These car cleaning tips will get your car looking new again. Or at least new-ish.
Growing up with a dad and brother who were both “motor heads,” I learned to have pride in the car I drove. I learned to pull out all the gear in the backyard and get the outside to shine, down to the tires and lights. I painstakingly washed every inch by hand. I’d spend an hour or more detailing the interior.
Then I had kids. And I made the mother of all car mistakes: I fell for a sweet deal on a dream car. There was only one hitch: ivory cloth interior! EEK! If you peeked in the windows, it looked like I was living in my car. These days, I take extra care daily to ensure that I will maintain at least an off-white appearance to the interior.
Here are some car cleaning tips and tricks I’ve learned from the best in the business (and from personal failure). They can help you reinvent your ride, inside and out.
First, Take Everything Out to Make the Most of Vacuuming
The very first thing you should do is clear your schedule and hunker down for at least an hour to get a real deep clean done on any vehicle. If it’s a primary kid-hauler, plan on additional time for car seats and kid messes. Take out the floor mats, the toys, the car seats and all of the junk. If it’s not attached to the chassis, it should come out.
After you can see the interior of your car, the carpet, and all of the garbage is removed from problem areas like door panels and under seats, you can vacuum until you get every grain of sand or road salt out of the vehicle. If your own vacuum isn’t a real powerful contraption, take handful of quarters and some ear plugs to the local car wash and get after it!
Clean, Then Sheen, to Make Surfaces Shine
Always make sure to clean your dash and interior surfaces before using a shine-inducing gloss wipe or spray ($6.88 On Amazon). If you don’t, you’ll lock in some of the yuck underneath the more oily residue. This doesn’t have to be done with fancy branded wipes or sprays – you can use a damp cloth and plain water to get most of the dust and dead bugs from your dash and other surfaces. It’s also a good idea, especially if you live in ultra-sunny climes to get the “matte” or non-glossy finishing spray (like this one on Amazon for $9.99). It’s amazing how much a freshly buffed surface can create extra glare and brightness from any color surface. Your eyes will thank you for toning it down a little!
How to Get into Those Nooks and Crannies
The porous surfaces on armrests can be hotbeds for gunk. Sunblock, lotion and even sweat can quickly make an otherwise clean-looking car look pretty gross. Simply take a toothbrush, wet it, add a little baking soda and scrub-a-dub-dub!
You can also try a foam brush or cotton swab to get into the vents and around handles and into crevices as you clean. Wet it just a little to really get the stubborn stuff out. This also works well for spaces like ashtrays (where all of your change resides) and inside cup holders – places with odd angles and hard-to-reach spaces can benefit from a damp foam brush or Q-tip.
It can help to use a handheld vacuum in combination with your dusting efforts so the motes do not repopulate elsewhere, leaving you chasing your tail in a whirlwind of dust.
How to Clean Carpets and Upholstery
The parts of a vehicle that take the brunt of the wear and tear are those that are hardest to get to for cleaning or cannot be easily removed—the carpets and the upholstery. While you’ll need some elbow grease and some more quarters and a few cleaners, it’s possible to get the old gal looking new(ish) again. Even juice, sucker sticks and melted chocolate are no match for persistence and a few chemicals.
Use the Right Cleaners – and Toss Your Floor Mats in the Washer
I love the cleaners specifically made for car upholstery- the ones with the built-in plastic bristle brushes on the end of the can ($14.50 on Amazon). You can scrub and foam and scrub again. This works great for the seats and the attached carpeting, covering the body of the car on the inside.
For the mats, head to the laundromat! You can use your own washing machine, but I find that large, heavy items are too much for my washer. The huge industrial ones are just made for that! Pretreat the mats with some kind of stain remover, such as Shout or a carpet cleaner meant for cars. Then, just toss them in the washer and they will come out looking almost-new!
Pre-Treating Floor Mats Makes a Difference
If you have a lot of dirt and mud or road salt stains, consider hosing down the car mats before the stain treatment. This will help so you’re not just smearing dirt from one spot all over the mat. Then, just hang them out to dry in the sun. If you’re using the same brush for the carpets as the seats, make sure to do the seats first, so the brush won’t be as abused and used from the harder job of washing out the mats.
Don’t Let Coffee –or Chocolate Milk– Stains Become Permanent
When you spill that morning coffee, soak up as much as you can immediately. It helps to have a stockpile of napkins or a rag under the seat for just this occasion. As soon as you are able, mix one tablespoon of liquid dish soap, one tablespoon of white vinegar, and two cups of warm water. Cheap white terry cloth works wonders for sponging at the stain with the mixture, dabbing and reapplying until you start to see the stain get lighter. Soak up the wetness with a dry cloth. Finally, sponge with cold water and blot dry. This has greatly reduced the look of most of the coffee stains I’ve caused. I’ve considered having a small bottle pre-mixed of the vinegar/soap solution, but I have not gone so far as to stock it readily in my car! By the way, this is a great recipe for chocolate milk spills, too!
Pack of 24 White Terry Cloths on Amazon for $16.99.
