An illustration of different parts of a car interior
Illustration: MATTHEW HOLLISTER
more on car care

Your car has probably been sitting unused more than usual over the past several months, but that hasn’t stopped dust and dirt from accumulating inside. Even if your car wash stayed open during the pandemic, you may not have wanted someone to detail, or deep clean, the interior of your vehicle. Plus, the job can cost $100 or more, require you to drop off and pick up your car, and can easily be done on your own.

Keeping your car clean also keeps odors from developing and can help its resale value, too. And a deep clean just before selling it won’t do the trick—it’ll be too late to lift all the stains and dirt that have sunk in over the years. CR’s team of experts at our Auto Test Center shares the following tips for keeping the inside of your car fresh and clean using supplies you probably already have at home. 

Carpet and Seats

Crumbs, spills, and dirt can start to smell if not regularly cleaned.

What to do: Vacuum the carpet and cloth upholstery using the right attachment for the job. An upholstery tool’s short bristles can agitate dirt out of cloth; a crevice tool can reach under and in between seats and into corners. A steam cleaner lifts stains from carpet and upholstery, but soap and water on a soft cloth works, too.

What not to do: Don’t soak seats; damp cushions encourage mold and can create a musty smell.

Leather and Vinyl

Leather and vinyl are treated with a protective coating that requires gentle cleaning.

What to do: Clean them with a soft cloth and a small amount of dish or saddle soap and water. Follow with leather conditioner to keep the leather from drying out.

What not to do: Never use products containing bleach or hydrogen peroxide. And avoid commercial detailing sprays that leave the dashboard surface looking wet or glossy, because that can create glare. 

Hard Surfaces

Solutions containing at least 70 percent alcohol are safe to use on most hard interior surfaces of a vehicle, and are also effective against the coronavirus, according to the CDC.

What to do: Dampen a small, clean paintbrush or soft toothbrush to clean vents, seams, and cup holders. Then apply alcohol to a microfiber cloth to gently clean other hard surfaces.

What not to do: Don’t use paper towels, which can leave a trail of lint behind.

Windshield

The inside of the windshield and other windows can become dirty from outside air pollution and also from interior vapors that leave residues and may impede visibility.

What to do: Clean with a soft cloth (preferably chamois) and a glass cleaner containing alcohol. Use two cloths to avoid streaks: Apply the product with one, and wipe the glass clean with the other.

What not to do: To avoid getting cleaner on your upholstery, always remember to spray the cloth and not the glass.

Touch Screens

Infotainment screens have become more prominent, which means so are the dust and fingerprints that they collect. These require different cleaning products than you’d use for glass.

What to do: Dampen a microfiber cloth with isopropyl alcohol, then gently rub the screen clean.

What not to do: Never use an ammonia-based glass or window cleaner, which might damage a screen’s anti-glare and anti-fingerprint coatings.

Editor’s Note: This also appeared in the September 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.