We pay so much attention to cleaning the seats and carpets while detailing the interior of a car.
But if you go beyond the headliner, windows, seats and carpet, there are a lot of other surfaces inside our cars to clean.
The instrument cluster for instance.
You look at those gauges more than you realize, and the transparent, plastic protective lens should be kept clean and clear.
What about that center console, if you have one?
Those cup holders and weird crevices are magnets for dirt and debris.
That annoying dark spot where you rest your arm on the door?
Yeah, that needs to be cleaned too.
Face it, we spend a ton of time in our car and get in and out dozens of times every week. The amount of coffee, fast food, groceries, tracked mud, etc. that are brought into our vehicles means the odds are against you.
It is unavoidable, these “other” surfaces are going to get dirty. And, yes, even stained.
So, all these other surfaces need to be detailed when they get dirty or stained. What, then, is the best way to clean the miscellaneous surfaces on the interior?
Table of Contents
The Order Does Matter
When I say order, it does not mean your order of detailing supplies with Amazon or something. It means the order of operations when detailing an automobile interior.
Human beings are interesting creatures. And when detailing a car interior, I am always surprised by the number of people who dive in and clean the seats and carpet first.
But think about it.
To access and clean the windows, dash, center console, etc., you need to sit on the seats and get in and out of the car. You are soiling the seats and carpet you just worked so hard to clean if you detail the seats and carpet first.
Even worse… they may still be damp. Not good!
So, it is better to clean your headliner (if necessary), then the windows (following our guide on the topic, of course!), then the various other surfaces like the dash, instrument panel, dash, vent and speaker grills, consoles, rear shelf, door panels, sills, jambs, steering wheel, shifter knob and boot, etc.
In other words, detail the seats and carpet last, when all the other surfaces are clean.
Yes, some dust may settle on the dash or some other places, but a simple wipe with a clean cloth as a last touch quickly takes care of that problem.
It is a much easier “touch-up” at the end than cleaning a mud stain off the carpet you cleaned once already.
All Purpose Cleaners
The choice of cleaner is important. You want a product that is not too harsh, and not too weak, but just right.
To detail the miscellaneous interior surfaces, you need a product that falls into the Goldilocks zone.
That means your household cleaners are out.
I know, you want to avoid buying excess bottles of cleaner. But most home cleaners are too harsh for your car’s interior surfaces, and some are too weak.
They are not designed for an automobile interior and contain chemicals like alcohol that can cause damage and may leave residue that becomes sticky and attracts more dirt and grime.
Then there are those household products that simply don’t work at all on the dirt and grime that collects in the interior of a car.
A quality automotive All-Purpose Cleaner (“APC”) and car glass cleaner are your friends when detailing the interior. A spritz of APC on a clean cloth will do wonders on many of the miscellaneous surfaces like plastic and vinyl, and even cloth and upholstery.
If you are a Thurston Howell, III, then you may have leather on your door panels or in some other places like the shifter knob and boot.
For the leather in places other than your seats, you still need a good leather cleaner just like you do for your seats.
Follow the cleaning with a good leather conditioner to protect and restore the soft, supple feel.
Speaking of conditioners/dressings, they are a subject of great debate when discussing interior surfaces. Should you use one or not?
Well, an auto’s interior surfaces are known to crack and fade. Come to think of it, a cracked dash is almost a cliché symbol for an old car. So, there is something going on inside our cars. Let’s look at two likely suspects:
- Ultraviolet (“UV”) light is one culprit. It fades and degrades things like plastic, fabric, and leather. But auto glass does filter out some/much of the UV light, and many of us use windshield sun screens. So what level of UV protection do you need? Nobody knows exactly how much, but some UV protection is welcome in my book, especially if you live in southern states.
But no matter where you live, our car’s interiors are exposed to sunlight.
- Heat is the other culprit, which causes plastic and leather to lose plasticizer and oils, causing them to become brittle and crack.
The cold truth is regardless of where you live, the interior of your beautiful automobile will become excessively hot, multiple times, during the summer months.
Fortunately, we do not have to accept dull or brittle and cracked parts in our car’s interior. Routine and proper use of a dressing can revive dull, faded areas and provide conditioning to keep plastics, leather and rubber flexible and crack free.
