Car Interior Cleaning

Here we’ll extensively cover the best methods for detailing your car’s interior.

Obviously, regular vacuuming and dusting is needed to keep any interior looking great. However, surface cleaning alone is not enough. Two to three times a year you will need to detail the upholstery to maintain a like-new appearance.

Before using any product on your car’s fabric upholstery, carpet, leather or vinyl, test for color fading by cleaning a small, inconspicuous area. Do not use the product if it adversely changes your fabric’s color or texture.

Car Interior Detailing: A Systematic Approach

The interior of your car takes a lot of abuse. Unlike the inside of your home, which has many times more square footage, the inside of your car gets repeated and concentrated traffic.

When you get in your car, you drag in more dirt. Each time you eat or drink, you add a few more crumbs and spills. Just sitting in your car, you drop hair, dead skin, makeup and other contaminants. All of this dirt and junk adds up fast.

BMW 330i Black Leather Interior
This BMW’s interior has been perfectly detailed. Notice how the leather has a nice, even matte finish. Professional detailers don’t leave an interior looking wet and slick. It should look like it just arrived from the factory.

It’s not necessary to detail the inside of your car each time you wash it. Unless you’ve been to the beach, out in the mud, or tracking in grass and leaves, you can get away with vacuuming and a quick wipe-down every couple of weeks.

Do a Weekly Car Interior Cleanup

Here’s what I recommend as routine for the interior:

  • Wipe down all vinyl, leather and plastic surfaces with a damp cloth. A microfiber detailing towel is excellent for this task, as it will leave a lint-free, dust-free finish.
  • Pull out your floor mats, and shake or brush off the dirt and debris.
  • Pick up trash (that old banana peel you tossed into the backseat), and empty the ashtray and console storage bins.
  • Wipe down your door jambs and door sills with a damp towel.
  • Wipe down your interior glass and your rear view mirror with a damp microfiber detailing towel. If your windows are relatively clean, you don’t need to use a glass cleaner.

A new product category has emerged for car interiors that is equivalent to exterior quick detailing spray. Interior cockpit sprays, like Nextzett Cockpit Premium, combine light cleaning and protective capabilities in a spray-and-wipe system.

If you are looking for an interior product that keeps your interior looking perfect, you might give it a try. In my mind, this is a much better solution than layer after layer of protectant.

Regular wipe down with an interior protectant keeps the interior clean and conditioned.

Monthly Car Interior Detailing

Once a month your car’s interior will need a little more than a quick wipe-down. After a month, your interior glass will have some film buildup, the carpet will need to be vacuumed, and the dash, console and other vinyl parts will need to have their protection renewed.

Here’s what I highly recommend:

  • Follow all of the steps for the above Weekly Interior Cleanup.
  • Vacuum the interior carpet, seats, seat crevices and console.

Quarterly Interior Detailing

  • Follow all of the steps for the above steps (of course).
  • Clean and protect all leather and vinyl upholstery.
  • Clean and protect all rubber door, trunk and hood seals.

Proper Interior Detailing

With the variety of materials used inside the modern automotive interior, knowing what to detail and how to do it isn’t always a straightforward matter.

This section is divided into specific materials and areas of interior detailing. Read the areas that apply to your vehicle.

Car Vacuuming Done the Right Way

There’s no special science to car vacuuming. You need a good vacuum, a few attachments, and ten to fifteen minutes to get in there and get the job done.

Metrovac Vac N Blo car vacuum
A special car vacuum, such as this Pro Vac N Blo Portable Vacuum from Metropolitan Vacuum has all of the right attachments for car detailing.

The two most important vacuum accessories are the crevice attachment and the dust brush attachment. Your crevice attachment should be plastic, not metal. A metal attachment, or a plastic attachment in poor condition, may scratch or otherwise damage leather or vinyl upholstery.

Use the crevice tool to reach between and under seats, into tight seams, nooks and crannies, and around seat beads. Vigorous movement on the carpet helps to bring up sand and grit.

Holly vacuuming inside of her BMW
Use the crevice tool on your Vac N’Blo vacuum to get behind the gas pedal and into other areas the wide nozzle won’t reach.

Use the round dust brush attachment to vacuum the console, dash and vents. You can assist with the dusting by using an interior detailing brush ahead of the vacuum to get deep into vents and cracks.

