Step-by-Step Guide to Detailing Your Car’s Interior

Step-by-Step Guide to Detailing Your Car’s Interior

Last Updated April 26, 2022 | Meghan Drummond
Contents

Many drivers practically live in their cars, and with that comes a lot of dirt, stains, dust, and debris. A dirty interior makes it hard to feel good about your ride. Some interior nuisances can also morph into permanent issues that reduce your vehicle's value and driveability. That's why it's so important to regularly detail your car's interior.

Interior detailing is an important maintenance task. But it's also a great way to give your ride a little extra love before a meet-up or a long road trip. These steps are easy to follow and can be a great way to enjoy your vehicle on a nice day.

Getting Started

A good interior detailing can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. The major determiner of time is going to be how dirty your interior is. Unlike exterior detailing, you don't need to wait for the perfect day. Just maybe pick a day above freezing so your window cleaner doesn't turn to ice.

Before you get started, you'll need to do a more general clean-up. Remove everything from your ride, throw away the trash, and put everything else in a container. Remember to move your seats to pick up underneath as well.

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.

Interior Detailing Supplies

Interior detailing doesn't require anything super special in terms of supplies. But you'll still want to collect everything you need in advance, and there are a few extras that can make the job easier.

This list includes 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. The more you clean out your car, the more you'll figure out what works for you.

  • Microfiber towels (waffle weave for glass)
  • Terry cloth towels or junk rags
  • Q-tips
  • Vacuum
  • Carpet shampooer/extractor
  • Carpet brush
  • Soft detailing brushes (varying sizes)
  • All-purpose cleaner
  • Glass cleaner
  • Leather cleaner (if applicable)
  • Fabric or carpet cleaner
  • Anti-static UV protectant spray

Step 1: Scrub Your Floor Mats

Removing and cleaning your floor mats first is a smart idea. By the time you're finished with the rest of your detailing, the mats will be dry and ready to go back in.

Rubber Floor Mat Cleaning

Spraying down rubber floor mats with a pressure washer

To clean rubber floor mats, you'll need a soft-bristled brush and a rubber-safe cleaner. Technically, any degreaser (like dish soap or Simple Green) will work. But if you have nice mats, a dedicated floor mat cleaner is a worthwhile investment. Cleaners like Chemical Guys' Mat Renew will include UV protectants. It'll also work to get your mats clean while preserving their non-slippery finish.

First, rinse your mats. Then apply soap with the brush. When you feel like you've got the dirt loose, rinse with cool water again. Then, dry with a microfiber towel.

If that sounds easy, it's because it is. One of the biggest advantages of rubber floor mats is how easy they are to clean.

Carpet Floor Mat Cleaning

Carpeted 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.

Cleaning a sudsy carpet floor mat with a brush

If you find using a carpet brush and vacuum at once to be too much of a hassle, you can also use a dustpan and brush. You'll brush the crumbs, fibers, and dirt into 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, a dedicated carpet cleaner is your best option. A lot of people have also had success with white vinegar mixed with water. It's important to be careful with this because vinegar is acidic. It can damage your carpet fibers, and make them harder to clean in the future. A lot of people also find the smell objectionable.

A small steam cleaner or carpet shampooer can work very well for this task. Though you'll likely still need carpet shampoo to really get everything clean. For the filthiest carpets, you can use a drill brush and carpet shampoo to agitate deep stains. Then, use a carpet shampooer with just water to extract the cleaning solution and dirt from the fibers.

One of the most important things to remember with carpeted floor mats is to let them dry thoroughly before you reinsert them.

Step 2: Wipe Down the Door Jambs and Sills

The door sills and jambs are some of the dirtiest parts of your car. And they almost never get cleaned because they're not really inside or outside. 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. It'll also keep you from accidentally tracking dirt into your car later on.

Side by side comparison of a dirty door jamb and a clean door jamb

Microfiber cloths are fine for this job, but if your microfiber supply is limited, any old rag will do. Depending on the severity of the gunk you'll clean up, you may need to trash whatever rags you use here.