Scrape up Solids and Semi-Solids Before They Become a Permanent Fixture, Too
If you have kids it’s inevitable that you can find solid or semi-solid blobs of chocolate, yogurt, frosting and even condiments like ketchup and mustard on the floor, cupholders or seats. The first move is to tackle what you can. A plastic spoon works brilliantly to scrape and collect. The worst are the ‘sucker’ fragments: those have to be picked and pried with your fingernails, but little else works to get sugary remnants from the grasp of the carpet fibers. Scrape them to loosen them and then vacuum or blot with a wet cloth to pick up the fragments and any resulting stains.
Get at Grease and Other Hard to Remove Substances
Ever cry after discovering a particularly greasy gross kid mess, like Play Doh, Gak or Floam caught in the carpet fibers and melted in? Or, if your husband is “handy” and does most of your mechanic work (or if you do – good for you!) and somehow motor grease ends up in the car? All is not lost! First put salt or corn starch over the stain to soak up the grease. Then, paint thinner or nail polish remover on a cotton cloth will clobber grease stains; test a small area first to be sure it doesn’t discolor your carpet or upholstery and be sure to give the car plenty of time to air out after cleaning; these solvents have a strong odor. After treatment with paint thinner ($13.96 on Amazon), which may take overnight, vacuum away the crumbles.
Try This Secret Fix for Pen Ink
Purse pen explosion leak onto your carpets? Salt will work here too. Or – get this – hairspray! Put whichever weapon you desire over the ink stain, let it soak and then brush and vacuum away.
Get Rid of Those Nasty Smells
For cars that smell like a dog sled team or a used car that a smoker previously took it for a joyride, try 20 Mule Team Borax (sprinkled generously on fibers and left overnight) to soak in the odor. Simply vacuum away the next day. If you live in an area where you can leave your windows down without threat of animals (or people) moving in and destroying the car, a little fresh air does wonders for the cab, too.
Clean the Kids’ Car Seats Too
Make sure to follow any special instructions from the safety manual that came with the car seat. Unless the instructions say not to wash car seat covers in a machine, go ahead and unthread the straps, take off the covers and throw them into the wash with a little soap. We use Lysol wipes to wipe off the frame and hard surfaces under the covers and the straps, and we use toothpicks or a paring knife and soapy water to get into the cracks of the buckles. Kids can make quick work of making a car seat to look like a landfill.
We love seats that do not need the straps removed to take off the fabric cover, and those with fabric that easily releases the crud in the wash so they look new even after being trashed by toddler travel food debauchery.
Note: It’s best to let your car seat covers hang and air dry. A shrunken cover is bad news.
Make the Glass Glow
A pro car cleaning tip that will save on your patience and provide a better return on your satisfaction after cleaning is to simply roll down your window a bit before you spray it with glass cleaner (Streak Free Window Clean $8.99 on Amazon). The part of the window that lives inside the rubber door seal collects grime too!
Take the time to wipe down the rear view mirror, side mirrors, and all of the windows (even the small back windows if you have them) and do the inside AND outside surfaces. Even if you’re going to run it through the car wash or work on the outside by hand, you’ll get a more thorough clean from handwashing the outside windows.
Since you’re working on visibility and glass, make sure you work on your wipers too! Fill the reservoir with wiper fluid and use rubbing alcohol to wipe down the rubber flaps on your blades. If there are tears or the flap is hanging off the metal blade arm, it’s time for new wiper blades!
Did you know if you live in a snowy climate, by parking with your wiper blades pulled erect you can potentially save wear and tear caused by jerking them out of a frozen position when you start the car and turn them on? It takes just a few seconds but can really extend the life of your wiper blades!
Tires and Wheels Need Attention Too
This wouldn’t be a complete list of car cleaning tips if we don’t talk about polishing up that exterior. My favorite “extra” touch is to shine up my wheels, even if they are beat up plastic and not real high-end, expensive wheels and hubs. I usually use Nevr Dull ($16.99 for a two pack on Amazon), as recommended by a friend who details cars as a side hustle.
If I don’t have it on hand? I use some toilet cleaner and baking soda; make sure the toilet cleaner has hydrochloric acid – such as The Works ($14.90 on Amazon). Use a brush and be sure to wear rubber gloves to save your skin from the harsh chemicals. Just do a small area with the toilet cleaner, and then spray the area you just cleaned with a baking soda/water solution. You should only do a few seconds of cleaning, followed by a neutralizing spray.
Now Keep It Clean(er)
After going through all that trouble to follow these car cleaning tips, keeping your vehicle neat becomes top priority. If you’re like me, you have a house full of Tupperware. Put the extra cereal container in your cupboard to good use and use it in the car! Really! It makes a great upright garbage can (and can be closed if you have a smelly bit of rubbish like a diaper or old banana peel).
A lot of very wise people never allow eating in their cars. This will cut down dramatically on the work invested in these car cleaning tips. But for those of us with kids, this may not be feasible if you feed on the fly. For a lot of families it’s a farce to even fathom a time when food wouldn’t be ground into each spot in the vehicle.
Just like all of the things we own, preventative maintenance and care goes a long way in saving time and money. Plus, it’s better for the structural and operational integrity of your car. Just take a few minutes even once per week to “swamp out” and maybe even run a vacuum over the surfaces!
This post was written by Amanda Williams. She is a freelance writer who has written articles about hitting the road from rural life to big adventures. She grew up as a tomboy in a family of “motor heads,” who instilled in her the importance of self sufficiency in auto maintenance and care–it’s only natural those ideals and interests would stick as a mom, too.