Here are the steps for proper vacuuming:

  • Start your vacuuming job by pulling out the floor mats. Shake out the mats to remove any loose dirt. Use a 4″ upholstery attachment or the bare hose end to vigorously vacuum the mats.
  • Work on the rear upholstery and carpet. Push the front seats all the way forward. Use the crevice tool to vacuum the cracks of the seats, and between the seats and carpeted areas.

If the seat upholstery is fabric, switch to the 4″ upholstery attachment and vacuum the rear seat and the deck under the rear window.

  • Vacuum the rear carpet. Use the crevice tool to vacuum around the seat tracks and under the front seats. Use the round dust brush attachment to vacuum the door panels.
  • Push the front seats all the way back to work on the front upholstery. Use the crevice tool to vacuum the cracks of the seats, between the seats and carpeted areas, and around the gas and brake pedals.
  • Now switch to the 4″ upholstery attachment to vacuum the carpet in the foot wells and the seats (if the seats are fabric). Use the round dust brush attachment to vacuum the console, vents and door panels.

If your headliner is fabric, use the round dust brush attachment to vacuum the headliner. Be gentle, though, as this material is not as durable as your seat upholstery.

  • When vacuuming carpet, use the palm of your free hand to beat the carpet just in front of your vacuum hose or tool. Dirt that’s lodged deep into the carpet will come loose for vacuuming.

Cleaning & Treating Your Dashboard & Console

We look at the dashboard and console more than any other area of our car’s interior. It makes sense that we should give it special attention. The dash and the deck under the rear window also take the brunt of sun exposure. Regular treatment is necessary to keep your dash from cracking and fading.

Caring for the dash and console is easy. Simply wipe them down with a damp towel every time you wash your car, and treat them with a vinyl protectant once a month. To reduce the effects of the sun’s rays, use UV Protectant by 303 which is my personal favorite since it creates a nice satin finish.

The easiest way to treat the dash and console is to use a foam applicator pad. Spray your vinyl protectant on the applicator, not on the dash or console, and wipe it in thoroughly. This will prevent overspray on your glass and upholstery.

Also protect the steering wheel, turn signal levers and the shift boot. Allow the vinyl protectant to soak in for 3 to 5 minutes, and then buff the dash and console dry with a microfiber detailing towel.

Do Not Forget About Your Vents

If you’re doing a complete interior detail, you should also dust and clean out the vents and grill work. There are a variety of tools that work in vents and grilles. The easiest are a small detailing brush and compressed air. Use the blow cycle on your vacuum if you don’t have compressed air.

If your vents are disgustingly dirty, use a cotton swab or foam swab (electronics part-cleaning swabs from Radio Shack) to clean out the dirt. A good vinyl cleaner and protectant, works well on a foam swab to clean and beautify vents and speaker grilles.

For nooks and crannies, it’s best to use an old toothbrush followed by a towel to clean and protect. This same method works well around buttons and controls on the dash.

Aerosol products like Stoner Trim Shine are great for detailing areas and spots where your towel and finger can’t reach.

Cleaning & Treating Door Panels & Jambs

Door panels are often made of several materials, including fabric, vinyl, carpet and leather. Vinyl can be scrubbed to remove shoe scuffs. General-purpose cleaners, like 303 UV Cleaner, or interior vinyl and plastic cleaners, like Nextzett Plastic Deep Cleaner easily remove black scuff marks from these areas.

Thoroughly clean around door handles, pulls and window cranks, using a toothbrush and soapy wash water. Clean and dry the speaker grilles and the wells on armrests, too. If the door panels have storage pockets, use your sponge or wash mitt to clean in these areas, as they tend to collect a lot of dirt and crud.

Next, use your sponge or wash mitt and soapy water to clean all the way around the door frame and the door sill. When you’re finished, dry the door completely with a clean towel.

If your door panel is leather or vinyl, be sure to treat it with a leather or vinyl protectant. Fabric door panels can be treated with a fabric protectant to reduce staining and fading.

Detailing Vinyl and Plastic Parts

Vinyl and plastic are the most durable interior materials, but they need frequent cleaning. Unlike cloth, the surfaces of vinyl and plastic generate static which tends to attract dust. As a result, vinyl and plastic become grimy. Thankfully vinyl and plastic are the easiest surfaces to clean.

Do not use regular household soap and water on your vinyl and plastic surfaces. Detergent will permanently remove the sheen from vinyl and plastic.