A heavy-duty trim cleaner is your best bet for getting all of the grime off in one go. Even with this hardcore cleaner, you'll need to use a brush to work the cleaner into all the nooks and crannies. If you don't have a specialized cleaner, then any good degreaser is fine.

Depending on how spotless you want this area to be, you may also want a spray bottle full of clean water. You can use this to rinse periodically as you remove dirt and grime.

Step 3: Clean the Headliner

Much like washing a car's exterior, you'll want to start your interior detailing at the top and work your way down. That means we'll be starting with the headliner. Though this area is often ignored, getting it clean is usually pretty easy.

Picture of a spotless tan headliner

Because of how fragile the headliner is, it's one of the few parts we don't recommend vacuuming. Instead, wipe your headliner while it's still dry with a soft microfiber cloth. This will pull loose any dirt that's stuck to the fabric. It will probably fall into the carpet, but that's where we'll clean it up later (and why we're starting at the top).

As you're brushing the headliner, you'll probably notice stains you hadn't before. To remove them, apply cleaner to your microfiber cloth and gently blot the stains until they're clean. In general, you should use a fabric or carpet cleaner for this. But depending on the stain, you may need to refer to our stain FAQ.

Headliner is easy to damage, so be gentle and patient through this process. If yours is already damaged, then you may want to repair your headliner first.

Step 4: Clean the Inside Glass

Next you'll be cleaning all of the glass inside your car. And if you're looking for the secret to a streak-free windshield, we think we've found it.

Cleaning the glass on a car's rearview mirror

Use a microfiber cloth or a duster with an arm to do a dry wipe of your windshield and windows 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 streaks and swirls.

From there, spray a little glass cleaner on the clean side of a microfiber cloth (preferably waffle weave). Proceed to wipe in slow and even motions. Repeat on all other glass surfaces of the car, including the vanity mirrors, rearview mirror, and gauge cluster. 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 can physically do it. The truth is, getting that microfiber cloth down into the tiny gap between the dash and the glass is going to be a challenge for most people. We recommend wiping your windshield clean in whatever way works for you.

Step 5: Vacuum Out Your Ride

The vacuum is one of the most useful tools you'll have at your disposal. Now that the headliner and glass are out of the way, it's a good time to vacuum the rest of the interior. Like wiping down the windows, this removes dust and debris so it doesn't get ground in while you're cleaning.

Vacuuming the carpet floor of a car

Making good use of the attachments can make your detailing go smoother. Here are some quick tips:

  • Use the bristle-brush head for cleaning your hard plastic parts. This includes the dash, the top of the console, and your window/door lock controls. The bristles will help to pull loose some of the dust.
  • Use the longer angled attachment to get into hard-to-reach places, like behind your pedals, under your seat tracks, or anywhere you need an extra couple inches. This is also the correct attachment for the stitches and seams in your seat.
  • Use the flat attachment to pull dirt from any fabric places. This includes your seats, your carpet, and possibly your door panels. You may want to also break out a brush if you're dealing with any pet hair issues.

Step 6: Dust and Disinfect the Dash and Console

Cleaning the dash, steering wheel, console, and other plastic parts of your vehicle is one of the most important detailing steps. These parts collect dust and oil since they're touched so frequently. They're consistently proven to be the dirtiest parts of your car, but some people never clean them once.

Dusting the dash with a green microfiber cloth

In terms of bacteria, your dash is as dirty as a toilet. But unlike your toilet, you probably rest your bare hands (or even food) on your dash. So, it's time to clean like your life depends on it.

Detailing brushes are some of the most important tools for this process. You'll want a variety of sizes. Tiny brushes can access hard-to-reach places, but you'll want a larger soft-bristled brush to clean off the dash display and air vents.

An interior detailing spray is important for this part of the cleanup. A lot of general-purpose cleaners can leave behind a shiny or oily residue. This makes your dash more likely to cling to dust and dirt. Plus, you can get a weird reflection off the windshield.

