How to clean and sanitise your car interior

Published: 08 April 2020

► Cleaning your car cuts the risk
► Household products are fine  - even soap and water
► Can you remember all the places you touched?  

The roads are quiet, and food shops, strangely packed; the impact of Covid-19 on daily life in Britain is still in early days, yet it feels like a different world. No-one wants it to continue - and keeping the virus at bay dominates everyone's thoughts.

Public transport has proven to be a veritable petridish of peril, particular for London's committed commuters, but the car's a risky space too. From your friends and family, to the workshop and MOT centre, who has touched your car in the past month - or since you last cleaned it?

How many people have touched your car since the pandemic began?

Chances are, though, unless you're a key worker you've got a bit of time on your hands. What better time to give your car a bit of a spruce up?

Further reading: coronavirus and the car world

When you're next making an essential trip and need to get fuel, check out the automatic car wash - or jet wash. If it's working, brilliant - hand car washes are unlikely to be able to keep trading at the moment, so you're going to have to remember how to aim that jet lance. On the plus side, now you get to enjoy your pride and joy from the outside, rather than drifting into hypnosis as bubbles float down the windscreen - before a gloved hand splats a tired sponge into your field of view...

Top tip: now's a great chance to make sure all the drain holes are clear if you're not likely to be using the car much. Autumn's leaves and winter's damp can leave some revolting gunk in there, so check clear water runs out under the car. Prod your air conditioning drain too - it'll make for a musty awakening if it's blocked.

If you don't have some already, grab some easy to apply car polish and microfibre cloths. If you do have some - you know what to do!

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Make sure the car's dry, and follow the directions to polish the exterior. It's logical to focus on the door handles and other touch points, but also bear in mind if you're using the car less, then things like bird droppings and tree sap might have longer to burn into the paint; that's the main reason for waxing right now.

Cleaning door handles should be a priority - you don't know who has tried them

Once you're done with the outside, it's time to get to the grubby stuff. Give the car a vacuum out - we like the Dyson V8 for cordless ease of use; we'd also recommend wearing disposable gloves as you'll be leaning on bits of the car that other people have touched, but you haven't cleaned yet.

And Don't Touch Your Face...

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At a glance: Top tips

  • Wash hands after touching your car. Or anything, really, that could be contaminated
  • Lockdown leaves a lot of spare time - so give your car one deep clean, then it's easier to stay on top of contact sanitising
  • Anti-microbial surfaces like steering wheels are good - but the dirt that builds up on them doesn't share the ability
  • Dislodge dirt with water/brushes before getting into cleaning, if you can
  • UV light is used for sterilisation - and it's free. Dry in sunlight, it helps, but it's not proven to remove Covid-19 
  • When it comes down to it, you want 70% isopropyl alcohol - but don't let it rest on surfaces, only use enough that it will evaporate quickly
  • Don't panic. As long as you haven't shared the car with someone infected, it should be a safe place
  • Don't forget to clean up after passengers
  • Covid-19 appears to survive the longest on hard surfaces
  • These are all guidelines - Covid-19 knowledge is evolving daily

Which cleaning products are safe to use on my car interior?

Water is safe on everything in small amounts, and you can remove dry dirt by brushing and vacuuming first. In order of preference, go with specialist products for car cleaning if you've got some - particularly for leather or wood finishes - then look for anything with water, 70% isopropyl alcohol, and as little extra as possible.

Use some drops of antibacterial gel after cleaning - if you have some

If you can only get 99% IPA (rubbing alcohol, not pale ale) then order a couple of bottles of distilled water for battery top-ups or irons and dilute it.

Halfords and Amazon can still deliver cleaning and maintenance products; you're not limited to what supermarkets might have in stock. You'll also find the less-obvious industrial wipes (builders' wipes and so forth) haven't been cleaned our as rapidly as the household ones. Almost goes without saying that regardless of what's on the box, the wipe and the solvents are just the same, though the scents might be less refined...

Got some hand sanitiser? That's the best thing for giving your car a quick wipe down between uses - apply it to a microfibre towel first, or a kitchen towel in a pinch. Even if it leaves little fibres behind, they've been disinfected...