Choose a cleaner made specifically for interior surfaces. One of my personal favorites is Meguiar’s Quik Interior Detailer Cleaner which is a quick spray-and-wipe solution with amazing cleaning power. It’s safe on interior surfaces.

Follow these steps for the perfect vinyl interior:

  • Spray vinyl, plastic and imitation leather surfaces with P21S Total Auto Wash or your favorite cleaner.
  • Work the cleaning solution into seams, edges and seat backs with a sponge or cleaning cloth. If you have stubborn dirt, use an upholstery scrub brush. If necessary, use an old toothbrush to get into the small crevices.
  • If your cleaner requires rinsing, wash the vinyl and plastic thoroughly with fresh water and a clean microfiber detailing towel.
  • Dry the upholstery with a clean, dry microfiber detailing towel.
  • Allow the vinyl and plastic to dry, and then apply your favorite vinyl dressing to restore protection and sheen.
Griot's Garage Vinyl & Rubber Dressing
Apply a dressing like Griot’s Garage Vinyl & Rubber Dressing. Wipe off excess dressing. The finish should have a nice satin look.

Vinyl dressings aren’t all the same. Choose a dressing that gives you the look you want (flat to shiny). 303 Aerospace Protectant creates a satin finish, whereas Lexol Vinylex Protectant has a bit of gloss. Another thing to consider is protection from the sun.

All of the products mentioned above offer good UV light protection.

Cleaning & Conditioning Leather Upholstery

There are two cleaning-related factors that can cause your leather to wear prematurely. The first is dirt, and the second is oil from your skin.

The oil from your skin is actually the most damaging to your leather. This is particularly true when you wear shorts or a tank top, and have recently applied lotion or sunscreen to your skin.

Unlike fabric or vinyl upholstery, leather should be cleaned one section at a time. This means that once you have applied your cleaner or conditioner to one area, you should fully wipe down that area, and then proceed to the next and so on.

Tip: Work on an area no larger than 2 to 3 square feet at a time.

Wolfgang Leather Care Cleaner
Leather cleaner and a scrubby sponge are being used use on this tan leather to remove a visible layer of grunge. For heavy dirt, a leather brush may be necessary.

If you have a dark-colored leather interior, I recommend cleaning twice a year. Light-colored leather will need more frequent cleaning, even as often as every 3 months, depending on how readily the dirt shows.

In between cleanings, use a clean, damp towel to wipe down the surface completely. This removes the dust and light soiling so it won’t have a chance to work into your leather.

Follow these steps to clean your leather:

  • Apply the leather cleaner of your choice one section at a time, and work the solution into a nice lather with a sponge. If your leather is heavily soiled, use an upholstery (interior detailing) brush.
  • When finished scrubbing, be sure to remove all soap from the surface with a damp towel.
  • Rinse and wipe several times, and then dry the leather with a fresh, dry terry cloth towel.

Water will not hurt your leather. Most leather is actually made (tanned) in water.

After your car’s leather has dried, apply the leather conditioner of your choice. Choose a leather protectant that gives you the look you want (flat to shiny). Lexol Leather Conditioner creates a nice finish on coated and non-coated leather upholstery.

UV Protectant by the 303 company tends to leave a very nice satin finish, but it should be used only on coated leather. Lexol Leather Conditioner is a well-known favorite.

Lexol Leather Conditioner
After cleaning, apply a quality leather conditioner using a foam applicator. Be sure to get the leather wet with conditioner and give it time to absorb. After a few minutes you can wipe away any excess with a soft, dry cloth.

Just as in cleaning, apply leather conditioner one section at a time. Using a foam wax applicator, work the conditioner in thoroughly. Allow the conditioner to soak in 1 to 2 minutes, then buff off the excess with a dry terry cloth towel or microfiber towel.

It’s important to buff off the excess. If you allow the excess to stay, your seats will be slippery. After a few minutes of soak time, your leather has taken in all the moisture it can. The remainder will simply evaporate, leaving that nasty film on the inside of your windows.

Cleaning Automotive Fabric Upholstery

Fabric is the most difficult upholstery to detail. Unlike vinyl and leather, fabric upholstery easily soils and stains. You should expect to spend 2 to 3 hours detailing a sedan with fabric upholstery, a little less time for a truck or two-seater.

The 2 basic types of fabric upholstery cleaners, foaming or non-foaming, are cleaners that penetrate and lift both dirt and stains to the surface where you can wipe them away. A sudsy soap solution that requires agitation with a brush or sponge and rinsing.

