Interior Detailing Step-By-Step

Interior Detailing Step-By-Step

Last Updated September 16, 2019 | Meghan Drummond
Contents

The inside of your car tends to take a beating. Many car enthusiasts practically live in their cars, and with that comes a lot of dirt, stains, dust, and debris. Not only can a dirty interior diminish your enthusiasm for your car, but over time, these seemingly minor issues can create permanent problems that can reduce your car's value.

Whether you're looking for a way to give your car a little extra something before a meet-up, trying to sell it on your own, or just like having a beautiful interior, these steps are easy enough for anyone and can be a great way to enjoy your car on a good day. Though there's no true substitute for a professional detailing, which can take a car from gross to nearly new, you can do a great job of cleaning your car on your own as well. Even if you do get your car professionally detailed, periodic self-cleans can help extend the life of a professional detailing and reduce the time needed for your next one.

By having the supplies you need and having a plan of action beforehand, interior cleaning becomes a much less daunting task.

Woman eats sandwich and drinks soda at steering wheel

Supplies

You don’t need anything super special to clean the interior of your car. Many of the best items, even according to professionals, can be found in your home already, though there are a few extra things to pick up if you’ve got an especially dirty job ahead of you.

This is a list of some of the most commonly used materials. Many people find that they prefer different tools or that they don’t need everything on this list because of how they use their car and where they struggle with dirt. As people get in the habit of cleaning out their interior, they tend to find the products that they use the most, and some of it is about you, your car, and the specific types of dirt that you’ll be contending with.

  • Microfiber cloths
  • Terry cloth towels or junk rags
  • Q-tips
  • Toothbrush
  • An old shaving brush or other similarly sized, soft-bristled brush
  • White vinegar
  • Dish soap or a gentle degreaser, like Simple Green
  • Glass cleaner
  • Vacuum
  • Carpet brush
  • Anti-static UV protectant spray

The best cleaner for most mundane bits of dirt and debris is a simple mixture of vinegar and water. It’s important to dilute the vinegar to reduce its acidity so that it doesn’t damage anything. Most experts recommend a one part vinegar to one part water dilution added to a spray bottle. A couple of drops of dishwashing detergent can help to add a degreasing property to the mixture.

A stack of microfiber cloths
You’ll Want a Few of These

Getting Started

Before you can get started with a true detail-oriented cleaning, you’ll need to do a more general pick-up first. You’ll need to remove everything from the car, so go ahead and make two bins, one for trash and one for all of the various life items that have likely started to pile up.

It’s likely you have some areas that are going to need a little extra care. These are going to be some of the spots you’ll want to touch up first before doing anything else. If you clean up your floors before getting rid of crumbs in the console, for instance, it’s possible that you’ll be undoing some of your hard work later.

Start with your problem areas first.

The next thing you’ll want to do is give yourself some space to work. Remove the parts you easily can, like the floor mats. Depending on how serious a job you need to do, you may want to remove the seats as well, but at the very least you’ll want to move them. This will also allow you to see some of the potentially hidden dirt you’ll be contending with.

Floor Mats

Because the floor mats can be cleaned separately, it’s best to remove them early and clean them individually. That way they’ll be dried out and ready to go back in your car as soon as you finish your detailing.

As you’ve likely noticed the fibers of your floor mats tend to hang on to dirt, which is why you’ll want a carpet brush to fully flush them all out. What many have found effective is taking the hose of their vacuum and holding it nearby while they lightly brush their carpet. This allows the vacuum to suck up the dirt as you go, creating less chance of it getting ground back into the carpet.

If you find it too cumbersome to try to use a vacuum hose and carpet brush simultaneously, an equally good strategy is to use a dustpan in coordination with your carpet brush. You’ll be rushing the crumbs, fibers, and pits of dirt onto the dustpan. The benefit of this method is that it’s very satisfying to watch the gross bits of things pile up on the dustpan.

You’ll want to dry brush and suction out as much dirt as you can before you get the floor mats damp.

