cause scratches. Use a soft-bristled detailing brush or paint brush and gently whisk the surfaces, using a vacuum at the same time to trap the dirt. 

Compressed air (a spray can will work here) can also help you get into the vents and other tight spaces in tandem with a brush. Work with a combination of brushing, vacuuming, and blowing the dust until all surfaces and crevices are dust-free. Another tip is to use cleaning gel, a viscous material that resembles slime, to lift dust without rubbing. It can be pressed or rolled on sensitive surfaces or into recesses to pick up dust.

5. Clean the door jambs and sills

Car detailing includes cleaning every area of your car, inside and outside. You might not consider the inside edges of the doors, pillars, or rocker panel (the sill you step over to enter your vehicle) to be part of the interior, but they certainly are not cleaned on your way through an automatic car wash. If you are focusing on the inside of your car, you will want to treat these areas, since they not only detract from the appearance of the interior, but they also harbor contaminants that can be tracked onto the seats and carpet.

Spray all-purpose degreaser on a microfiber towel and wipe each surface. Stubborn dirt or sludge might require that you soak it with degreaser and allow it to sit for a few minutes before wiping. Finish up with a clean cloth.

(Check out our “Top Tips For Detailing Your Car”)

6. Spot treat the carpet

If you notice any stains in the carpet, now is the time to get rid of them. Using a spray bottle, pre-wet the stain with a bit of clean water. This will help you avoid soaking the carpet with too much carpet cleaner. Next, apply carpet and upholstery cleaner. Scrub with a carpet brush to work the cleaner into the stain. Blot until dry using a clean microfiber towel.

If your entire carpet is looking dingy, consider shampooing the entire area. Use the same method as spot treating, except that you work in small overlapping areas, blotting dry as you go. Careful not to use too much shampoo, as it will be difficult to remove with a towel. If you have access to a carpet extractor, removing the moisture is far easier and you can be more thorough with the shampoo.

7. Headliner (soft brush, blot)

Your interior has been rid of dust and debris. The jambs no longer hold contaminants that can get inside. The carpet has been shampooed or spot treated. Now it is time to address some of the finer points of interior detailing. The headliner (ceiling) in your car is not subject to the same abuse as the seats and carpet, but it does fall victim to the random knock of a hockey stick, splash of coffee, or other mishap. Unfortunately, the headliner is made of a relatively sensitive material, so you cannot simply scrub away.

If you notice spots or stains in the headliner, spray a little upholstery cleaner (or multi-purpose cleaner) on a soft brush and gently swirl the cleaner into the fabric. Blot with a clean, dry microfiber towel to pick up the stain and dry the fabric. Repeat with clean water to clear away any residual contamination and cleaner.

8. Clean the seats

How you go about cleaning your seats depends on what type of material they are made from. Leather seats can be cleaned with leather cleaner and a leather brush. If you do not have a leather brush, a microfiber towel will work. Use another (clean) towel to remove the leather cleaner. Follow up by rubbing leather conditioner into the material to keep it supple and protect it from the sun. You can use the same method for a leather-wrapped steering wheel and any leather trim panels.

Stains on your fabric seats are treated similarly to those on the carpet. The main difference is that the material on your seats is more sensitive; use less force when cleaning spots on your seats (or fabric trim panels, for that matter). Apply upholstery cleaner to a wetted microfiber towel rather than to the seat. Brush into the stain. Blot dry with a clean towel. As an added measure, once you have removed any spots, consider misting the entire seat panel with a little bit of water, or spray water onto a clean towel and rub it into the seat panel. Work the water into the surface and allow it to air dry. This method prevents water spots from showing up around the treated spot as the seat fabric dries.

If you are really adventurous, once the seats are clean, apply a coating of fabric protectant to guard against future stains and UV rays from the sun.

9. Clean the plastic trim

Aside from the carpet and seats, most of the interior surfaces in your late model vehicle are made of plastic. The dashboard, center console, door trim panels, electronic displays – plastic. But not all are made from the same plastic. Certain cleaning or car wash chemicals can cause permanent staining on sensitive interior surfaces. Even the top of the dashboard can become discolored if you use an improper cleaner.

For these surfaces, your best bet is to either use clean water to wipe them down, or to invest in multi-purpose interior detailing spray. This gentle cleanser is safe for use on all hard surfaces inside your car. To keep those surfaces looking new, you can use a water based plastic and rubber protectant.

(Read these “Car Wash and Detailing Terms You Should Know”)

10. Add air freshener

Once your car is looking new again on the inside, help it to smell fresh too. Air freshener spray works lasting wonders if you apply it in the right way and in the right spots. For this measure, turn your AC on full blast (yes, even in winter) and on recirculation mode. Spray the air freshener on the carpet under the dashboard on both the driver’s and passenger’s side, that way it can enter the vent system. This would also be a great time to change your car’s cabin air filter that resides ahead of the glovebox.

11. Clean the glass

Finally, your interior looks and smells great. The last step is to clean the glass – the windshield, back glass, door glass, and mirrors. Use an automotive glass cleaner; it is formulated for automotive-related contaminants and does not contain ammonia. Spray the glass cleaner directly onto a waffle-weave microfiber towel and wash each window until it is clean. Follow up with a second clean towel and buff to a streak-free shine.

For an old-school trick, perhaps the best material to use on your glass is newspaper. Newspaper (with as little ink as possible, so not the funny pages) cleans glass to a clear and streak-free finish. But you need to be careful if your interior is a light color, such as grey or beige. The ink can stain the trim around your windows. Newspapers also tend to shred a lot and can make a mess if you are not careful. Still, you can’t argue with the results of newspaper when cleaning car glass.

clean car interior has many benefits. It prevents damage from occurring to sensitive surfaces inside. It preserves the value of your vehicle. A clean inside even improves the driving experience. If you want to take care of your interior yourself, set aside some materials and some time. With a little care and elbow grease, you can get your car looking great in any weather.


This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

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