For quick spot cleaning, get a spray-on/wipe-off cleaner. These cleaners are strong and get deep into the soil or stain to thoroughly clean. However, for a complete cleaning, I prefer good old soap and water.

Before using any product on your car’s fabric upholstery, test for color fading by cleaning a small, inconspicuous area. Do not use the product if it adversely changes your fabric’s color or texture.

Rinsing is the key to shampooing your car’s upholstery. If you don’t rinse, the dirt and soap remain in the upholstery. Rinse water must be removed with a wet-dry vacuum, extractor or plenty of clean towels.

Use a shop wet-dry vacuum, a coin-op car wash vacuum or a carpet wet-dry machine rented from your local grocery store. Make sure you have the vacuum before you get started.

Follow these easy vacuuming steps:

  • Vacuum the upholstery thoroughly.
  • Fill a bucket with 2 gallons of warm water.
  • Lightly spray a section of upholstery (no more than 2 square feet at a time) with your upholstery cleaner. Use an upholstery scrub brush and a sponge in a circular motion to agitate the upholstery. Dip your brush in water to keep it wet, but apply as little water as possible.
  • Wipe away the suds with a sponge or a damp detailing towel.
  • Empty your bucket of soapy water and refill with clean warm water.
  • Rinse the upholstery with clean water by wiping with a damp terry cloth towel or sponge. Rinse the soap from your towel or sponge often and wring it out. Use as little water as possible, but rinse thoroughly.
  • Vacuum your upholstery to extract the remaining rinse water and dirt.
  • If you’re not working on a warm, sunny day, use a hair dryer to complete the drying process. Be careful not to scorch the fabric by holding the dryer too close.
  • Allow the fabric to dry overnight before using the vehicle. If possible, keep your windows open slightly to allow the moisture to escape.

To keep your fabric upholstery looking factory fresh for many years, consider using a fabric protectant, such as 303 Fabric Guard. It blocks the sun’s damaging rays and repels water, oil, grease and dirt.

Use a fabric guard only on new or just-cleaned upholstery. Your upholstery must be dry. Simply spray it on (two light coats is better than one) and let it dry.

Caring for Carpets and Floor Mats

Before shampooing, the carpet and floor mats must be thoroughly vacuumed. To do a complete job, it may be necessary to remove the front seats, which requires the correct size Allen or socket wrench.

Most automotive carpets are durable and will withstand repeated shampooing without signs of damage or wear. Carpet cleaning is not fast or easy. You should expect to spend 2 to 3 hours shampooing the front and rear carpet and mats in a sedan or SUV, a little less time for a truck or two-seater.

Stained BME 318i floor mat before cleaning
This BMW floor mat had a milkshake spilled on it. The stain sat for 3 weeks before the owner brought it in for detailing.
DP Carpet and Upholstery Cleaner
When shampooing carpets and mats, use as little water and cleaner as necessary to get the job done. Use a good upholstery brush or cotton rags to do most of the work.

BMW 318i floor mat after cleaning with DP Carpet and Upholstery Cleaner

Shampooing BMW carpet
After shampooing, use a terry cloth towel, wet-dry vacuum or an extractor to remove as much water and shampoo as possible.

Care Interior Stains and Smells

With the amount of time we spend in our cars, the average car interior is easy prey for a myriad of stains and bad smells. Stain and odor removal is almost a science unto itself.

Upholstery fabrics and carpets vary widely, as do the types of stains. However, in my experience, there is a correct method and a suitable cleaner for most car interior problems.

Protection is Worth a Pound of Cure

Common upholstery fabrics are more likely to stain than vinyl or leather. To prevent stains, it’s necessary to properly treat upholstery, carpet, vinyl and leather.

The best treatment for carpet and fabric is a spray-on fabric guard product. To protect vinyl and leather, use a quality cleaner and protectant on a regular basis.

When the inevitable happens, and your three-year-old drops (or barfs!) his mustard-loaded hot dog on your brand-new velour upholstery, stay calm. Remove as much of the spill as possible by blotting, not wiping, with paper napkins, paper towels, etc.

Don’t let a stain sit too long. Within a day or two, most spills will set and permanently stain your upholstery, or become very difficult to remove. It will only take one such incident for you to realize that a small investment in fabric and carpet protection is worth it.

