Does your messy car make you cringe in shame when you have unexpected passengers? Read on for the best car cleaning tips to un-grunge your car. I’ll show you how to clean a car interior – even if it’s a disgusting mess.
Car Cleaning Tips for Your Out-of-Control Messy Car
I’m not by any stretch a professional car interior detailer. But I am a mom who knows how to rescue a disgustingly messy car, thanks to wayyy too much experience letting my own get out of control.
Like, seriously out of control – I share the details at the end of this post.
Shockingly, I’ve kept my car interior clean for many years now. But I still have flashbacks to those super messy car days. If you want to know how to keep your own car consistently clean all the time, watch for next week’s post on keeping your car interior clean. [UPDATE: This post is live now – you can read how to keep your car clean here]
Meanwhile, let me tell you how to bring your dirty car back from the brink using the best car cleaning tips, hacks, ideas, products and tools I’ve found and used over the years.
- Car Seat Cleaning Tips
- Rescuing Filthy Floor Mats
- Carpet Cleaning
- Cleaning the Vinyl
- Cleaning Car Windows, Mirrors, and Screens
This post may contain affiliate links. For my full disclosure policy, click here. As an Amazon Associate (and from other affiliates) I earn from qualifying purchases. This doesn’t cost you anything extra and means this blog may break even someday. Who knows? It could happen…
How to Clean a Really Messy Car
Okay, so let’s get to my dirty car rescue methods.
#1 First, we’ll (and by we, I mean you – I’m tired) shovel out your messy car.
#2 Then we’ll clean it one of two ways – an overhaul deep cleaning or a surface cleaning (which is wayyy better than nothing).
The car cleaning tips below are for deep cleaning a messy car, but there’s a note in most sections for the shortcut or easy way to clean the inside of your car to get it “clean enough.”
That way, if your car isn’t a horrible mess or you just want to get your car out of the shame zone, you can save time.
Getting Started Cleaning Your Car Interior
Shoveling Out Your Messy Car
I’ll assume if you’re reading this, you own a disgracefully messy car. Not just a car with some crumbs or road salt on the floor mats and a little dust on the dash.
So before you start cleaning, remove all the stuff to make it easier to work in such a small space.
Here’s how I approach car clutter when my own car is a pit of despair.
- Gather bins, bags, or laundry baskets to empty out your cluttered up car.
- Use one bin for important stuff:
Paperwork, receipts, clothing, and stuff that goes back into your car later. Anything that would be ruined if it chances upon a half-empty fast food cup.
- One for definite trash:
Aforementioned fast food cup, food wrappers, and all the nasties.
WARNING: No receipts or paperwork, even if you think it’s trash. Save those for a second look-through in the house.
- And a final container for non-trash that may leak or otherwise infringe upon the rights of the important stuff.
- Make a plan to process all these bins right away.
Don’t give in to “I’ll just set it here in the garage for now.”
That’s how Scout handbooks disappear for three months, delaying an Eagle Scout Scoutmaster signature (luckily “Responsible” is not one of the 12 points of Scout law).
- Take it into your house, set a timer, and deal with all of it as soon as you’re done cleaning your car.
- And DOUBLE-CHECK ALL THE TRASH!
Not only for overlooked important receipts, but you never know when someone might have decided a Big Mac box would be the perfect storage container for their wooden Thomas train (purely hypothetical – including lots of hypothetical crying before we found the creepy little engine).
Should You Deep Clean Your Messy Car?
The totally-messy-car > spotlessly-clean-car > once-again-disgustingly-messy-car roller coaster results from perfectionist thinking. Insisting on a complete deep clean each time you clean your messy mom car leads to procrastination which leads to unidentifiable goo in the back seat cupholder.
Right next to where your unexpected passengers plan to sit.
But, yes, getting it totally clean before trying to maintain it is helpful. So I’m going to get you there if that’s where you want to go.
I’m an old hand at eradicating cupholder goo.
Just don’t be afraid to accept “clean enough” because of perfectionism if you can’t handle a deep car cleaning right now.
Half-assed cleaning may not impress your friends the way a showroom cleaning can. But it’s enough to keep you from withering in shame when anyone other than your four-year-old’s playdate rides along.
If you have to choose between waiting to deep clean or doing a good enough car cleaning right now, choose the latter.
Otherwise, you know your friend will choose goo-time instead of showroom-time to ask for a ride.
