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How to Clean the Inside of Your Car Like a Pro

Be prepared to find a few French fries.

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

For many families, the car functions as a home away from home. Depending on the day, it’s a playground, dinner club, mobile office and makeup studio all in one. When spring cleaning rolls around, you probably get the same urge to tidy up your vehicle as you do your living room. Jennifer Newman, editor-in-Chief of Cars.com and mother of two, knows exactly how you feel.

 

“We ran a survey on Cars.com, and the majority of respondents said their car was the number-one place they were spring cleaning this year,” Newman says. “I think in the winter it’s too cold for people to go out there and get their car clean, so when spring cleaning comes around, they can’t wait.” Next time you have a pleasant day, take advantage of the weather and follow Newman’s tips for deep-cleaning the interior of your car.

 

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 to find some yucky things, too: according to the Cars.com survey, 55 percent of respondents have found a French fry under their seat. (Been there!)

 

DO AWAY WITH 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. We like these or these.  “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 TRICKY AREAS

Backseat cup holders can get messy quick. To avoid painstaking cleanup efforts, Newman 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. 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.”

 

[MAKE: A Matching Pillow and Blanket for your Backseat!]

CHANGE THE 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.” 

 

MAKE YOUR OWN AIR FRESHENER

If you’re looking for a fresh scent for your ride, Newman says, skip the pine-tree air freshener and put lightly scented sachets under the seats instead. You can use lavender or another dried flower or herb. Also keep a bottle of all-natural room spray in your center console for a quick refresh.

 

[WASH: AND DETAIL YOUR CAR AT HOME!]

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.

 

[CLEAN: Every Room of Your House With Our Spring Cleaning Guide]

STAY ORGANIZED

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 and a package of wet wipes in the glove box to tackle cleaning while on the go.

 

KEEP BAGGIES ON HAND

Another one of her favorite tips? Be ready to organize on the fly. “I keep plain zipper storage bags in my seatback 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.” 

 

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.”