Finally, you'll want to apply a good UV protectant. A UV protectant is the gold standard for cleaning your interior hard plastics. It'll not only get them clean, but it also helps keep surfaces from getting discolored or cracking. An “anti-static” protectant will help repel dust so you can enjoy your hard work a little longer.

A Note On Process

Picture your vehicle's interior split into four quadrants. As you sit in each seat (or quadrant), just focus on cleaning all of the areas you can touch from there.

Using a detailing brush to clean a car's air vents

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. It'll also keep the residual spray from settling onto parts you've already cleaned, or worse, your windows.

For larger sections, like the dash, you can spray the cleaner onto a cloth and wipe it down. For most sections though, you'll need to do some brushwork to get into the nooks and crannies.

Work the brush across a small section of your interior. Think of this as lathering your car up for a shave.

Once the foam has built up, wipe it away with a microfiber cloth. You'll also want to periodically wipe your brush off on your cloth, so you're not just moving dirt around.

When you're finished with each piece, wipe with a clean microfiber.

Step 7: Clean the Vehicle's Carpet

Since you've already vacuumed, cleaning your carpet should be relatively straightforward. But if your work on the dash and trim created more mess, go ahead and vacuum it up.

Carpet cleaning can be divided into light, medium, and heavy-duty based on the state of your carpeting and what you're hoping to accomplish.

Light cleaning is perfect for carpet that's unstained but just needs a little maintenance. Apply small spritzes of carpet cleaner to a microfiber towel and press down on your carpet. You don't want to drench the carpet, since moisture can lead to mildew or other issues.

Scrubbing a car's soapy carpet with a wooden brush

If you don't know when you last cleaned your carpet, then it's probably time for a medium cleaning. This is perfect for getting out ground-in dirt, bits of hair or food, or any other hidden grossness.

Use a brush and carpet shampoo to agitate and lift out dirt that's beneath the surface. If brushing the entire carpet sounds like a lot, there is an easier way. Drill brushes attach to your drill, so with a button press, you can spin the brush quickly. Think of this as an electric toothbrush. It's not doing anything you couldn't have on your own, but it's very fast and very easy.

Use a carpet cleaner or microfiber cloth to extract the fouled soap, which takes the dirt with it. What's left behind should be a clean carpet.

Heavy cleaning is just like medium cleaning, only with a stiffer brush. You'll still want to be careful to select one made for carpet so that none of your carpet fibers are torn.

You can also use a steam cleaner or dedicated portable carpet cleaner to make deep cleaning a little bit easier.

Step 8: Clean the 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.

After vacuuming, there shouldn't be any debris left behind. Do a quick double-check of the seams and make sure all crumbs have been sucked up.

How to Clean Fabric Car Seats

Scrubbing a car's soapy cloth driver's seat with a wooden brush

If you have fabric seats, the process for cleaning them is going to be similar to cleaning carpets. A good brush will help you pull dirt free from stitches and seams.

If you have to use a lot of cleaning fluid, you may want to use a hairdryer. Keeping the fabric and seat foam dry is crucial for preventing the spread of mildew. Just use a low setting to avoid any damage.

How to Clean Leather Car Seats

Cleaning a leather driver's seat with leather cleaner

Leather seats are usually much easier to clean (one of the reasons they're so desirable), but you'll need to use a dedicated leather cleaner. Leather degrades when exposed to bleach or ammonia, two common ingredients in cleaners.

Apply cleanser to a microfiber towel and then wipe down the leather surface. Letting leather air dry can lead to cracking, so wipe it down again with a second, dry microfiber towel.

Leather requires periodic conditioning to protect it from UV damage. Condition your leather seats to keep them soft, pliable, and protected from stains and fading over time.

Step 9: Finish Up

If you've used a lot of cleaning sprays and the smell is overpowering, open up the windows and air out your vehicle. The fresh air will also help dry out any remaining damp spots on your fabric seats or carpet.

After everything dries, you'll want to look around for dirt spots or streaky glass you might've missed. If you used a glossy UV protectant on the plastic surfaces and dash, make sure there's uniform coverage.