Because that’s just how life works.
Deep Cleaning a Really Messy Car
Remember, if you’re looking for the easy way to clean the inside of your car, check the end of each section for shortcuts.
Car Seat Cleaning Tips
We’ll start with the car seats.
Remove child safety seats and any protective covers that are on the seat.
Use an old dry toothbrush to dig out dirt and crumbs from around the seatbelts and within the crevice between the seat and the seat back before vacuuming. This will loosen a lot of the gunk.
If there’s anything stuck to the seat…
Thanks so much, Olive Garden, for that lovely pile of melted crayon…
…dislodge it with a plastic paint scraper or plastic knife.
Brush all the debris out where the vacuum can reach it.
SHORTCUT CAR CLEANING TIP:
Skip the deeper crevices if you need to get it done fast. But don’t skip the puddle o’crayon.
Removing Pet Hair from Your Car Interior
Hair, both pet and human, is a pain in the butt when vacuuming. To extract both types of hair, use a spray bottle of water (or a damp cloth if you don’t have a spray bottle) and one of these rubber or silicone scraping tools.
Mist or very lightly dampen the seats and then rub the gloves or back of the mitt over the seat in a circular motion.
Your eyes will bug out at the wad of hair that magically appears.
Shortcut Car Cleaning Tip:
For in-between cleaning, use a lint roller to get as much hair and lint up as possible. You can even do this instead of vacuuming if your car isn’t too bad.
Vacuuming Your Car Seats
Once you’ve pulled out the worst of the embedded stuff, vacuum your car seats as well as you can using the crevice tool and upholstery tool (the flat, scrape-y thing).
Don’t worry about perfection; we’ll go back over everything at the end.
For a deep cleaning, use a self-service vacuum bay, if possible, because you just can’t get that kind of suction at home. (Yes, I heard it too but am restraining myself, professional that I am.)
A shop vac or even your regular vacuum cleaner with a hose will also work.
If possible, go for corded over cordless for deep cleaning – you need power for deep down car cleaning.
SHORTCUT CAR CLEANING TIP:
Sweep out your car with a stiff whisk broom or use a cordless car vac for in-between vacuuming. Not perfect, but way way way better than completely ignoring the crap on your upholstery to avoid lugging out a bigger vacuum.
Cleaning Leather Car Seats
I don’t have leather car seats, so here’s an article I found about cleaning leather.
Research (i.e., asking Google) instructed me to use a cloth slightly dampened with vinegar and water to clean my leather living room sofa. I can’t officially recommend it, since I’m not an expert, but it worked fine for me.
I did find out that different leather has different finishes, though, so please go with an expert opinion.
How to Clean Cloth/Fabric Car Seats
Otherwise, for cloth seats, this Shout Auto Cleaner is impressive for everyday stains. The link is Amazon but you should be able to pick it up at Target for less.
When you’re cleaning cloth seats, dampen the entire seat so you don’t get that “I just cleaned this stain and made a new stain doing it” circle around the area you cleaned.
For really tough stains on your car seats, try this hydrogen peroxide and blue Dawn method. But let me warn you, it creates a lot of suds which take forever to get out.
I also like Folex. It’s removed stains in my house and car I didn’t think would ever come out. It can be hit or miss, though. I think I like Shout much better for most stains.
The Folex link above is Amazon, but I bought mine at Home Depot.
Shortcut Car Cleaning Tip:
Tackle stains later if you’re short on time right now, since the seats will need to dry.
Tips for Cleaning Really Messy Car Floor Mats
To really clean your car, remove your floor mats. Chances are they’re a total mess.
If you’re lucky enough to have rubber floor mats, fill a bucket with soapy water and scrub the Bejeezus out of them. Magic erasers are your friend here.
For torn, holey, or gross-beyond-imagination carpeted floor mats, replacing them may be a good bet.
However, I’ve brought some back from the dead using
the Red Woman’s magic some tricks and elbow grease (I totally thought elbow grease was a real thing they sold when I was a kid).
If you want to keep your carpeted floor mats, you can still salvage them if they’re el mucho grosso.
How, you ask?
First, vacuum them as thoroughly as possible. Vacuum bays even have floor mat clips to help you out by holding those suckers down while you work.
How to Remove Embedded Hair from Your Car Floor Mats
After you’re done vacuuming the floor mats, try this pet hair removing tool if there’s still a lot of pet or human hair or lint and threads.