For cleaning, there are car carpet interior sprays that do a great job, but another great solution is to use your vinegar solution. It’s important not to use straight vinegar because it’s acidic and can damage the fibers slightly which will make them harder to clean in the future. If you have a small steam cleaner or carpet shampooer, those can work very well on car floor mats, and as long as you properly dilute the soap shouldn’t be harmful in any way.

picture of white vinegar in front of scrub brush
A Magic Cleaner

Exterior Facing Surfaces

The parts of your car that are technically the interior but that face the exterior are some of the dirtiest parts and they never get cleaned because they’re just sort of in-between. Cleaning these areas is not only satisfying, but it will also help to preserve some of the key parts of your car, like the door hinges.

You’ll want to clean this section first, that way you won’t accidentally track it into your car later.

The areas you’ll want to focus on is the interior ledge beneath the seats of the car and the door jambs.

Microfiber cloths are fine for this job, but if you are limited on microfiber cloths, old t-shirts can also work well for this task, though they’ll likely be trashed afterward. A heavy-duty trim cleaner is your best bet for getting all of the grime off in one go, and even then you’ll need to use a plastic bristled brush to work the cleaner into all the nooks and crannies. If you don’t have a specialized cleaner, then a degreaser like Simple Green or the vinegar solution with a little bit of dish soap added in will work.

Depending on how important it is for you that this area is impressively clean, you may also want a spray bottle full of clean water. You can use this to rinse periodically as you remove dirt and grime.

Most people agree that getting these areas of the car clean is about patience and deciding what you can and can’t live with. For some, a little dirt may be fine as long as the doors have a clean and squeak-free close, for others, nothing short of factory-perfect will do and that will take a bit longer.

Close up of a door jamb with water spots
Dirt Accumulates Here

Headliner

Generally while cleaning you want to work from top to bottom, this will help prevent any just cleaned areas from getting dirty as you continue the cleaning process. With the inside of a car, that means the oft-ignored headliner.

If your car is relatively new, or the headliner is perfect, then you may feel free to skip this step. For those of us who have watched a friend open a can of soda and winced, now’s the time to get that carbonated goodness out of the fabric before it attracts ants because that is absolutely how you get ants.

To clean the headliner, first you’ll do a dry wipe with a soft microfiber cloth. This will help to pull loose any dirt that’s stuck to the fabric, which will cause it to tumble down to the carpet where we’ll clean it up later (starting at the top: critical to cleaning success). As you’re gently brushing the headliner, it’s likely you’ll notice stains you hadn’t before. Make a note of where these are for the next step.

Spray a small amount of cleaner on the clean side of your microfiber cloth. You can either use a dedicated upholstery cleaner or use the vinegar solution from before (it’s good for a lot of gentle cleaning tasks).

Gently wipe the fabric, applying only a small amount of cleaner to stains, and then blot them dry. If there are any stubborn stains, you can let the cleaner sit for a few minutes before blotting off.

Inside of Windshield

From the headliner, next you’ll be moving down to clean the glass inside your car. There are a lot of questions about what the secret is to streak-free interior windshield cleaning, and we think we’ve found it.

Use a microfiber cloth or a duster with an arm to do a dry wipe of your windshield before ever reaching for the glass cleaner. This removes a truly terrifying amount of dirt and dust that normally just gets moved around with the cleaner, creating unsightly (and dangerous) streaks and swirls.

By removing the dirt first, you ensure that your cleaning step can focus on cleaning, rather than dust removal.

From there, spray a little glass cleaner on the clean side of the microfiber cloth, then proceed to wipe down in slow and even motions. Repeat on all other glass surfaces of the car, including tricky little places like the mirrors inside of the visors and the rearview mirror. These are the spots that will really show the difference between a quick vacuum job and a detail-focused interior cleaning.