Know the Stain Removal Basics

Even without protection, you’d be amazed at how easy it is to clean up most stains with nothing more than a neutral detergent and water. A neutral detergent has a pH of 7 (on a scale of 0 to 14).

A detergent with a pH of less than 7 means it is acidic, whereas a pH higher than 7 is alkaline. Neutral detergents will not bleach fabric or remove fabric protection.

Tools for removing interior stains include:

  • Spatula or putty knife
  • Upholstery scrub brush
  • Wet-dry vacuum

Use the spatula or putty knife to remove as much of the solid material as possible. The vacuum can also be a lifesaver by removing large particles of any substance that would stain if you rubbed it or moved it around.

The basic idea is to remove as much of the contamination as possible before you begin wiping or scrubbing.

Next, spray the stain heavily with your cleaner, and allow it a minute or so to work. Don’t scrub the stain just yet. Use a towel and blot it up. Again, you don’t want to spread the mess.

Spray the stain again, and use your scrub brush with warm water to scrub the stain. This should remove the remaining elements of the stain material. Rinse with fresh water and a terry cloth towel, and then blot dry and vacuum.

Some Stains are Very Stubborn

Some stains will be permanent. If an indelible stain has penetrated the fibers of a material, it will not come out. You might be able to make the stain less noticeable, but no cleaner or method will remove all of the stain.

You will have to live with it or have the section of carpet or upholstery replaced. In some cases, leather and vinyl stains can be fixed by color-matching the area with a leather or vinyl repair system (a job for a professional).

How to Best Remove Car Odors

I get a lot of questions about removing smells. The most common questions are “How do I remove the smell of cigarette smoke?” and “My child vomited. How do I get rid of the smell?” Most bad smells in cars are organic (e.g., food, urine, vomit, tobacco, grass, mold, mildew, etc.).

I recently had a professional detailer tell me a client had spilled fish in his car, which I know from experience is not pleasant. As a teen I hid an open can of sardines under the seat of a neighbor’s car. They had to sell the car to get rid of the smell!

An Odor Killing Recommendation

Odor problems are easy to take care of with some of the new cleaners on the market. If you need something in a hurry, try Kids ‘N’ Pets Stain & Odor Remover.

This cleaner use enzymes, a surfactant and denatured alcohol to remove stains and kill odors. The enzymes kill odors by stopping the organic material from decomposing.

So, when your kid or the dog throws up all over the backseat, spray Kids ‘N’ Pets Stain & Odor Remover. The mess will go away. Don’t use it, and you’ll be smelling that odor for a long time.

Note: The problem with this cleaner is that it’s heavily perfumed. I don’t recommend it for more than a localized problem, such as vomit or urine.

No Smoking Please, No Really

Tobacco smoke is one of the most difficult smells to remove from a car. The smoke permeates everything, including the foam rubber used in seat cushions.

You can successfully remove most of the tobacco smell by thoroughly shampooing the carpets, upholstery and headliner.

After cleaning thoroughly, use Hi-Tech Total Release Odor Eliminator to complete the job.

Car Air Conditioner’s Bad Odors

Another common source of interior car odors is the air conditioning (A/C) system. That foul smell from your car’s A/C is not only offensive, but it can also be bad for your health.

The air entering into your car passes over the A/C evaporator (the cooling element). When you operate your car’s A/C, water condenses around the evaporator coils.

The moisture on the evaporator makes it a magnet for air pollutants, including dust, dirt, grime, pollen, spores and germs. These pollutants form bacteria, dust mites and fungi, which all add up to create the bad smell that often occurs in A/C systems.

Most luxury cars now offer filter canisters to remove pollutants from the air entering the car. However, the smell may still remain. In any case, it’s still a good idea to treat your car’s A/C each year with a quality odor remover.

The product I prefer most is Total Release Odor Eliminator. Simply spray the product into the exterior air intake vents and the inside heat and A/C vents. It eliminates odors caused by bacteria, fungi, mildew and stagnant water.

Care Interior Detailing Summary

Most of us spend lots of time inside our cars, so it makes sense to keep them neat and tidy. If you take just five minutes each time you wash your car to remove the trash, shake out the mats, and wipe down the dash, console and seats, you can stay on top of this detailing chore.

Then when it comes time for a full interior detail, the task won’t seem so daunting!

After cleaning and detailing the interior, it’s time to move on to Cleaning Car Windows!