In this guide we will cover the basics of cleaning a vehicle’s interior. We will not cover “disaster details”, or a vehicle with high dirt level. This guide is orientated for a maintained vehicle, higher dirt levels might require additional steps.
At the end of this article, you will find a list of common surfaces and materials found during interior detailing and how to clean them.
The first step of an interior detail is getting all the potential junk, and loose material out of the vehicle. This also includes your floor mats.
The second step is to vacuum out your vehicle. On fabric use a brush to help loosen the dirt and vacuum the dirt out. Movable items in the car like seats, or center console should be adjusted to get to those hard to reach places.
DO NOT REMOVE THE SEATS FROM THE VEHICLE UNLESS YOU ARE A TRAINED PROFESSIONAL – You risk setting off the air bag and accidentally installing the seats incorrectly can risk your life
After vacuuming the vehicle wipe down hard plastic surfaces with a Swiffer or lambs wool duster to remove dust, and light dirt. These two steps can be performed as a maintenance interior clean without going further.
If you do a fabric cleaning (Not covered in this guide) do this before any other interior cleaning as you will get other surfaces dirty again.
If you use an all purpose cleaner, or alkaline interior cleaner you need to do a second wipe with water to ensure the all purpose cleaner is removed from the surface. There is a risk of damage to the surface and chemical burns to your skin
Now it comes to cleaning the surfaces in the vehicle. If your vehicle is only light to medium dirty we recommend a pH neutral interior cleaner or diluted interior safe rinseless wash. On sensitive surfaces use an appropriate towel. We recommend the minx royale or wolf pack. For hard plastic surfaces we recommend a scrub ninja for increased cleaning power. You need to wipe after to remove dirt and product.
Working too wet is a sure way to get mold or electrical gremlins. Spray your cleaner in your towel or scrub ninja and not on the surface
Now that your interior is clean you can dress it with a dressing option of your choice. There are many options going from matte to shiny. Matte has a lower chance of causing road glare, which can be dangerous, and shiny dressings also can attract more dirt. A dressing is not necessary, it is entirely a matter of preference. Many of the supposed benefits, such as UV protection, do not live up to the manufacturer’s claims.
WARNING: IF YOU HAVE A RUBBER FLOOR MAT, MAKE SURE TO USE A NON SLIP DRESSING. IT IS BETTER TO NOT DRESS AT ALL THAN RISK WRECKING DUE TO SLIPPERY SURFACES CAUSED BY MOST DRESSINGS.
Things to watch out for
Steam – steam is rarely useful in the interior detailing world as it can easily damage a lot of surfaces. It can also cause electrical issues, and can allow mold to grow in air ducts. Never use steam on any leather, electronics/infotainment systems, or air ducts. There are plenty of other low-risk methods that clean just as well.
Layered approach to cleaning – To summarize, you want to use the least aggressive cleaning method first to mitigate damage. Sometimes it is better to leave a stain in than be overly aggressive. Stains can set over time and be practically impossible to remove. This is why regular light cleaning is critical.
Water and electronics don’t mix – Building on the advice about steam, you really don’t want to work wet, other wise you risk damage to electronics. Always spray into the towel, and not onto surfaces, otherwise you risk excessive moisture in the interior. Even if spraying onto a towel, avoid spraying near electronics.
Seatbelts and their coating – Seat belts have a special coating that can be damaged by stronger cleaners or aggressive cleaning methods. We recommend using just a damp cloth to wipe down.
Mold – Mold is not something to be tackled without specialized training and equipment and potentially licenses, depending on where you live. It can be difficult to completely remove, posing a serious health risks when it inevitable resurfaces. The mold will continue to grow out of sight. It is generally more advisable to fully replace the interior or total the car rather than risk improper removal. Consult a professional that specializes in mold if you find mold in your vehicle. (Not a professional detailer unless they have licensing specifically for mold. Most do not.)
UV protection – The best UV protection you can get is to garage keep your vehicle, or secondly, shade. UV resistant tint works well and is a good method in high heat climate. UV protection from coating, dressings, or most detailing chemicals has negligible UV resistance at best. Proper UV protection requires either a thick coating (thicker than any of the various detailing coatings), or a non-transparent coating. Detailing chemicals, even ceramic coatings, do not meet either of these requirements. Dressings are for the most part entirely cosmetic.
Leather– Leather is one of the very few non-synthetic materials in your car, and therefore is treated very differently than most things. Leather cleaning from detailing companies are typically sub-par compared to those from dedicated leather companies. We typically trust highly reputable companies such as Colourlock as a reference to go to for leather care advice. Colourlock has a very thorough knowledge base about leather care. We made a guide to make your entry into Leather care easier: Leather Guide.
Alcantara – Alcantara needs to be cleaned very often especially if any finger-fat (e.g. from eating in the car, hand lotion, …) is involved. Otherwise piling will result which requires advanced and risky methods to clean. For general cleaning, an alcantara safe cleaner with a brush followed by a wet wipe is recommended.
Fabric (seat) – This will have its own guide in the future. Make sure to use an extractor or a wet vac with fabric specific chemicals. Rinse thoroughly to ensure no chemical residue is left in the material after cleaning.
Fabric (decorative) – This often has a cardboard backliner, so working as dry as possible is of the essence. A scrub ninja with some safe pH neutral light cleaner followed by a moist wipe-down will do well here. If they’re not dirty, a simple dry-dusting with a microfiber will do.
Plastic – For the most part many plastic surfaces are fairly resistant to most things, a scrub ninja or microfiber with a gentle cleaning agent works well here. If an APC is necessary, use it diluted and remember to wipe down with water afterwards.
Wood– Wood is often painted and can be treated as a painted surface. A mild pH neutral cleaner will do well.
Metal– metal surfaces in the interior can also be cleaning with a microfiber and a light cleaner such as a rinseless wash. If it is bare metal, consider auto-balm to prevent oxidation.
Painted metal– can be treated just like the exterior. Typically cleaned with a rinseless wash and a microfiber.
Piano black– very sensitive surface. Scratches very easily and is to be expected, even with the correct technique, you can only reduce the scratches, not prevent them entirely. The dry step is key here, together with a very soft towel such as the minx royale. A well lubricating cleaner helps as well. The only way to completely prevent scratches is to PPF it.
Screens, displays, head unit covers– Treat the same as piano black, but avoid using strong chemicals. It is best to avoid cleaning head unit covers as they scratch even easier than piano black surfaces. If you have to clean them, make sure to do a very thorough dry clean. Use only the most gentle methods and do not apply pressure when cleaning.
Glass– Technique matters more than what chemical you use. (See our glass cleaning guide.) To prevent streaking, you will need to use less chemical than you think and make sure to buff with a dry microfiber after wiping down. There are also specialized glass cleaning microfibers that work well.
Headliners– Headliners are very sensitive to moisture, and any strong cleaners can destroy the glue that holds it in place in the process of cleaning. Only clean the spots you need with a scrub ninja with a light amount of cleaner. Wipe dry with a towel when finished. Avoid cleaning unless necessary. Get advice on our discord if your headliner needs attention.