How to Clean Your Car Interior

by Admin on July 12, 2011

Cleaning your car interior is not hard if you have the right tools and a little bit of time. If you are selling your car or truck, a properly detailed auto can be
worth several hundred more dollars whether you are trading it in or selling it yourself. Also, if you just want to keep your car looking great, a good interior cleaning once a year can really last with just a simple wipe down and vacuuming in between. So, if you want to save a couple of hundred dollars and clean your car interior yourself I have provided a step by step guide to help you achieve a professional look at a fraction of the price. If you are looking for a comprehensive guide on washing the exterior of your car or truck you can find one here.

Try to work outside in the shade if possible. This will provide plenty of light and keep your cleaning products from drying out too fast in direct sunlight. If you are going to work in the garage make sure you have plenty of light. Try using a florescent drop light if you have one. If not, even a small lamp placed in the car can help provide more light. It is extremely important that you can see well while working. It can be disheartening to spend so much time cleaning only to pull the car outside in bright light and see many places which where missed because of poor lighting.

Tools Needed:

Bottle of Simple Green All Purpose Cleaner
A Couple of Empty Spray Bottles for Mixing
Old Toothbrush
Large Hand Brush
Detailing Vent Brush
Vinegar or Commercial Glass Cleaner
Old Rags and Old Large Towels
Dashboard Cleaner/Protectant
Newspaper
Wet/Dry Shop Vac if You Have One
Upholstery and Carpet Cleaner (Optional)

First, Go to the Car Wash

Washing Car Door JambsIf you want to achieve a true professional look for your car interior then your first stop should be the car wash. I am sure the outside could use a wash and while there you can take care of the first thing you see when you open your car doors; the jambs. You could wash them at home with the hose, but it will be easier to get the jambs completely clean at the car wash using high pressured soap. Open each door and with the soap on wash completely around and under the open door. Also wash inside where the door is attached to the car. If the weather stripping is very dirty you should also try to wash these areas and the instep. If you have a car or SUV don’t forget the trunk or hatch. These areas are often caked with leaves and dirt, and you will be cleaning these areas later and a wash will speed things up. Do not worry if you get a little water inside the car; just don’t soak your driver’s seat (makes for an uncomfortable drive back home).

If you have carpeted floor mats you may want to wash them at the car wash also. Most car washes have large clips mounted to the wall of the stall for hanging floor mats. Most people will wash plastic floor mats, but they often never think to wash their carpeted mats. Simply hang the mats up and start washing them with the soap. You will be amazed at the amount of mud and other things that starts pouring out. Be careful not to get to close to the mat with the wand. The pressure may cut into the fibers and leave an ugly mark. Try to stay at least 5 or 6 inches away from the mats when washing. Wash until you do not see anymore dirt coming out and then rinse the soap out. Wash the mats first so that they can drip dry while you are washing the door jambs.

Since you will be cleaning the rest of the interior you can simply put the wet mats back into the car. Once home, you can remove the excess water with a shop vac or you can hang them up somewhere to dry.

Cleaning Your Dashboard and Doors

As with any cleaning task you should always start high and work your way lower for car dashboard cleaning and other trim work. The first thing you need to do when working on the trim of the car is remove the built up soil and the majority of the dust. There are a number of dashboard cleaning products available at the local store; however, I like to use Simple Green all purpose cleaner for this task. I usually mix the Simple Green concentrate at a ratio of 25% cleaner to 75% water. This makes an effective cleaner that is cheap and will not generally stain the trim. Always test a small inconspicuous area to make sure the trim is colorfast and not harmed by the car dashboard cleaner you are using.

I use an old toothbrush to clean caked on dirt around knobs and switches. Door grips and the steering wheel are usually the worst. You can spray a little cleaner directly on these areas as you work and spray some cleaner on the toothbrush (DO NOT spray cleaner directly into the radio and other electronics to avoid causing damage). Scrub around really well in all directions and wipe off the area with one of your rags. Take a good look and make sure you have removed all of the soil in the cracks. If you want to achieve a professional looking result it is important to use your eyes as you clean. Do not simply go over an area one time and consider it done. Some areas may need to be scrubbed two or even three times; this is why they call it detailing!

Not all areas need to be scrubbed with the brush. A lot of areas, such as the top of the dashboard, can be wiped down with your rag to remove dust build up. Make sure to take a look at the headliner to see if there are any dirty spots. Sometimes there will be soiling around the sun visors and near handles mounted above the doorways. If there are spots on the headliner you can usually spray a small amount of Simple Green on the spot and gently rub it away with your rag.

