An individual cleans a car's dashboard.

Between work commutes, long road trips, and a busy schedule, it’s normal for your car to build up outdoor debris, food crumbs, dust, and all kinds of messes. Protecting and cleaning your car’s upholstery can often feel like a chore. Our guide aims to help turn this task into a fun weekend DIY project, and the long-lasting results will be more than worth the time and energy.

We also cover some recommended products and equipment that might be worth the investment, along with how often you should clean your car’s interior and how to keep it clean.

What You Need To Clean Your Car Interior

Before you start cleaning your car seats, floor mats, and crevices in your interior, you need to gather cleaning supplies, including products and equipment to help prevent any damage to your car’s upholstery

Recommended Products

To rid your car of germs, dust, and stains, you’ll want to find interior cleaning products that are safe to use and will get the job done. Below are a few recommendations you may want to purchase before you start cleaning:

Recommended Cleaning Equipment

With the above cleaning solutions in mind, you’ll also need different equipment to tackle larger areas and debris like dirt and food crumbs. Below are our recommendations for car interior cleaning equipment:

Step-By-Step: How To Clean Your Car Interior

A person cleans the backseat of a car.

After gathering the recommended and essential cleaning supplies, it’s time to start the cleaning process. The step-by-step guide below is easy to follow and will help you get the best car cleaning results with little waste.

Step 1: Remove and Clean Your Floor Mats

Once you’ve taken out any large items and trash from your vehicle, go ahead and remove your car floor mats. This step is usually recommended as the first step in the cleaning process because they’re required to be removed and need time to dry.

After taking out your floor mats, shake them outside above the ground to get rid of any large food crumbs or debris that might be stuck on the mats. You can run a car vacuum along the surface of each floor mat to gather dirt and debris.

For carpeted mats, you’ll want to use a carpet or upholstery cleaner, following the product instructions. With a bucket of water and the cleaning product mixed together, you can soak and scrub the mats before rinsing them with water and hanging them to dry. Some carpet floor mats are machine washable, so for carpet mat owners, you’ll want to check this prior to cleaning as it will save you some time and energy.

For floor mats made of rubber, silicone, vinyl, or another similar material, you’ll want to start by using a hose or a bucket of water to wash off any debris. For a more detailed cleaning, you can use a floor mat cleaner or dish soap and warm water with a scrub brush to clean each floor mat. After cleaning, you should rinse off any soap residue and leave the mats out to air-dry while you clean the rest of your car interior.

Step 2: Vacuum

With your floor mats removed, you can use a car vacuum (or a shop vac for larger messes) to clean the interior of your car. Many car vacuums come with attachments to reach small crevices and other hard-to-reach areas, so you’ll want to utilize any crevice tools or accessories included with your vacuum cleaner. You should also run your vacuum along your car seats to collect dirt, pet hair, or crumbs in easy-to-miss areas.

Step 3: Wipe Down Your Dashboard and Air Vents

With the help of a duster or microfiber cloth, your next step is to wipe your dashboard and air vents. Microfiber cloths are a great product to gently clean your air vents. These cloths are soft enough to prevent scratching but are simultaneously designed to pick up dust and debris rather than spreading it onto other parts of your vehicle like paper towels or hand towels.

After dusting your dashboard and air vents, use disinfecting wipes to clean both areas. We don’t recommend using any bleach-based cleaners and you should always select products that are compatible with your interior car’s material. Disinfectant wipes will remove all germs and bacteria while getting rid of sticky and grimy textures on your car’s interior surfaces.

Step 4: Clean Your Center Console

Following a similar procedure to cleaning your dashboard, you’ll want to dust and disinfect your center console and cup holders. When wiping down areas including your gearshift, console controls, radio buttons, and other control systems, be gentle as these areas are both sensitive and essential parts of your vehicle.

If you have removable cup holders, you can take them out and wash them with warm water and dish soap using a sponge or soft-bristled brush.

If your car has an infotainment system or head unit, avoid ammonia-based glass cleaners and products because they can damage the touchscreen surface. Clean the screen using a microfiber cloth and a small amount of distilled water if needed.

Step 5: Clean Your Steering Wheel and Door Panels

The next step is to dust and wipe down your car’s sterling wheel and door panels. We highly recommend using disinfectant wipes on your door panels (especially door handles) and steering wheel since these are both high-touch areas in your vehicle and could benefit from some extra attention during the cleaning process.