Some professionals have recommended wiping either horizontally or vertically on the inside of the glass and then wiping the opposite way on the outside, that way if you see streaks you’ll know for sure which side of the glass needs a touch-up. This is great advice if you physically can implement it. The truth of it is that getting that microfiber cloth down into the itty bitty corner between the dash and the glass is going to be a bit of a challenge for most people, so we recommend getting in there in whatever direction happens to work out physically for you.

Cleaning the Hard Plastic Parts

Most of what you’ll be cleaning on the interior of a car is hard plastic. The window and door lock controls, the steering wheel, and the dash all have a tendency to collect dust, oil, and anything else that might be on your hands when you touch your car. These are consistently proven to be the dirtiest parts of your car, but some people never clean them in the entire life of their car.

You’ll want a couple of brushes for this process. An old shaving brush, or similarly sized soft-bristled brush, works great for areas like the window controls, but a cheap tiny paintbrush will work best for cleaning out the air vents or getting into very hard to reach places. Q-tips can also be very useful here. If your steering wheel has a central logo or you’re trying to clean around the ignition (you should), a q-tip can reach places and grab on to dirt that is difficult to access any other way.

It’s also recommended that you do get a car interior specific cleaner. You’ll want one that doesn’t leave behind a lot of shine or an oily residue since those have a tendency to make a car nastier than it was before it started. You can use your white vinegar solution with a drop or two of dishwashing detergent for routine cleanings, but at least a couple of times a year you’ll want to use an interior spray designed for long term protection.

In particular, a UV protectant is the gold standard for cleaning your interior hard plastics and will not only get them clean but also help to keep them from getting discolored in the sunlight and help prevent cracking. One that also is “anti-static” will help make sure that you get to really enjoy your handiwork for a longer time before dust resettles.

Throughout the process you’ll basically isolate a quadrant (sitting in each seat and cleaning the areas proximal to that seat is the easiest process), spray cleaner onto your brush, and then work the brush across a small section of the surface as though you were lathering your car up for an old fashioned shave.

Then, once the foam has grabbed all the bits of dirt and oil, wipe it away with a microfiber cloth. This is where buying light-colored microfiber cloths is a lot of fun since you can then see all the grossness you just flushed out of your car and feel a sense of satisfaction.

Make sure to wipe the brush off frequently, or else you’ll simply be moving the dirt around.

For larger sections of plastic, like the dash, you can spray the cleaner onto a cloth and wipe down.

Always spray onto a brush or cloth, never on to the actual surface. This will help keep you from using too much and getting overwhelmed with an avalanche of foamy suds and will keep the residual spray from settling onto parts you’ve already cleaned, or worse, your windows.

Hand wiping down dash with microfiber cloth
Wiping Down the Dash

Interior Carpet

Vacuum up everything you can first. This will help prevent you from grinding anything into your carpet and will help remove the worst of the debris from your car.

Use a mild carpet cleaner or your vinegar solution on your carpets. For a little extra odor removal, you can add a small amount of baking soda.

Use small manageable spritzes of your carpet cleaner, the last thing you want is to soak your carpet and develop some mildew funkiness. Ultimately it’s better to blot up multiple small spritzes than to soak and then try to blot.

You can either use a shop vac to suction the carpet cleaner out, or else press a towel down to absorb the excess liquid. You don’t want to rub, because you’ll compromise the carpet fibers and possibly make the dirt situation worse.

Deep Cleaning Carpet and Upholstery

If you’re lucky enough to have a small portable carpet cleaner or a steamer, this is a great opportunity to use it, but if not you can still do a great job with a little extra elbow grease.

The most important thing with carpet is not to use anything too stiff or brush it too hard. Though that seems to get it clean faster, it also tears the twists of carpet fabric that are responsible for keeping it tough.

Interior sprays are available for carpet, and if yours is heavily stained you may need to invest in one. These do work, and they work well, but they also create some headache-inducing fumes, so afterward you may want to sprinkle baking soda across your carpet, let it sit for a few hours, and then vacuum it up. That will usually help to deal with the worst of the odors.

