The right way to detail your car’s interior

This early 1960s Volkswagen Type 1 convertible shows what a clean interior should look like. Photo by Mark McCourt.

For most car owners, cleaning the interior of their daily driver consists of little more than the occasional 75-cent vacuum rental at the drive-through car wash. Worse yet, others feel the need to douse the interior with shiny and sticky plastic and vinyl preservatives, advertised as beneficial in the back of car magazines and on car-themed televisions shows. As with properly washing a car, the correct care of a car’s interior takes a bit of work, but the long-term payback in maintaining a car’s value is worth it.

Step one is identifying the materials needed, including both tools and cleaning products. Microfiber towels are a must-have item, and dirty interiors will require quite a few. Dedicated microfiber towels should be used to clean glass (and clean glass only, to avoid picking up grit that can potentially scratch the inside of a windshield), and it’s best to use a microfiber towel designed specifically for glass cleaning (usually with a finer nap than an all-purpose microfiber towel). Bristle brushes are needed to dust vents and scrub things like leather seats, door panels and steering wheels; it’s best to have one “dry brush” dedicated to dusting only, with a second brush that can be used for wet scrubbing. A vacuum is a must-have item, and while a plug-in vacuum will provide the most suction, a rechargeable or 12v outlet-powered vacuum is better than no vacuum at all.

As for chemicals, an auto glass cleaner and an interior cleaner are must-have items, while a rubber preservative is highly recommended. For vehicles with leather seats, a leather cleaner and a separate leather conditioner are needed, while cloth upholstery can generally be cleaned with the same spray used for interiors (though specially-formulated upholstery cleaners are available). Spray-on plastic and vinyl preservatives for the dashboard are a matter of individual tastes; if you believe them to be beneficial, just remember that a little goes a long way. In fact, the “glossy” preservatives generally contain silicone oil, and instead of protecting surfaces can actually do more damage by accelerating heat transfer in vinyl dash material. A better option is to simply keep the dash clean and avoid parking in direct sunlight (if possible); for those desiring a sheen on their dash top, some detailers recommend using Pledge furniture polish.

Step one is cleaning interior glass. Follow the directions on the automotive glass cleaner of your choice, using the previously mentioned glass-specific microfiber towels to wipe the glass surfaces dry. If there’s heavy film (generally caused by the outgassing of plastics in a vehicle’s interior) built up on the inside of the windshield, it may be necessary to repeat this process two or even three times. To verify that a streak is on the inside of the glass and not the outside, vary the direction used to wipe the glass; wipe interior glass in a side-to-side motion, while using an up-and-down motion to wipe exterior glass surfaces. Never use abrasives or harsh chemicals to clean the inside of a windshield, as many use a layer of plastic film on the inside that can be susceptible to scratching. When cleaning the rear window, be particularly gentle with defroster elements on the glass, as these can be damaged by harsh scrubbing.

Next comes a thorough vacuuming of the car’s interior. Start by removing and vacuuming the floor mats first, paying attention to stains and ground-in dirt; if vacuuming doesn’t get the mats clean, carpet cleaner with stain remover is your next step (but be sure to test for colorfastness first). If you have access to a carpet steam cleaner, this can often be the best way to get heavy soil out of floor mats, but it’s probably not worth renting a steamer just for this purpose. When vacuuming the interior, don’t forget to get between the seat cushion and seat back, and don’t neglect the area under the seats (the realm of the errant french fry). Use the dry bristle brush to sweep dust from vents and controls before vacuuming, and the same technique applies to other interior nooks and crannies (like shifter boots, handbrake boots, instrument pods and such).

Once the full interior is vacuumed, take a moment to assess the next steps. If the seats are stained and dirty (regardless of material), scrubbing with a cleaner and a bristle brush will be necessary. For minor cleaning, spraying leather or vinyl seats with the cleaner of your choice, then wiping with a microfiber cloth, may be all that’s necessary. Generally speaking, always follow the cleaning product manufacturer’s directions, and when scrubbing use as little pressure as you can to obtain the desired results.

The wet soft-bristle brush is an excellent way to clean the leather of steering wheels and shift knobs. Spray the brush with cleaner, then use it to work up a lather on the leather surface, working one small area at a time. Use a microfiber cloth to wipe away the lather, making sure the foam (which carries the lifted particles of dirt in it) isn’t allowed to dry.

Leather upholstery requires one more step for proper care, and that’s the use of a leather preservative. Dry or neglected leather surfaces may require more than one application (buffing with a dry microfiber towel in between coats), but in general, always use the minimal amount of product necessary. As with paint, more light applications are far better than a single heavy application. Avoid using leather preservative on leather-wrapped steering wheels, as it can make the surface slippery, particularly for those with sweaty hands. When treating leather shift or handbrake boots, spray a bit of preservative on a microfiber towel, then gently work this into the leather surfaces. This avoids getting leather preservative into places it shouldn’t be.

Next, use the interior cleaner and microfiber towels to wipe down door panels, door arm rests and the center console arm rest. Lotion, bug spray and sunscreen has a habit of accumulating wherever driver and passengers rest their arms, so a more vigorous scrubbing with the wet bristle brush and interior cleaner may be necessary. Even if only a light cleaning is called for, it’s best to spray the cleaner on a (clean) microfiber towel instead of the door panel, as this minimizes the possibility of liquid getting into areas it doesn’t belong (like electric window controls). Tackle the dash in much the same way, using cleaner sprayed on a microfiber towel (which should also pick up any dust missed during vacuuming). Use care in cleaning the center stack, and use as little cleaner as possible around switches and electronics.

Shoe scuffs on plastic door sills plates can generally generally be erased using the bristle brush and spray cleaner method, though this may take a bit more elbow grease that scrubbing suntan lotion out of a door panel. The same applies to any shoe scuffs in the footwells, another common area of abuse.

Those wishing to use a preservative on dash top, plastics and vinyls (even after our warning above) should spray it on a clean microfiber towel instead of spraying directly on the surface to be treated. The same can be said of vinyl upholstery; when using a vinyl upholstery conditioner, use as little as necessary, sprayed on a microfiber towel and not on the surface itself.

Finally, the last step is to use a dedicated rubber preservative on door and window seals. The best products are expensive, but they will likely allow the original rubber seals to last the life of the car, while eliminating things like wind noise and water intrusion caused by shrinking rubber seals.

As with proper exterior washing, careful interior detailing takes time and effort, but will extend the life of your car considerably. When (or if) the time comes to sell it, proper upkeep should also pay dividends by enhancing the car’s value.


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