Carefully scrub in circles to bring the pet hair up to the surface. It’s usually embedded so deeply in the nap that even the silicone pet groomer I use for the seats doesn’t work. I’d use this for the car seats, also, but it can hurt delicate surfaces and thinner fabric. It’s pretty rough.
Then vacuum again to remove the pet hair piles you dredge up.
While I was writing this post, I found this amazing-sounding pet hair remover. It gets great reviews. I’m ordering one, and I’ll let you know how well it works.
Shortcut Car Cleaning Tip:
For a regular car cleaning, vacuum your floor mats the same way you do the carpet. Just get the road salt and crumbs off, either with a Dustbuster or a whisk room.
Your floor mats will look a thousand times better without loose debris on them.
How to Remove Car Floor Mat Stains
For stains on your carpeted floor mats, start by scrubbing them with a stiff brush and soapy water.
For deeper stains, I recommend one of these (more details above in the car seat section):
- Shout Auto Cleaner
- This hydrogen peroxide and blue Dawn method which is much easier to use for cleaning floor mats than car seats, because a garden hose solves the over-sudsing problem.
My mats are black with white lettering and the hydrogen peroxide mix is the only thing that can really get the letters white again.
Messy Car Carpet Cleaning Hacks
Once you’re ready to tackle the carpeting, go over it with a toothbrush in the dips and valleys where the car seat meets the floor and in crevices. Brush the carpeting to bring up the hard-to-reach crumbs and hair so that your vacuum can get to them.
For crevices that a toothbrush can’t get into, use toothpicks, little paint brushes, or compressed air.
Vacuum well, using your crevice tool.
If you’re vacuuming where you can’t see, put a nylon over your vacuum nozzle, brush the area out first, or use a flashlight to be sure you’re not sucking up a diamond earring (or still-edible-M&M) or something.
For stubborn pet hair, human hair, and lint, see above in the floor mat section where I talked about the pet hair removing tool. Test it to make sure it’s okay on the more delicate carpet.
For carpet stains, try one of the methods above in the car seat section. Folex and Shout Auto Cleaner both work for regular stains. Avoid the Dawn/hydrogen peroxide method in the car just because of the suds-removal.
Shortcut Car Cleaning Tip:
If you’re not deep cleaning or don’t want damp carpet, tackle stains later.
How to Clean Inside Your Car’s Windshield
Now it’s time to clean the inside of the windshield.
I like to do it before I clean the dashboard. I’m pretty messy when I spray the window cleaner directly onto the windshield.
To be honest, I’m pretty messy in just about everything I do…
When you’re ready to shine the glass, my number one tip is to park your car in such a way that the light hits all the streaks and grime. Otherwise, you won’t know there are streaks until you’re driving down the highway, the sun hits, and your poor window cleaning skills end up blinding you.
On the plus side, the body shop will probably clean your car windows for you after the accident.
The best car glass cleaner I’ve found is Invisible Glass. You can buy it at Walmart.
And to make that deep car windshield recess easier to reach, use a tool like this one, also by Invisible Glass:
This is the only thing that make it possible to reach all the way inside my son’s Taurus windshield.
For the areas you can reach, use a newspaper or coffee filter to buff out the glass cleaner for a much less streakier finish than with paper towels. I know newspaper sounds like an old wives’ tale, but it really works. Invisible Glass leaves less streaks but you still need to make sure you dry it well.
Be careful about the ink getting on light-colored vinyl as you work (from the newspaper and from your fingers). Keep a damp, soapy cloth nearby to keep your fingers clean as you go.
If you’ve already washed the outside of your car (or aren’t planning to), do the exterior of the windshield next so you can tell for sure there’s no marks inside.
Repeat the process with your back window.
Then clean the rearview mirror and visor mirrors before you move on.
Shortcut Car Cleaning Tip:
If you don’t have time to clean your windshield well, you can actually make it worse if you spray it and wipe it down with paper towels too quickly and leave streaks. Spot-cleaning if you’re rushed is better than making a streaky mess.
Tips for Cleaning Vinyl Car Interior
Your Very Messy Car Probably Comes With Its Own Very Grungy Cupholder
Before you start on the vinyl, take a look at your cupholders. They almost always need extra care.
Get as much crud out as you can, then add soapy water and let it sit while you clean the rest of the car’s interior. Soaking is great for built-up gunk.