Don't forget the seat handles on two-door cars

For most situations - this is enough after you've deep-cleaned your car; take a look at this list that Toyota created for preparing their cars between drivers to see just how many places you need to look at, though:

1 Exterior door handles
2 Frame of door and roof
3 Interior door release
4 Window switches
5 Interior door handle
6 Door pocket
7 Seatbelts
8 Seatbelt clips
9 Seat adjust buttons
10 Steering wheel
11 Horn
12 Control stalks
13 Driver air vents
14 Dashboard
15 Power button
16 Gear shift
17 Multimedia screen
18 Central air vents
19 Heating controls
20 Glovebox
21 Log book
22 Central storage compartment
23 Cupholders
24 Rear-view mirror
25 Interior lights
26 Grab handle
27 Key
28 Head rests
29 Seat pockets
30 Rear central tab
31 Fuel cap
32 Wheel valves
33 Boot lid
34 Parcel shelf
35 Boot floor tab
36 Boot close button
37 Bonnet lid
38 Washer cap
39 Dipstick
40 Oil cap

If it's been a while since the car was last cleaned, going over some of the controls and trim with more detail is worthwhile. Built-up dirt provides an easier surface for things like sneezes to adhere to.

Are you stalking me? Switches, handles and levers, too

How many stalks are on your car that you might overlook when cleaning

Remember when Mercedes gave you one stalk? This 2017 C-Class (Parkers' long-termer) has four stalks, two paddles and a plethora of dashboard buttons; only the steering wheel adjuster escapes attention on most drives.

Textured finishes on controls build up grease and dirt, holding contaminants even on anti-microbial finishes. Does it look like the markings on your controls have worn off, or the gate pattern on your gearlever's obscured? It's probably muck. Designs are better now, but you probably remember that discovery that all the white letters on your first Astra GTE were still there - just disguised by grease - before wanting to steamclean the whole car...

Dirty car stalk

To get dust and muck of of fiddly window controls, you can get some neat gel cleaners - they look like slime and are designed to lift crumbs and worse from inside laptop keyboards and the like, and they're perfect for getting into heater, multimedia and similarly awkward places.

Push down, and give them a few seconds to soak up any stickier bits of debris before carefully lifting away. If a bit breaks off, don't worry - it just dries up and flakes off harmlessly. Most are quite robust though, and can be used many times.

Cleaning gel gets under window switches and similar

There's no disinfectant in these, so once all the dirt is lifted, wipe over with your antibacterial products - or soap & water on a cloth, before a second wipe with just water.

Really awkward textures and recessed controls can be got at with specialist cleaning tools.

Or a toothbrush. Oscillating electric ones may feel like overkill, but used gently (no pressure) they will remove dirt very effectively without damaging the majority of car surfaces. Be sparing with the water though, as this does encourage it into gaps and potentially, electrical contacts.

Toothbrush cleaning Mercedes stalks

Got some Dettol surface cleaner? That's usable all around the car if you apply it to the cloth first; don't spray it directly. Products with bleach should be avoided at all costs, though.

Once cleaned, pat-dry with a microfibre cloth. You can keep colour-coded ones for cleaning and finishing (boilwash to reuse them, if you want the optimum anti-bacterial regime), and then wipe again with your antibacterial wipes or gel. Now you've got a factory fresh, clean control ready to use.

Grubby stalks on a Mercedes Benz

On modern cars, you may not use the handbrake much - but don't forget it. You'll be amazed at how grubby even a recently valeted, newish car can be on those important places.

Even 'clean' looking multimedia controls can hide dirt

Seats, doors and handles - the forgotten areas

All those controls up front are easy to remember. What about when the kids were in the back of the car on the way back from school? Or when you had to move a two-door car's seats forward?

What do you rest on when you get in the car?

Children and adults alike will hold onto the seat, window frames and trim when getting in and out of the car, so don't forget to get those areas with the wipes or spray and cloth.

Gloves: Good, but not essential

Most of these pictures lack gloves, but we do recommend using them. You'll be okay if you don't have any, as long as you avoiding touching your face, and wash your hands thorough. Most viruses, including COVID-19, have the easiest access though your facial orifices.

Double bag your cleaning products by using a glove as a bag

Double-bag your disposable cleaning products, particularly if you've shared your car. Remove gloves by hooking your thumb inside the opposite glove, and turning it inside-out without touching the outside. Let it snap for that full Rocky Horror Picture Show vibe, if you're feeling flambouyant.

You can also minimise waste a bit by throwing away your tissues/wipes inside the gloves...

There's no disinfectant in the shops - what can I use?

Soap and water, the milder the soap the better - perfume and additives aren't great for all finishes, and washing-up liquid is really harsh.

If you want to feel you've done more, UV light is a proven sterilising technique, and as spring gets underway there's a decent amount of it available free. Dry the car with it parked in direct sunlight, with windows/sunroof or roof open where safe to do so.

Above all, even making a small effort is better than ignoring the risks entirely.

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By Richard Kilpatrick

Technology writer and photographer since the early '90s, now car-obsessed, too

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