Dashboard Protectant

Using a dashboard protectant is not a necessity; however, it can provide a nice even look to the car’s trim and helps clean inside vents and around knobs. Most products on the market are a little to glossy looking for my taste. They can make everything look greasy and wet. I like to dilute these by about 25% with water to achieve a more natural simi-gloss look. There are many manufacturers which offer these protectants, such as Turtle Wax, Mother’s, and Eagle 1 to name a few. You can check them out at the local automotive store. Some will claim to have a more natural look when dry. You can try one of these and if it still looks to greasy you can try diluting it a little at a time until you achieve a look you like.

Once you have your protectant ready you can start to finish the trim. I said earlier that you do not need to use the Simple Green cleaner on all areas of the trim. The opposite is true for the protectant/cleaner. We want to achieve a nice even look over all the trim in the car so start with the upper most areas and work your way down. I like to start with the driver’s area because it takes the longest and is the most tedious because of all the buttons and switches.

In addition to your protectant you will also need your vent brush and at least two rags. Start by spraying a liberal amount on the area you are working on. If it is a door panel, spray everything all over and then use the brush around every single crack and crevice to thoroughly get any remaining dirt. After you have gone over everything with your brush you can use one rag to wipe everything down. Then take your other finishing rag and wipe everything down again. This rag will have little to no protectant on it and will remove the smearing from chrome and smooth plastic pieces leaving a nice streak free finish. Take the edge of the rag and work it down around any knobs and underneath switches. Make sure to keep your rags separated so you don’t get any cleaner on your finishing rag. Make sure to get down in the vents really well also. Move the seats forward to get down between the seats and the console. Remove any cup holder inserts and ashtrays for easier cleaning.

Don’t forget the weather stripping. I save this for last on the trim because it is often the dirtiest. Most cars have weather stripping on the door and on the inside of the car, so make sure to clean both. Spray your protectant directly on your toothbrush and scrub all sides of the weather stripping. If it is a car don’t forget the trunk. Also, for a professional look, spray some of your protectant around the door hinges and the rubber protecting the door’s wiring where you washed it at the car wash. Now you are ready to clean your windows.

Cleaning Car Windows

This is pretty straight forward; however, there are a few tips I can offer for cleaning car windows without streaks. Cleaning inside car windows can be challenging but sparkling windows can really make your car stand out.

You can use traditional glass cleaner or you can make your own very inexpensively. This is where the vinegar comes in. I make window cleaner by mixing a 50-50 water and vinegar solution in a spray bottle. You can use two rags to clean the windows with one for the initial wipe and the other for finishing.

To achieve a nice streak free finish I like to use newspaper. Crumple up a couple of pieces and give it a try. Use one to wipe off the cleaner and the other to finish. Work quickly to help eliminate streaks by having the cleaner dry prematurely. Cleaning tinted car windows should be no problem; however, like everything, test a small area on a back window to make sure the cleaner you are using will not damage the tint.

When cleaning interior car windows you may remove some of the protectant you already applied. Simple apply a little to a rag and go over any areas you notice. Don’t clean the windows before the trim since you will be spraying cleaner and protectant directly onto these surfaces. You will only get the windows dirty and have to clean them again.

Cleaning Car Upholstery

Car upholstery cleaning should be approached in the same manner as the trim. You should start with the highest areas and work your way down. I will talk about leather seats in a moment, but for now we will focus on cloth upholstery.

Many parts of the seats, like the seat backs and the sides, can simply be wiped down with a damp cloth of Simple Green or even plain water. Most areas of the upholstery which come into contact with the skin and clothing will need more attention. Oils from the skin can transfer onto the fabric and in turn become a magnet for soil. Any soiled areas can be treated with your Simple Green mixture or you can mix it a little stronger for fabrics; 50/50 works nicely.

There are a number of car upholstery cleaning products available at the store which can be used to clean your upholstery if you wish to spend a little more money. Many are foaming cleaners and can produce some nice results for lightly soiled upholstery.

The key when cleaning fabrics is chemical, agitation, and dwell time. Remember to test for colorfastness. It would be ideal to use a carpet and upholstery extractor for this; however, most people do not have one lying around the garage. You have to get by with what you have when working at home.