Once you're satisfied, put everything back in the car, re-adjust your seats and mirrors, and enjoy the hard work you just put into your car.

Interior Detailing FAQs

How often should you detail your interior?

For most people, once every 4-6 months is perfect. But you may also choose to do a detailing after a road trip, before a car show, or any time you want your ride to look its best. The great thing about frequent detailing is that the more often you do it, the less time it takes.

Should you use a professional detailer?

Professional detailers have access to higher-end products and the experience required to do an amazing job. They can take a car from gross to nearly new. But interior detailing can cost more than $300. Especially if your carpeting has gum stuck in it or you want to request a sanitizing treatment.

Though there's no true substitute for professional detailing, you can do a great job cleaning your car on your own. Even if you do get your car professionally detailed, periodic self-cleans can help extend the results of a professional detailing so you can wait longer before your next one.

Can you make your own all-purpose cleaner?

Many people opt to make their own cleaner with vinegar, water, and sometimes a little dish soap. This is a really good cleaner for many things, but its acidity makes it less than ideal for most vehicular applications. It'll work fine for blasting out your cup holder, but it will damage surfaces like leather. If you choose to use this as an all-purpose cleaner you'll want a 1-to-1 ratio of vinegar to water with a couple drops of dish soap.

How do you remove bad smells from a car?

While there are great air fresheners available that can cover up almost any scent, getting rid of the source is a little bit harder. Baking soda is an effective odor eliminator. This is because baking soda can act as either an acidic or basic chemical substance, which allows it to neutralize either.

Sprinkle baking soda on carpet or upholstery, let it sit, and then vacuum it up. Nothing bad can happen from letting the baking soda sit “too long,” so wait until the smell improves. You can also use a box of baking soda to absorb odors.

What's the best way to get pet hair out of car seats and carpet?

Pet hair is notoriously difficult to deal with. While sticky lint rollers can do a great job, you might make yourself broke buying new rolls. A reusable pet hair remover, like a textured fabric or rubber brush, is a better investment. As a bonus, you can also wipe off your clothes.

How do you remove tough stains from fabric seats and carpeting?

There are a lot of different substances that can leave stains in a car, and they're all a little different. A dedicated stain lifter can work wonders, but there are other stain fighters that can work surprisingly well.

One solution that works on a variety of stains is a baking soda paste. Just mix baking soda with water, apply to the stained area, work in with a soft brush, and then blot away.

Milk stains are particularly challenging to deal with. Glass cleaner is a simple way to break down the protein that makes it so difficult to clean up.

Whenever you're trying a solution to remove stains, remember to check the fabric-safeness on a small, discrete area.

Can you ceramic coat a car's interior?

Ceramic coatings have been hugely popular for car exteriors. These protective coatings extend the life of an exterior detailing, keeping the paint looking shiny for longer. You can read more about ceramic coatings here.

It's no surprise that people want these benefits for their interior as well. Ceramic interior sprays create a hydrophobic barrier to protect carpets and other interior fabrics from stains. Unlike exterior ceramic coatings, which require a precise application, most interior sprays are just that. Sprays. You apply once your interior is clean to add a little extra stain protection.

Keeping Your Car Clean

The better you get at cleaning up messes as they appear, the less challenging each detailing will be. Get a duster so that you can remove dirt before it builds up to horrifying levels. Or keep a spare waffle weave towel in the glovebox to clean your windshield while you're waiting in the drive-through line.

Another good way to keep your interior clean is to prepare for your daily uses. Having a place to keep your trash or organizers for your odds and ends can keep your interior looking great.

If your seats or steering wheel tend to be the grossest thing you clean, consider getting seat and steering wheel covers to cut down on work later. A little bit of effort every now and then will keep you from having to spend your entire weekend cleaning months' worth of filth out of your car.

Meghan Author Photo

About the Author

Meghan is a Classic Mustang geek with a soft spot for four-eyed Foxes. She has over 300 in-depth articles to her credit that have been cited by some of the top news sites in the US. Read full bio →

This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.

Step-by-Step Guide to Detailing Your Car’s Interior

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.