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How to Clean & Disinfect Your Car’s Interior During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, you probably only cleaned your car’s interior a couple of times a year. But now, if you’re like most people, you’re hyper-vigilant about disinfecting every inch of the cabin.

As a seasoned automotive professional—and more importantly, a car buff—I know a few things about cleaning interiors. But I’ve never lived through a pandemic before—and I’m certainly not a healthcare expert. 

That’s why, to help us get through this together, I’ve created a list of virus-proofing tips using reputable sources. Toward the end, I’ve also thrown in a few car care tips of my own for when the situation improves.  

A man cleaning car interior, car detailing (or valeting) concept. Selective focus.

Practical Tips for Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Interior Cabin

Until this all happened, chances are you never realized what a germ factory your car has always been. There are certain parts of the interior, such as the steering wheel, gear selector, and door handles, that you touch all of the time. And as we’ve all learned by now, the coronavirus can live on various surfaces for several days—so by not disinfecting these components on a regular basis, you may very well be putting yourself (and your passengers) at risk of contracting COVID-19.

To help defend against the coronavirus, you need to do more than just wash your hands—you also need to disinfect everything you touch on a daily basis.

Below is an outline of the dos and don’ts of car interior cleaning during a pandemic, based on information from Kelly Blue Book and AAA. Keep in mind that none of these methods guarantee that you won’t catch the virus, but they can certainly provide an added level of protection.

What you should do:

Check the product description and owner’s manual before cleaning

Certain cleaning products can be harmful to your car’s interior. Before using a cleaner, be sure to read the product description on the label. It’s a good idea to take a look at the recommended cleaning procedures in your owner’s manual as well. 

Also, you’ll want to try any product out on a small, inconspicuous area first.

Wear disposable latex gloves while cleaning

gloved hands disinfecting steering wheel with spray bottle
Be sure to put on a pair of disposable latex gloves.

Obviously, you don’t want to pick up any germs or viruses while cleaning. So, be sure to put on a pair of disposable latex gloves before you dig in. 

Throw the gloves away as soon as you’re done.

Pre-clean really dirty surfaces with detergent or soap and water

AAA recommends pre-cleaning any dirty surfaces with either detergent or soap and water. Doing so will help remove heavy grime buildup before you begin disinfecting. You should also use a vacuum to pick up loose debris.

Clean the interior with sanitizing wipes

Now we get to the heart of the COVID-19 cleaning process: disinfecting with sanitizing wipes. Rather than just cleaning the common touch areas, you should disinfect everywhere, including hard-to-reach surfaces (cup holders, center console, etc.)

Clean glass surfaces with alcohol-based window cleaner

An alcohol-based window cleaner is ideal for cleaning your car’s windows. AAA points out that these products can often be used to clean other glass surfaces, such as touchscreen infotainment displays. Though you should consult your owner’s manual beforehand to be sure it’s safe.

Meanwhile, Kelly Blue Book advises NOT to use ammonia-based glass cleaners, which are the blue household type, on vehicle touchscreens. There are many automotive-grade glass cleaners that you can purchase instead.

Clean the carpet with an appropriate detergent

scrubbing vehicle carpet with brush
Use a soft-bristle brush to help scrub out any tough stains.

Vacuum your car’s carpet first if needed, then clean the carpet by spraying it with a vehicle-friendly detergent. You can use a soft-bristle brush to help scrub out any tough stains. Once you finish, remove the cleaner with a towel.

Clean up afterward

Even if you wear gloves during the cleaning process (as was recommended), you should wash your hands thoroughly once the job is done. It’s also a good idea to take a shower and change your clothes afterward. Put the clothes you wore straight into the wash.

What you should NOT do:

Clean the interior with bleach or hydrogen peroxide

Although bleach and hydrogen peroxide can both be effective at combating the coronavirus, they can also damage your car’s interior. As such, most experts advise against using these chemicals.  

Clean the interior with ammonia-based products

As mentioned, you should not use ammonia-based glass cleaners on touchscreen displays. Furthermore, you should skip using these products on your car’s interior altogether, as they can damage certain materials, such as vinyl.

Additional Tips for Rideshare Drivers

On its website, Lyft offers a dedicated list of tips for both rideshare drivers and rideshare customers. The company mentions all of the well-known guidelines from the CDC (wash your hands, avoid close contact, etc.) along with these three tips for rideshare drivers:

The last item on the list is a reminder that drivers should clean their cars throughout the day.  Cleaning before and after each shift, as well as during breaks, is a good idea. And, of course, drivers should wear disposable latex gloves while disinfecting their vehicles.

General Tips for Keeping Your Car’s Interior Clean When Things Go Back To “Normal”

Everyone is anticipating the end of the coronavirus pandemic and life going back to “normal” for all of us. And when that time finally comes around, you’ll still want to keep your car clean and looking its best. 

professional car detailing on car seats
You can choose to have a professional detail your vehicle.

To make that happen, you can choose to have a professional detail your vehicle—or you can tackle the job yourself. The former saves you money while the latter saves you time.

If you decide to go the DIY route, here are a few tips to make your car’s interior as close to factory-fresh as possible:

Use an appropriate upholstery cleaner on the seats  

Most people vacuum the interior of their car and call it a day. But to really spruce up your ride, you should use an upholstery cleaner to remove any stains from the seats. Be sure to use a product that’s recommended for the type of seating material (i.e., cloth, leather, etc.) inside your car.

Apply dressings and conditioners to hard plastics, vinyl, and leather  

Over time, harsh sunlight can cause the plastic parts found throughout your car’s interior to fade. The same thing can happen to vinyl and leather components. 

Fortunately, there are dressings and conditioners to help protect these materials against ultraviolet rays. Using such products will help keep your car looking new.

Get into hard-to-reach spots

Have you ever looked underneath the seats inside your car? There’s a lot of junk under there. To remove as much debris as possible, move the seat all the way backward, then all the way forward, while cleaning.

Take your time

To really make your interior look great, you’ll need to take your time. Apply interior cleaner to a towel and use it to clean all of the nooks and crannies found throughout the cabin.  

Keep yourself informed—and stay home as much as possible.

Everyone is worried about staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can all do our part to fight the virus by following the guidelines from local health authorities. It’s also imperative that we stay at home as much as possible. 

And the good news is, if you aren’t driving your car, you won’t need to clean it as often.

Hopefully, we will overcome this challenge soon. Then we can be outside together, enjoying our cars. Until then, focus on being safe—and keep an extra package of disinfecting wipes on hand at all times.   

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Author

Mia Bevacqua

Chief Mechanic at CarParts.com

Mia Bevacqua is an automotive expert with over 15 years of industry experience. She holds ASE Master, L1, L2, and L3 Advanced Level Specialist certification, as well as a bachelor's degree in Advanced Automotive Systems.

Throughout her career, Mia has applied her skills toward automotive failure analysis inspections, consulting, diagnostic software development, and of course, freelance writing. Today, she writes for companies around the world, with many well-known clients showcasing her work.

Mia has a passion for math, science, and technology that motivates her to stay on top of the latest industry trends, such as electric vehicles and autonomous systems. At the same time, she has a weakness for fixer-upper oddballs, such as her 1987 Chevy Cavalier Z-24 and 1998 Chevy Astro Van AWD.

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