A word of caution when working on fabric seats; try not to soak the seat with cleaner. You never know what is in the cushion, and often times when the cushion gets wet all kinds of things can reconstitute and come to the surface. You can clean a seat and leave only to come back later and find a giant soda stain or worse, ink. When cleaning car upholstery stains try to use as little moisture as possible.

You must be patient and let the cleaner do the work. Spray your cleaner onto the fabric and use a large brush to work it into the fabric. Since you are letting it dwell you can work on an entire seat back and cushion at once. Let this dwell for 5 to 10 minutes and then use an old towel to go over the entire areas to remove the suspended soil. You may have to repeat this process a couple of times to completely remove everything. If you have trouble removing a stubborn stain it may be oil based. Try placing a rag over your finger and wetting it with mineral spirits. Lightly rub the stain to see if you can remove it with this method. There may be stains which simply cannot be removed without the help of a professional detailer; however, using these car upholstery cleaning tips can remove the majority of soiling and stains.

If you need car seat upholstery repair you can contact a local dealer and ask them who they use. Many of the guys servicing these dealers are great at what they do and make a cigarette burn or a rip in the upholstery nearly disappear. There are do-it-yourself car upholstery repair kits, but they never really turn out like the claims on the packaging. If the investment in the repair is worth it for the car then it is better to let a professional handle it.

Cleaning Leather Car Seats

Cleaning leather upholstery is something that can be very challenging for many people. Most leather in cars is nothing more than a vinyl which can be cleaned in the same manner as the rest of the plastic trim in the car. With that being said, I still think you should error on the side of caution and purchase a cleaner and protectant designed for automotive leather. These products will have detailed instructions on their use. Some of the best products for cleaning leather car seats can be found at the local automotive store. They should carry a nice selection or you can search online for one.

Car Carpet Cleaning

Cleaning car carpet will probably give you the most trouble when cleaning the interior of your car. Our auto carpets take a severe beating throughout the year. Automotive carpeting can even present a challenge to an experienced auto detailer using all the proper equipment.

Since you probably do not have a heated hot water extractor you will again have to make use of some simple products. First, you need to vacuum the carpet in the car very thoroughly. Try to remove as much dirt and other particles as possible. If you do not have a shop vac you can use a regular household vac with attachments.

If the carpets are lightly soiled you may be able to use a cleaner purchased at the auto store made for carpets. Many of these car carpet cleaning products are a foam cleaner that can be scrubbed into the carpet and allowed to dry. Once dry you can vacuum up any residue.

For really dirty carpet you will need lots of water and a good wet vac. Products like OxiClean can be mixed in a bucket with water and used on the carpets without having to worry about bleaching the carpet. Just follow the directions on the tub for mixing.

Dip your large brush into the water and get it good and wet. If you do have a wet vac you can even dump some of the water directly onto the floor board and spread it around with your brush. You are not going to hurt automotive carpet by using too much water. Really scrub the carpet to work loose soil and remove stains. Be sure to slide the seats forward and back as you change areas to reach all the carpet you possibly can. You may need to use your old toothbrush to get into those hard to reach areas.

If there are areas that seem to not be coming clean you can apply some of your Simple Green cleaner full strength and work it into the carpet fibers. Allow the cleaning solution to dwell for about 10 minutes. Move on to another passenger area while the first one is dwelling. Once you have scrubbed the second area you can go back to the first and remove the dirty water.

This is easy if you have a wet vac. If not, you may have to use a lot of old towels to absorb the dirty water. Use one or two old towels to soak up all the water you can. Keep using these towels and wringing them out as you go. Save a couple of old large towels for the final drying. Use old towels to dry the carpet even if you used a wet vac. This will help remove a little bit more soil and will help speed up the drying time.

Drying your car carpet is important to keep the car from smelling musty. On a good hot day you can park the car in the sun and open all the doors and the carpet will usually dry in a few short hours. If you are working inside your garage you can open the doors on one side of the car and place one or two oscillating fans in the doorways to create airflow which will help dry the interior carpet overnight. Do not shut the car up overnight with wet carpet. It will condensate and may produce an odor which is hard to get rid of. Follow these car carpet cleaning tips and you should experience some great results.

Clean Car Interior

That’s it!

Cleaning your car interior is really not that hard. It just takes a little patience and a few tools. Remember to use your eyes as you clean and do not cut corners. If you take your time you can come very close to a professional looking interior detail at a fraction of the cost. If you have any tips or tricks you would like to share please comment.

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