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For many families, the car functions as a home away from home. Depending on the day, it's a playground, restaurant, mobile office, and makeup studio all in one. Every now and then you're probably struck by the urge to tidy up your vehicle, just in the same way you get that itch to deep clean your living room. Ahead, Jennifer Newman, editor-in-chief of Cars.com, and Leanne Stapf, COO of The Cleaning Authority, weigh-in on the best methods and tools to use when cleaning your car.

A closeup of a person vacuuming a car's interior.
Credit: Getty Images

Get Rid of the Debris

"Step one, just like when you're cleaning the house, is to remove the debris," says Newman. This means taking all items out of your car like water bottles, toys, paper, and any other small objects. "Make sure to reach deep under the seats, and get everything out before you go get the vacuum." Just be prepared for what you might find.

Buy the Right Car-Cleaning Products

Sometimes the most effective car cleaning products aren't even cleaning products at all. "I keep plain zipper storage bags in my seat back pockets," Newman says. "It's an easy way to contain half-eaten snacks, crayons, and markers, but it's also handy if your kids get carsick." Meanwhile, Stapf has a couple of out-of-the-box tricks of her own. "Using some unique household items can be the perfect solution to help remove stains and manage the clutter in your car," she says. One of her top products? Kitty litter. "Spreading kitty litter ($14.64, chewy.com) on any area of the car that has experienced spills or mishaps will help cleanse and absorb bad odors," she says. "You can also pour the litter into a bowl and leave it in the car to soak up any foul smells like smoke."

Another, perhaps more pleasant product to help keep your car clean can actually be found in your pantry. "To help minimize the clutter on road trips, try putting some cupcake liners ($6, surlatable.com) in your cup holders," Stapf says. "Once the clutter and dirt build-up, just take the liners out and replace!" Of course, essentials like a vacuum with a nozzle ($169.12, amazon.com) and soap and water should be a go-to as well, according to Stapf. "Vacuum or use packing tape to help lift and remove stubborn crumbs, hair, and dirt from small crevices and tight spaces."

Once your large-scale cleanup is done, invest in some organizing tools to keep your car tidy throughout the year. Newman says you don't need to hunt down complicated contraptions for this. "I find the best thing for organizing is a tote bag instead of a bulky cargo crate," she says. "It tucks better into a small space, which is perfect if you keep a lot in your trunk." The expert also keeps a microfiber cloth ($7.99, bedbathandbeyond.com) and a package of wet wipes ($1.69, target.com) in the glove box to tackle cleaning while on the go.

Remove Dirt

Now that you've gotten rid of all the crumbs and junk, it's time to wipe. "For leather seats or a leather steering wheel, make sure you're using something that's designed for leather," says Newman. Baby wipes are another go-to for cleaning leather but make sure to spot-test first, says the expert. "For vinyl seats and trim, microfiber cloths and soapy water will do the trick," Newman says. "Make sure to use a clean microfiber cloth rinsed in clean water to wipe up after the soap solution." If you want to keep a surface cleaner in the car, you can clean your dashboard with a gentle disinfecting wipe, to kill germs and remove dirt. These products will work on all of your car's hard interior surfaces.

Tackle Trays

Thee backseat, where you're likely not sitting as frequently, can get messy quickly. Newman also suggests sticking a silicone baking cup in your cup holders—"When they get dirty, you can just pull them out to clean, and swap it for a fresh one immediately," she says—in order to avoid time-consuming cleanups. One area to take it easy is on the hardware. "You need to be careful with seatbelt webbing," stresses Newman. "You don't want to get those soapy and wet because it can damage the seatbelt." Try your best to remove spills from seatbelts when they're still wet, and don't use too much force when attempting to lift older stains. If you must remove a ground-in stain, go to a detailer. "At some point, you have to admit you've lost the battle."

Change Air Filters

If you've deep-cleaned your car but an odor persists, it might be time to change your air filters. Dirty filters will distribute an unpleasant smell through your car's air vents. While outer surfaces of your air vents can be wiped down with a cloth to keep dust at bay, changing the filters can be more of a challenge. "It can be difficult to change your air filter yourself since every manufacturer does them a bit differently," Newman says. "Ideally, you should take your car in and have your air filters changed every 12,000 to 15,000 miles."

Clean the Windshield

"Cleaning your car windows should be the final item on your car-cleaning to-do list," says Newman. Start by covering the dashboard with rags or towels, to keep windshield cleaner drips at bay. Look for a glass cleaner that's designated for cars—you'll have a better chance of avoiding unsightly streaks. "Spray the cleaner onto the windshield, and use a microfiber cloth to clean the windshield," says Newman. "You'll need a second microfiber cloth to then polish the windshield." If streaks still plague you after the first go, don't panic. Just repeat the process.

Schedule Regular Cleanings

Once you've deep-cleaned your car, give it regular cleanliness checkups. "Do a thorough cleaning of your car at least once a month," Newman advises. "If you're in the car a lot because of carpooling or unending weekend sports games, you may need to give the interior a cleaning twice a month."

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