Step 6: Wipe Down Interior Windows

To clean the inside of your car window in the most efficient way possible, we recommend using two soft cloths and an alcohol-based glass cleaner. Spray the cleaner on one cloth to prevent any product from landing on other surfaces in your car. Simply take the cloth with the cleaner and wipe down your interior car windows. Finish this process by taking a second clean microfiber cloth to dry the windows to better prevent streaking, abrasions, and residue.

Step 7: Carefully Wash Your Car Seats

Regardless of your car seat’s material, you’ll want to start by using a vacuum with a hose attachment to suck up crumbs, pet hair, and debris. For leather car seats, you should clean them with a leather cleaner compatible with car seats, following up with a leather conditioner to keep your seats soft and scratch-free. 

For cloth seats, locate any stains that need cleaning and use a stain remover, following the instructions on the product. Then, use an upholstery cleaner on the surface of your car seats, pairing the cleaner with a scrub brush to better remove stains and get a deeper clean. Lastly, take a damp microfiber cloth to rinse the seats and follow up with a dry soft cloth to get any excess water out of the car seats before letting the cloth seats air dry

Step 8: Leave Your Car Smelling Fresh

Now that your car interior is clean, you can freshen up the car and get rid of the chemical cleaner smells that might still be in your vehicle. Baking soda is a great household product that can freshen up your vehicle after cleaning. Air fresheners are also a great way to bring pleasant smells into your vehicle and eliminate chemical odors from cleaning. 

How Often Do I Need To Clean My Car Interior?

How often you need to clean your car is dependent on how often you have passengers and how frequently you drive. With kids and pets, you’ll probably need to clean your car more often since messes and crumbs will build up quicker. Regardless of passengers, it’s a good idea to clean your interior twice a year. 

While deep cleaning your interior is important, some areas might need a quick cleaning more frequently. Cleaning the inside of your windshield can help improve visibility, and disinfecting heavy contact areas can keep you and your passengers healthy. Any food or drink spills should be cleaned as soon as possible to prevent stains and mildew.

Keeping Your Car Interior Clean

An individual vacuums a car's interior.

Cleaning the inside of your car doesn’t have to feel like a chore, especially if you can have a few products stored in your car to make cleaning easier and faster. If you spend a good amount of time driving, we recommend a car trash can so you can toss any garbage or food wrappers that would otherwise end up on the floor of your car. Keeping a small pack of disinfectant wipes in your center console and switching our air fresheners every four weeks will keep your car smelling fresh and clean. 

There are also many back seat organizers and trunk organizers that can prevent clutter and help you keep any bulkier items in your car. Smaller items can also be stored in an organizer that you might otherwise misplace or lose track of over time.

Our Research Process

Our team has tested the best car interior cleaners so our recommendations to keep your interior looking brand new are backed by our in-depth testing processes. When testing each product, we wanted to specifically look at effectiveness, versatility, ratings, and prices.

We ordered the cleaners that best met these standards, then we tested each cleaner on a 2003 Ford Focus Zx3. Our team focused specifically on how easily the cleaner could be applied, the scent it produced, how well it took out stains, captured dust, and provided UV protection to keep your interior from fading.

Car Interior Cleaners Testing Process

Since our vehicle was nearly 20 years old at the time of testing, there were years of wear and tear, providing us with countless surfaces to clean. This helped us provide an honest review of each product. We used a microfiber towel to prevent any scratching or streaking on different surfaces.

By testing different cleaning products, we used our expertise to advise and inform you on how to clean your car interior without damaging your upholstery while getting even the toughest stains out of your car.

Why You Can Trust Us

Each year, we test over 350 auto products on vehicles and in our testing lab. Our team of product testers thoroughly researches top products, unboxes and puts our hands on each component, and tests the items on real vehicles before making recommendations to readers.

We publish hundreds of product and service reviews to bring car enthusiasts detailed guides on automotive tools, detailing kits, car seats, pet products, and much more. For more information on our testing methodology and how we evaluate every product, check out our methodology page here.

Cleaning Your Car Interior: Bottom Line

This informational article has hopefully served as a step-by-step guide for cleaning your car interior and preventing messes in the future. With the right products, you can clean up small messes and keep track of everything stored in your car, helping to keep your car smelling fresh and your upholstery in top condition

Cleaning Your Car Interior: FAQ

*Data accurate at time of publication.