Seats

You’ll want to clean your seats last because you’ll be sitting in them for the rest of the process and as you’ve likely noticed, you’re picking up a fair amount of dirt yourself.

Much like with your carpets, you’ll want to vacuum absolutely every bit of debris that you can prior to doing any kind of scrubbing. If you’re using a vacuum with a hose attachment, the small angular hose head is the right tool to use in this situation since it can easily glide along stitches and seams where crumbs and dirt tend to accumulate.

Once you’ve finished, you can use the same water/vinegar solution that you used on your carpet on your seat. If you have some particularly tough stains, like from coffee for example, you can add a drop or two of plain dishwashing liquid to help with stain removal.

As with the carpet, you’ll want to blot to remove excess liquid. Some recommend rinsing afterward with a clear water solution, this is optional. The vinegar smell will fade naturally and take any odors with it, but some find the smell overwhelming. Either way, though blotting alone was enough for the carpet, you’ll want to use a blow dryer on the seat upholstery since it’s significantly thicker. Use a low setting to avoid damaging the seats.

Milk Stains

Unfortunately, if you’re the type of person who likes a little milk in their coffee, or even accidentally dumped a latte out in your car, you’ll need to go through a couple of extra cleaning steps to make sure that you get that sour milk smell out of your car.

The safest method (and one we recommend strongly) is just to use a baking soda water paste and apply directly to the stain. Leave on for thirty minutes then remove with cool water in blotting motions.

If that still doesn’t work, then it’s time to break out the truly nuclear solution: Glass cleaner.

It’s important to mention here that glass cleaner has ammonia in it. That means that if you have used any bleach in your cleaning process do not add glass cleaner. It forms a gaseous poison that can knock you unconscious and cause serious breathing problems.

Test the glass cleaner on a small piece of your car seat that’s easy to hide to make sure the color you have is color-safe against ammonia. If it is, then go ahead and saturate your stain, leave it to soak and loosen it up for a few minutes, and then blot it dry.

Stained seats in an older Mustang
Seats Look Better Clean

Cleaning Leather Seats

In some ways, leather is a lot easier to clean than cloth. It’s one of the reasons it’s such a desirable and premium interior. Unfortunately, it has some weaknesses that cloth doesn’t.

A leather specific cleaner is always going to be the preferred go-to, but a cloth sprayed with a water/dish soap mixture can be used to blot at stains, which with any luck will be less stubborn than they would be on cloth.

The most important thing to remember after cleaning leather seats is that you’ll need to recondition them. If any leather gets dried out it tends to crack. You should be treating your leather seats with a good conditioner periodically anyway, since it will help to keep them from getting severe stains in the future as well.

Finishing Up

If you’ve used a lot of cleaning sprays in your car and the odor is threatening to put you on the ground, then it may be a good time to use the same odor preventing technique you’re likely using in your fridge right now. A simple box of baking soda can be opened and left to absorb odors. Considering this wonder odor-absorbing chemical costs less than a dollar a box, it’s a pretty solid investment that has any number of uses.

After everything dries, you’ll want to look around for spots or streaks that you’ve missed.

Then, it’s time to put everything back in the car, re-adjust your seats and mirrors and enjoy the hard work you just put into your car.

If the seat or steering wheel was especially challenging this round, you might consider getting seat and steering wheel covers in order to preserve your work. It’s also worthwhile to get a duster so that you can periodically remove dirt before it builds up to horrifying levels.

Interior detailing can make your car more enjoyable to ride in, and keep small spills from becoming set-in stains in the future. The more frequently you do this, the less challenging each individual cleaning will be, and the less likely it will be that you’ll have to spend your entire weekend cleaning years’ worth of goop out of your car.

Interior of a cleaned first gen Mach 1
What’s Better Than a Clean Classic?

Image Credit: Alternative Daily, Home Depot, Hemmings, AutoTrader

Interior Detailing Step-By-Step

Cleaning your car’s interior can be a rewarding afternoon’s work, and by taking care of your car inside and out you ensure that you’ll be able to enjoy your car for years to come.

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