The Dos and Don’ts of Cleaning Your Car

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to isolate. Airplanes, trains, buses, ridesharing services, and cabs have become a more risky way to get around, leaving our personal automobiles the safest way to travel, as long as we keep your car clean.

My wife and I live in NYC and after seven years of not keeping a car in the city, we decided it was now worth it to brave the hell that is NYC street parking. So, as any good city dwellers would do, we bought a cute little city car, a 2015 Mini Countryman S. The harsh reality of street parking in a major city is that your car will get shamefully dirty, if not worse… not to mention with the amount of time we now spend in our car getting take out and running upstate for a hike, the interior can quickly match the grimy exterior. This is not acceptable. Our cars are doing the heavy lifting for us in a time when we need them most. Let’s show them our appreciation by not only maintaining them mechanically but making sure they are cleaned properly as well. 

Taking care of the exterior

John Branscomb washes his car in the Barney Circle neighborhood in Washington, DC, on August 30, 2020.
Guy cleaning car | Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

What you’ll need: a clean water source, a bucket, a microfiber washing cloth, sponge, or mitten, and car washing soap (not household detergents) 

Start with water. Spray your whole car down – Hose water will do just fine. Once the car is free from any surface particles (i.e. dust, pollen, mud, bird poop, etc) you can get ready for the soap. Mix some of the soap and water in your bucket (pro-tip: a little soap goes a long way). Once you have the soapy mixture, soak your microfiber cloth or sponge in the soapy water and apply liberally.

Once you have scrubbed every inch, get your hose back out and wash ALL the soap off completely. Grab your dry microfiber cloth and dry the car completely to avoid spots and streaking. Don’t let any water spots dry on the car. Finally, step back and enjoy how happy your ride looks.

Cleaning your car’s interior 

What you’ll need: multiple microfiber cloths, glass cleaner containing alcohol, alcohol-based surface cleaner, a vacuum, and a small paintbrush or toothbrush.

Interior cleaning is a bit more intensive and takes a little longer, but its where you spend the majority of your time, making it the most important part. 

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Start by taking out your floor mats. If they are cloth, take them away from your freshly cleaned car and beat them to get all the dirt and fine dust out. After a few good hits, use the vacuum (I keep a small battery-powered one in my car).

Once you’ve done the front and back mats, start on the seats. Whether cloth or leather, use the vacuum until all visible dirt comes up. For cloth seats, you are free to use a little warm water and soap to scrub stains in the seats. If you have leather seats, use a leather cleaner/conditioner (pro-tip: stay away from alcohol or ammonia-based cleaners on leather to avoid drying it out).

For these hard surfaces that are higher touchpoints, Consumer Reports suggests using alcohol cleaner with a microfiber rag. Do not use paper products of any kind; they will deteriorate and leave behind lint. Anything 70 percent alcohol or higher will also sufficiently disinfect these surfaces as well. Consider other places like door handles, shifter, and stereo knobs. If any of these surfaces are leather or some other type of sensitive material, see leather seat care. 

Windows cleaning? Check

This one is extra important. Your windows and windshield, in particular, will gather tiny particles over time that can eventually obscure a driver’s vision with smudges and blurriness in instances when other drivers have their headlights on.

Use one of your rags with non-ammonia-based glass cleaner applied to the rag, not the glass. Wipe down glass surfaces with the damp rag and take a dry rag to get any leftover cleaner off the glass. If you have never cleaned the inside of your windows/windshield, you might be shocked at how dramatically it improves vision (pro-tip: spray glass cleaner on the rag, not the windshield to avoid getting harsh chemicals on sensitive surfaces). 

Keeping the vents clear

Wipe down and disinfect your air conditioning vents. Using a toothbrush or paintbrush, you can wipe down the smaller, hard-to-reach areas in between. Obviously, you can carry this into other hard-to-reach areas on the dash or elsewhere. 

Infotainment screens

While not every car has an infotainment screen to clean, they are getting more and more popular. These screens can be sensitive, so do not clean them with normal glass cleaner. Consumer Reports suggests using Isopropyl Alcohol on a microfiber rag to gently clean fingerprints and smudges from these screens.

Our cars have become more than just vehicles during this time of COVID-19. They are a safe space where we can leave our crowded cities and get somewhere quiet and peaceful. These are not trivial things. In times like this, these are the moments of real value. Our cars have been good to us. Let’s show them our appreciation by keeping them clean.