Car detailing 101
Person vacuuming the inside of a car

Keeping your car’s interior fresh and clean is important for a few reasons, from basic hygiene to resale value, but it is also something that’s easy to neglect. The best solution for a vehicle with crumbs in the seat cushions, takeout containers underfoot and fingerprints on the windows is to take it to a professional detailer, but since they charge a premium for their work, it might be worth learning how to do it yourself. While it can be time-consuming, detailing a car doesn’t need to be a complicated process, and the results are more than worth the effort. Here are the basic steps for reviving your car’s interior to showroom condition (or close to it).

Assemble your gear

The right tools for the job are essential for car detailing. For the exterior, these include a bucket, a few clean rags, car exterior wash, a wheel brush, and several clean towels. For the interior, make sure to have on hand some microfibre cloths, a stiff brush, a vacuum cleaner, a bottle of window cleaner, an old toothbrush, and some paper towels.

Get the right stuff

While the surfaces of your car may seem more or less like the surfaces in your home, they’re not. That’s why it’s important to get car-specific cleaning products when possible – they’re formulated to work on everything from exterior paint to interior plastics without causing damage. Specialty cleaning items like car putty, wheel cleaner and air freshening spray are optional, but might also be helpful.

Start outside

Add car cleaner (not soap, which can damage the paint) to a bucket full of water and begin your wash starting from the top down. Once the body has been washed, rinse it with clean water and dry it with a towel, working one quarter at a time to avoid streaks and spots. Then move onto the wheels, removing dirt with a wheel brush and giving a final wipe down with a paper towel.

Take everything out 

Once the exterior is sparkling, it’s time to tackle the inside. Start by removing everything from the car, from to-go cups and food wrappers to car seats, floor mats, and everything in the trunk. This is also a great opportunity to take stock of what’s on board and remove things that are no longer needed. Once you’ve got the interior clear of big items, soap up the floor mats and give them a good scrub with a stiff-bristled brush, then rinse and set them somewhere sunny to dry. If your vehicle has removable rubber pads protecting the cup holders and console areas, you can remove those as well and scrub them with warm soapy water.

Get hoovering

Now it’s time to get to work with the vacuum on carpets, seats, cup holders and anywhere else that crumbs and dirt tend to accumulate. Try various attachments to see what works best for different areas. A carpet attachment might work well for the trunk liner, while the crevice tool will be good for getting at crumbs around the seat tracks. Don’t forget to move the seats all the way forward and back to expose the carpet underneath. 

Clean the surfaces

You’d be surprised how much dust and grime can build up on a car’s horizontal surfaces – and that’s just the stuff you can see. Use a microfibre cloth to remove these particles from the dash, instrument gauge, door panels, and any other hard surfaces. Finish by applying a disinfectant solution of vinegar and water with a damp cloth to the steering wheel and other regularly-touched surfaces. You can use a car window cleaner or a mix of vinegar and water on the windows and mirrors, but avoid products with ammonia which can damage the plastic surrounds. 

Get in all the cracks

Here’s the part that puts the “detail” in detailing. Using your toothbrush and a little water or car interior cleaner, get into as many of the cracks and crevices as you can, wiping up the debris as you go.


Since not everyone is a fan of air fresheners, another great way to remove car odours (especially from things like spilled coffee) is a sprinkle of baking soda in the carpets and on the seats. Leave it overnight to absorb the odours, then vacuum it up the next day. 

Jeremy Freed is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. His writing about fashion, travel, food and design appears in Sharp, Harry and re:Porter magazines, among many others.

Jeremy Freed is a paid spokesperson of Sonnet Insurance.
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