So, in my humble opinion, an interior dressing should be in your tool box even if it’s only to use when you need to smooth out the appearance of your interior panels after cleaning.
My favorite interior dressing to date is CarPro PERL. It provides protection to rubber, plastic, and leather and leaves your surfaces with a rich, matte finish. Dull, faded areas are revived and the treated surface becomes more uniform in color. On dark colors like backs and charcoals it darkens the appearance slightly which I love. PERL does not leave a sticky or greasy surface that attracts dust/dirt. In fact, once dry, PERL helps to keep the surface clean by repelling water and dirt. I’ve also had no issues with PERL outgassing and leaving a film on the glass like a lot of other interior dressings.
For the purists out there that prefer not to use a dressing or conditioner; a well maintained interior, with quality window tinting combined with the use of sun shades and parking in the garage or under cover when possible, are your best protection strategies. If you’re starting with a new car, this will be all you need (besides cleaning) to preserve your interior if you stay diligent.
Tools You Will Need
Besides your cleaning products, to detail the interior you will need some tools like:
- Multiple, clean terry or microfiber cleaning clothes
- Detailing brushes to get into cracks and crevices
- Vacuum with upholstery and dust attachments
- Compressed air (e.g. aerosol can, vacuum blower, or compressor) to blow out dirt and dust from small and/or tight places
- Upholstery brush (if you have fabric panels)
- Leather brush (if you have leather “accents”)
- Cotton swabs
- Steam cleaner (optional)
Location, Location, Location
One thing to consider is where you will do the work.
It may seem trivial, but do not work in the direct sun if possible. It will make things easier on you and your car interior.
One thing you do want to avoid (besides getting heat stroke!) is letting your cleaners dry on the auto surfaces. This can leave residue that will attract and hold more dirt.
So, find some shade, or work under cover like in a garage if possible.
Empty it Out
So, you found a good spot with cover or shade to do the work, but your preparations are not done. Before you can clean, you need to remove everything that is not attached to the car’s interior.
Things like car mats, garbage, everything stuffed into the console and door pockets, etc. need to come out.
If you own an SUV, Truck, or Van make sure you remember to clear out the cubbies beneith the floor and behind the seats.
Then do a quick vacuuming and dusting. You do not want sand or debris becoming trapped in your cleaning cloths, which turns them into sand paper that scratches your surfaces!
Also, make sure your vacuum attachments do not have burrs or nicks that can scratch plastic and tear fabric. If they do you can sand them off using a high grit sand paper.
I call this a quick vacuum because after getting and in and out of the vehicle to clean and protect everything you’re going to have to do a deep vacuuming at the end to leave the carpets and seats perfectly clean.
Do a Test Spot!
Then, the one thing you must do, just like a doctor, is do no harm.
In this case, that means if you are using a cleaner for the first time, do a test spot in an inconspicuous place before using the new product. Once you confirmed it is safe on your car’s materials, then you can proceed.
Start Wiping Everything Down
With the preparation steps completed, clean your headliner (if necessary) then the windows.
Related: Guide to Glass Cleaning and Sealing
Then move on to all the other surfaces that are not the seats or carpet, the “miscellaneous surfaces.”
In general, I like to work methodically in small, confined areas from the top, down.
For most surfaces like vinyl door panels, steering wheels, consoles, dashes, handles, knobs, etc. you can spray a small amount of an APC on a clean, quality cloth. Then wipe the surface with the moistened cloth to clean. See our guide on cleaning alcantara if your steering wheel or dash is covered in that.
It may take more than one application on the heavier soiled areas, but this technique will lift most of the routine dirt and soil in your car. You will see it on your cloth and will need to flip, or change out, your cloth often. Once you have cleaned the area, before the residual cleaner dries, buff it dry with a clean, dry cloth.
Take your time, it is not a race, and methodically clean all the surfaces.
If possible, avoid spraying the APC directly on your surfaces. If you have soil or stains that are heavy and/or set, then you may need to spray the APC on the spot (but never on electronics or gauges).
You must carefully spray the surface if applying APC directly onto it. Avoid over-wetting and do not let the cleaner sit on the surface for extended periods.
Working in small areas helps to reduce contact time of the cleaner, which helps ensure it does not dry (which can leave a residue) or create damage to the surface being cleaned.
On door panels, work high to low. You may have vinyl, upholstery, or leather panels, so use the appropriate cleaner.