Also for sore muscles, but it’s hard to fit your whole body into a cupholder.
Getting Ready to Clean the Car Interior Vinyl
When you’re ready to clean the rest of your car’s interior, gather some dry brushes. They make brushes specifically for this.
But you can also use:
- Clean makeup brushes
- Small paint brushes (the tiny craft type and the larger house-painting type)
- Foam paint brushes
And while you’re at it, grab some:
- Butter knife or paint scraper.
And if you have any compressed air, that’s even better.
Wrap the butter knife or paint scraper in a soft cloth to get down in between where the seat meets the vinyl.
Use the various tools to scrounge dirt out of all those hard-to-reach areas (in your car, I mean – do that other stuff in private, please).
If you can manage it, keep your vacuum hose right where you’re working to catch the crumbs and dirt as you’re digging them out.
Car Cleaning Tips for Deep Cleaning the Vinyl Interior
Work across your dashboard removing dust and debris , hitting speakers, vents, and nooks and crannies as you go.
For a deeply textured dashboard or heavy grime on the vinyl, a magic eraser is an efficient way to get down to the clean vinyl.
I used one to thoroughly clean a tan steering wheel, dashboard, and armrest once. The magic eraser was the only thing that got rid of years’ worth of oils and grime.
Test it first – it’s abrasive (although the only time I’ve actually seen it mar a finish was on shiny linoleum, which it dulled).
Finish Wiping Down Remaining Hard Surfaces
Once you’re done dusting the top of the dashboard, wipe the underneath. Do the sides of that hump thing around your shifter and then the insides of the car doors. Quickly dust the console area and any other hard surfaces in the car.
While you’re crumb-removing, don’t forget to dig out the French fry salt that’s stuck between the bucket seats and the console. That’s where the butter knife-wrapped-in-a-cloth comes in handy.
Best Vinyl Cleaner for Car Interior
Once you’ve removed the dust and surface debris, my favorite product to clean the vinyl and steering wheel is Mothers VLR:
Make sure to test it in an inconspicuous place on your car.
This stuff works great on my black vinyl. I was desperate* to get the white scuff marks off and went on a Reddit deep dive to find this stuff.
*Not desperate enough to drive around town, mind you, but desperate enough to sprawl on the couch for half an afternoon reading forums.
Mothers VLR got rid of most of the scuff marks on the vinyl.
Be careful to spray it only on your cloth away from your car. My bottle sprays weird and overspray can leave marks on non-vinyl.
Plus, as I mentioned, I’m messy. All the time, even when I try not to be.
For regular, everyday cleaning, and for inside the vents and other places that can’t be buffed out (since you have to buff the Mothers VLR out or it will leave streaks), I use a damp microfiber cloth or slightly damp foam brush. Then I go back over it with a dry one.
Finish up your first pass the dashboard by carefully wiping the controls with a damp microfiber and then drying them.
A Brilliant Messy Car Cupholder Cleaning Hack
Okay, now we’re back to those cupholders (are yours still soaking?)
Cupholders can be the worst! I found this amazing hack I haven’t tried (my cupholders are removable) but I’m sure it’ll work. I mean, how could it not? It’s borderline genius!
Here it is:
If yours aren’t already soaking in soapy water, add some now.
Take a cup that fits well in your cupholder. Put a clean sock on it and them put it in the cupholders and twist it.
Sorry if that was anticlimactic after my build-up, but it’s still a pretty cool idea.
Dry everything off and then if you want a really spotless clean, use the vacuum’s brush attachment to re-vacuum the dash, gear shift, seats, and carpet lightly to get all the crumbs and other dirt you dislodged while working on the dashboard and vinyl.
Shortcut Car Cleaning Tip:
This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But, once you’ve got it clean, all it takes to keep up with your car is a regular light wipe-down with a damp microfiber.
Cleaning Car Windows, Mirrors, and Screens
The final step when deep cleaning your car interior is cleaning the windows and mirrors. This is the time to do your windshield and rearview mirror if you haven’t already.
For my electronic screen, I don’t use glass cleaner.
I dust it first with a Swiffer (to avoid scratching it), then use a just-a-tiny-bit-damp-almost-dry microfiber to buff out fingerprints.
This will also work with the plastic gauge covers – I’ve never needed to use glass cleaner on those.
For the rest of your windows, open your car doors while you work so no spray gets into the just-cleaned interior.
