Everybody wants their car to have that “just out of the dealership” feel — one only needs to consider the number of “new car smell” products on the market to know that’s true. But it can feel like a losing battle in the face of all those spills, messes and odors that happen in our cars.
There are four basic cleaning jobs that happen in cars, and these are things that do not require an expensive trip to the detailer. Breaking down cleaning the interior of a car into these four distinct jobs can help to make the overall task feel less daunting.
To help you get your car’s interior looking its very best, we consulted experts and got their tips, tricks and go-to products for cleaning car seats, floor mats and hard surfaces like the dashboard, center console and side panels — and of course, eliminating any odors that are making your car smell awful.
How to clean cloth or leather car seats
When it comes to cleaning cloth or leather car seats, the first thing to do is to reach for your vacuum. “Always vacuum the seats first,” says Gina Perry, cleaning senior merchant at The Home Depot.
Tuff Stuff Foam Cleaner Aerosol ($3.62; walmart.com)
For overall cleaning, Perry recommends using a foaming carpet cleaner on cloth car seats. The foaming cleaner will remove stains, as well as dirt and grime that gives cloth seats a dingy appearance. A laundry stain treatment product like Shout can also be used to spot treat stains.
To clean leather seats, start by determining if the leather is real or imitation. Regardless of the type of leather, Marilee Nelson, a cleaning expert and co-founder of Branch Basics, says to vacuum the seats first. “Vacuuming protects the leather from being damaged by dirt that could scratch the leather when scrubbed with a cleaner.”
Furniture Clinic Leather Care Kit ($29.95; homedepot.com)
After vacuuming, apply a leather cleaner using a small towel — an old hand towel or washcloth is perfect for this job — and dry the seats using a microfiber cloth. Then, apply a leather conditioner, which will help to keep the leather from drying out and cracking due to age.
Weiman Leather Wipes ($4.67; homedepot.com)
Perry also recommends pre-moistened leather wipes for their convenience and ease of use.
Branch Basics All-Purpose Cleaner Trial Kit ($5; branchbasics.com)
“For imitation leathers,” Nelson says to use an all-purpose cleaner. “Spray the all-purpose cleaner in an inconspicuous area to see how the material responds. If all is well, spray the cleaner on the seats, let sit a few minutes and wipe clean with a microfiber cloth.”
Cleaning the dashboard, center channel and side panels
The first order of business when cleaning a car’s dashboard, center channel — including cup holders — and side panels is to pick up any junk that’s accumulated. “It’s important to first empty any trash, coins, wrappers or debris from the cupholders, glove compartments and center console,” Perry says. Nelson suggests using a vacuum to go over the dashboard, side panels, instrument panel and center channel area to remove dust and loose debris.
Armor All Cleaning Wipes (starting at $4.16; amazon.com)
Once you’ve removed the detritus from the car, use a dry microfiber cloth to go over the dashboard and all interior surfaces to remove dust before cleaning with automotive cleaning wipes.
Armor All Protectant Wipes (starting at $4.97; amazon.com)
“Your vehicle gets hit with harmful elements like UV and oxidation,” Perry says. She recommends using Armor All Protectant Wipes, which she says help to prevent “aging, fading and cracking while enhancing your vehicle with a nice shiny look.”
How to clean carpeted and rubber floor mats
Regardless of which type of floor mat your car has, the first step to cleaning them is to remove them from the vehicle. “Pull floor mats out of the car and shake off large bits of debris,” Nelson says.
Spot Shot Carpet Stain Remover ($6.29; homedepot.com)
“A carpet cleaner is the best way to clean carpet floor mats,” Perry says. “Spray the floor mat and then vacuum the foam to remove any stains.”
HDX Lavender All-Purpose Cleaner ($7.58; homedepot.com)
Rubber floor mats can be sprayed down with a hose; for a deeper cleaning, use an all-purpose cleaner and a scrub brush to remove dirt and grime. After cleaning, rinse the mats and let them dry completely before returning them to the car.
How to clean car vents and eliminate odors
Senhai Mini Duster ($8.99; amazon.com)
Cleaning a car’s vents and eliminating odors doesn’t have to be a job you outsource to a professional detailer. The experts we spoke with had some simple tips for tackling those jobs. “Use a bristle brush to clean air vents — we also recommend using a microfiber brush, an old makeup brush or cotton swabs to be gentler on your air vents,” Perry says.
Ozium Air Sanitizer Spray, 2-Pack ($6.99, originally $9.49; amazon.com)
When it comes to odors in cars, Perry says that most smells can be eliminated using an air spray like Ozium; smells that are baked into upholstery can be addressed using a steam cleaner.
Medina BOC Biological Odor Control ($18.97; amazon.com)
Nelson offers help for smells that are originating from the venting system — if your car has taken on a mildewy odor, it is most likely that it’s coming from the vents. Nelson recommends using a product called Medina BOC in the following manner.
Step 1: Turn on the car with the air conditioner running and spray a fine mist of full-strength BOC, pointing the spray bottle up into the air and letting a light mist fall on to the surfaces in the car.
Step 2: Close the car up and keep it running for a couple of minutes to circulate the BOC in the air through the vents.
Step 3: Turn off the car, close the doors and let sit for 30 minutes. The BOC will further draw odors out of the materials. Then open all doors to air and sun. If there is no wind, put fans on to blow air across the surfaces. Repeat as needed.