Drips and runs should not be a problem if you spray the cleaner on your towel, but if you need to spot spray a tough stain, working top to bottom will keep those pesky drops and streaks from spoiling an already clean area.
As an alternative, some like to use steam cleaners on surfaces like fabric panels. If you do use a steam cleaner, work in well-defined areas and avoid over-wetting.
Remember, wet fabric becomes soiled and stained easily, so you want the fabric to dry as fast as possible, and that means you must not soak any foam under the fabric.
The rear deck, that shelf behind the back seat that many seem to think is a Kleenex box holder, needs to be cleaned too.
Vacuuming will remove the dirt and dust, but because it is a large, flat space it has a way of becoming soiled (and it may have something to do with the kids who sit in the back seat!). You need to clean it using an APC or fabric cleaner, and maybe even treat a spot or two.
Be Gentle with the Instrument Panel
The instrument panel and electronics need to be treated with special care.
I prefer to use just a light spritz of water sprayed on a clean, soft microfiber or terry cloth in the instrument panel. Do not use paper towels which can scratch, and gently wipe the surfaces. If you must use an APC around gauges and electronics, use something gentle like Griot’s Garage Interior Cleaner, sparingly on your cloth.
Never directly spray cleaner on gauges or electronics. Use a detail brush, cotton swabs, or a toothbrush to get into those difficult, tight spots.
On the clear, plastic lenses found over many gauges, keep in mind these scratch easily and you need to make sure there is no grit in your cloth. Also, minimize or eliminate the APC sprayed onto your cloth when cleaning clear, plastic lenses – your goal is to leave no residue.
When cleaning the dash, take care around accent molding/inlays, faux wood panels and logo badges. These are plastic and will scratch if you have grit in your cloth.
Don’t Forget the Details
Do not forget the air vents. Pressurized air, detailing brushes and cotton swabs can be a big help to get between the fins, cracks, and crevices. Also, spray a little APC on the cotton swabs to help with the cleaning. This same trick works on all those tiny nooks associated with speaker grills, too.
Your center console presents some unique challenges. If you think about it, the shape is like nothing else you own. But most of the console can be cleaned the same technique as everything else. Wipe as much as you can with a cloth lightly sprayed with some APC.
For those hard to get at areas, detail brushes, cotton swabs and a toothbrush allow you to clean many of the strange, inaccessible spaces that all consoles seem to have. In my opinion, compressed air can be a life safer to blow out that dirt and sand that seems to magically appear in that isolated, unreachable corner of the console.
Also, around many consoles, there is piping/molding with a faux metallic finish. These coated moldings scratch easily and you need to be gentle to avoid scratching them.
If you detail often enough, you will encounter a tough spot that just refuses to come clean. This why we recommend you keep a spotting kit in your tool box. If you have a difficult stain on something like a fabric door panel, you may need to treat it with a spot remover.
Once all the miscellaneous surfaces are clean, apply a protectant or conditioner to provide protection against fading and cracking. These products are easy to apply, and you should follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Like I said earlier, CarPro PERL is my favorite.
After you have all the miscellaneous surfaces (i.e. everything that is not headliner, windows, seats, and carpets) clean and dressed, then you can move on and clean your seats and carpets, and we have useful guides for both on this site.
Finally, after the seats and carpet are clean, use a slightly damp cloth to dust all surfaces one last time.
Then you are done and you just need to let everything dry completely. Remember, wet surfaces attract dirt so you want to avoid sitting on, stepping on, and touching them until they are dry.
Routine detailing of the miscellaneous interior surfaces will prolong the life and enjoyment of your vehicle.
It is not rocket science, but it does take some time and effort to keep all the different surfaces and materials looking like your car just came from the showroom.
But it is worth it and not that hard with small amounts of preparation and a little elbow grease.
The hardest part may be finding your Goldilocks APC. Some trial and error may be involved. But once you have your favorite APC, it is a straightforward task to detail your interior’s miscellaneous surfaces.
Hopefully, it is now obvious that detailing your car’s interior is a doable job and you found motivation from this guide to tackle all those miscellaneous surfaces.
So, what are you waiting for, get out there make that interior sparkle! Happy Detailing!
Should we mention how frequent to clean your interior? I assume most know you need to do the interior pretty frequently.