Starting with the first window, roll it down.
Then use your paint scraper or butter knife wrapped in a cloth to wipe out the window well above and below (the part where your window goes in and out). That keeps old dirt from mucking up your freshly-cleaned windows when you roll them up and down.
Then roll the window halfway up so the entire top edge is above the door frame.
Clean the top edge so you don’t have a dirty rim at the top when you roll them down.
Then roll the window all the way up and finish cleaning inside with the Invisible Glass/newspaper combo for the clearest finish.
Repeat for the rest of your windows. Don’t forget any back windows that don’t roll down.
Shortcut Car Cleaning Tip:
If you don’t own smeary, sticky-fingered kids, spot-cleaning is probably enough for the inside windows if you’re pressed for time.
And if you do have grape-jelly-fingered little ones, Invisible Glass also makes wipes.
But here’s the thing about the fingerprints. If their fingers are on the windows, their eyes were probably looking outside instead of at a screen.
So that’s your window smudge silver lining.
Conclusion: Cleaning a Super Messy Car Interior
Maybe it can’t be scientifically proven, but I swear my car drives more smoothly when the interior has been freshly cleaned.
There’s something about deep cleaning a really messy car that makes you feel like you accomplished enough to coast on chores for the rest of the week!
The messy car/clean car rollercoaster gives you massive instant results. It’s kind of a high.
Don’t fall for it!
Resist the Rollercoaster
~ Be Strong. Resist This High! ~
- When you’re tempted to leave your car-cleaning until you can do a perfect job, try to remember how much you hate riding in a car that’s really, really dirty.
- And do you really have time to deal with that kind of interior car cleaning whenever it gets really bad? I don’t.
I’m thinking you don’t either. Especially since the car is probably dirty because you’re so busy in the first place!
- And even if you deserve it, you can’t really coast the rest of the week. All your other responsibilities don’t go away just because you let your car get out-of-control-messy and then dug in and super cleaned it.
- Plus you never know when you may have guests in your car.
If you’ve just burrowed out of your embarrassing car and got it clean – either totally clean or “clean enough” – I can help you never have to do that again! Next week, I’ll be posting tips to maintain your squeaky clean car. [UPDATE: This post is live and you can see how to keep your car interior clean here]
And if you’re looking for more messy car help, this car organizing post will solve your car clutter problems once and for all. It’s chockful of the tools and organizers I use plus tips to get your car organized.
FLASHBACK TO MY MESSY MOM CAR DAYS:
And now for the bonus section – a peek inside the filth level my car used to attain before I learned how to maintain it. It was pretty glorious what my kids and I could accomplish with some fast food and neglect, I have to say so myself.
Let’s go on an archaeological dig of Joni’s mom car, and you let me know if it sounds familiar:
- A base layer of carpet and fabric stains – juice, ketchup, melted crayons.
- Then there’s the stuff that sifts down over time. I call them procrastination particles. Crumbs, salt (French fry and road), sand, hair (cat and mine), pennies, fries, cheerios, dead bugs, straw papers, candy wrappers, receipts, juice box straws, gummy lollipop sticks, soda bottle lids, empty snack bags.
- Then we get to the “necessities” I carried everywhere but usually just heaped randomly here and there – jackets, chapstick, first aid stuff, toys, pool floaties, etc
- Follow this up with the crap that couldn’t sift its way down through the “necessity” layer – papers, soda cans, spoons, cups (sippee and fast food), yesterday’s lunch box, etc.
It’s unfortunate that top layer couldn’t sift its way down, because then the soda cans would have been restrained and not fallen out of the car whenever a door swung open.
Now if that doesn’t make you feel better about yourself and your car, I don’t know what will!
Need Help with More Messes?
If you’re looking for more help, maybe inside your house this time, check out these cleaning posts:
- If your house is as shameful as you car, it’s okay. You can get it back, I promise. Try this step-by-step method to start cleaning when you’re overwhelmed by your messy house.
- This one will get you motivated to clean.
- If your problem is more about staying focused, check out this one about avoiding distractions.
- If you need to clean up fast for unexpected guests, here’s the method I use to speed clean.
- And here’s a list of 100 of the easiest things to declutter fast when your house is overstuffed..
Can You Help Me Get the Word Out?
If you liked this post, do you mind sharing it on Pinterest so the other moms avoiding their grungy cars can find it, too? Thank you!