An oft-forgotten footnote in my career as a cleaning expert is that, for a time, I wrote a version of my cleaning advice column for a car enthusiasts website. It was grand fun! In addition to having a wonderful audience of readers who had, in equal measure, fantastic questions and incredibly helpful tips to share with me, my colleagues — car experts, the lot of them — were generous in imparting their wisdom to me.
Which is to say this: I love the subject of car cleaning. But even more so, I love the act of cleaning the car. So I’m very excited about this guide to the car cleaning products I swear by. Whether you’re looking for help with spills big or small, dust and crumbs, pet hair, odors, trash accumulation or you just want to know the difference between paste and liquid car wax, I’ve got something for everyone.
Car vacuums, upholstery cleaners and detailing tools
The absolute best thing you can buy to keep your car clean is a handheld vacuum. It will make quick work of cleaning seats, floor mats and even the dashboard. In our testing, the Black+Decker Dustbuster was the easiest to use, charge and empty, with a large capacity canister and convenient built-in attachments.
This portable vacuum is tiny — it can fit under the seat of the car or even in a cup holder. And, because it is USB, it can be charged right in the car. It includes three attachments: a crevice tool, dusting brush and tail hose that can get into just about every nook and cranny of the car.
If you prefer your cleaning products to be a little on the cool and weird side (guilty as charged!), you'll love this car cleaning gel. It's basically goo, which is fun on its own, but it's even more fun when you use it to pick up crumbs and dust from small spaces in the car like the vents and cup holders.
Premoistened leather wipes will clean, condition and protect a car's leather seats. While it may be tempting to reach for any old cleaning wipe, it's best to avoid doing so, as leather is a hide and is prone to drying. Leather wipes are formulated with natural oils and UVX sunscreen that rejuvenates, moisturizes, restores and protects leather from sun damage.
Shout is one of my go-to stain-removing products, and when I saw that the brand offers a multipurpose cleaner for use in cars, my eyes lit up. Shout is especially good at removing food stains from fabric, so if you frequently eat in your car, keep a can of this stuff handy for those inevitable spills.
Car odor eliminators
When a terrible odor overtakes your car, it’s reasonable to think you’re in for an expensive trip to the detailer. Before shelling out money to a professional, give Ozium — a spray odor eliminator that works quickly to nuke smells — a shot.
A mildew smell coming from the vents is another common car odor that can be handled easily on your own, using Medina BOC. To use it, turn on the car with the air conditioner running, point the bottle up and spray, allowing a fine mist to settle on the surfaces in the car. Then, while the car is still running, close the doors and windows and allow a few minutes for the BOC to circulate in the air and through the vents. Turn off the car, close the doors and leave the car undisturbed for at least 30 minutes to allow the BOC to draw out more odors. Finally, open all the doors to allow fresh air to circulate through the vehicle.
If you find that you frequently use an odor eliminator and want to keep one close at hand, Armor All's air freshener offers a big convenience factor. It can be stored right in your cup holder, so it's literally always right at hand, and the fogger-style canister allows you to release the spray with just the press of a button.
If you dislike spray odor eliminators, or if you need something to keep persistent smells at bay, active charcoal odor absorbers are what you want. Unlike many other odor-eliminating products, they are fragrance-free and have moisture-absorbing properties, which can also help to keep mold and mildew growth at bay.
For spills and accidents in cars
It’s always a good idea to keep a roll of paper towels stashed in the car, and these super-absorbent shop towels are a great choice for wiping up spills or cleaning up messes big and small.
Like paper towels, a container of cleaning wipes is a smart thing to leave in the car. Armor All Wipes are a good choice because they're safe to use on just about every surface in the car.
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and I cannot think of any scenario where that is more applicable than when someone gets sick in the car — stick a barf bag in the glove box or seat pocket now so there's one handy literally right when you need it, and save yourself a lot of tremendously gross cleanup.
Take the center console trash can up a notch with this all-in-one-style receptacle. In addition to a trash can with two removable liners to make emptying easier, it also has a compartment to hold tissues, napkins or wet wipes — perfect for keeping greasy or sticky fingers from leaving greasy or sticky prints all over the car.
Car exterior cleaning
I often recommend dish soap for cleaning jobs beyond doing dishes, but please don’t use dish soap to wash your car! It will strip the protective wax off the car's clear coat, leaving it vulnerable to erosion. Some illustrative math: A new clear coat costs anywhere from $300-$900; a bottle of car wash soap costs a little over $10.
When cleaning the exterior of a car, first make sure it is cool to the touch and parked in a shady area; if the car is hot, either from having just been driven or from sitting in the sun, the soap can bake onto the exterior, leaving it looking dull. Then, work from the top down and in sections, soaping the car with a car sponge and then hosing the soap off.
After washing and hosing off each section of the car, dry it using a synthetic chamois. That will help to prevent water spots from forming. Do not leave the area that you've just washed wet when you move onto the next section. Once the entire car has been cleaned and dry, give it another once-over with the chamois to remove any remaining water.
Synthetic wax lasts longer than its natural counterpart, providing more protection to the clear coat and paint job — but it doesn't give as much shine. If you want that shiny, new-car look and you're willing to wax the car two to three times a year, carnauba wax will be the right choice for you. But if you're willing to sacrifice shine for the convenience of only having to wax the car once a year, synthetic wax is what you want.
Liquid wax is easier to apply than paste wax, which is less pliable, and it's the better choice for those who use an orbital buffer, rather than manually applying the wax to the car. Liquid wax doesn't offer as much pure shine power as carnauba wax, but the quality of the wax job, or the shine factor, is higher when done with a buffer.
It seems counterintuitive, but there's actually not much of a difference in the time and effort it takes to use an orbital buffer versus manually applying and buffing car wax with microfiber cloths. (I have done both, so I'm speaking from experience!) However, the quality of the wax job, when performed with a buffer, is superior to that of a manual wax job. And, power tools are fun to use.
Power tools are fun to use, but they are by no means a necessary purchase for those looking to assemble an at-home car detailing kit. Inexpensive microfiber towels, which can be laundered and used for years, are excellent for applying and buffing car wax.