The dreaded interior
I say “the dreaded interior” because, when you think about it, a lot of people ‘live’ in their cars…and, as a result, car interiors are some of the dirtiest places you will ever encounter. Between the hours people spend sitting in their cars to the things they haul, car interiors take a lot of abuse. Hair, dust, food, gum, oils, sweat, dirt, spillage, pet ‘stuff’, etc., all permeate the interior and often within only a few days. Detailing a car’s interior requires a lot of manual labor and once detailed it needs to be maintained very often to avoid the never ending spiral of ‘stuff’ that comes in contact with it. We covered the detailing of carpets, windows and leather seats in other sections of this website…in this section we will concentrate on the door panels, dashboard cluster, and center console (if applicable).
“Where to begin?”…this is the most often asked question when one opens a car door with the intent of detailing the interior. Some interiors are so bad that they will, at first, seem overwhelming. The key is to work systematically through the interior completing each ‘object’ one at a time and in a certain order as to minimize the detailing of ‘objects’ that follow…for example, detailing the interior in this order is one way to minimize your overall workload: headliner (if needed), windows, door panels, dash cluster, center console (if there is one), seats, carpets, and finally floor mats. Keep in mind that you will be stepping on the carpets and sitting on the seats during most of the interior detail – hence, it is best to do those last. When you are all done there will undoubtedly some dust on the dash…a simply light wipe with a dry microfiber cloth will take care of that. It may take hours (and a lot of sweat and elbow grease) to properly detail a car interior but it will be well worth it when you are done!
Some things will make it easier…a small air compressor for blowing dirt and dust out from tight spaces (or compressed air in a can), various brushes of different sizes to get into tight areas, q-tips, sponges…and of course a lot of microfiber towels. Alas, don’t forget cleaning products. And that’s a good place to begin…
Before we discuss the cleaning/detailing process, let’s talk a little about products. Like most aspects of detailing, you will want to use the least aggressive method to getting the interior clean…materials used on car interiors are generally not that resistant to chemicals and using too harsh of a chemical will damage many interior surfaces. There are a lot of products specifically tailored to interior cleaning…most of these are just water with a small amount of chemicals to ‘lift’ dirt from the various surfaces. Some of the interior cleaning products are not harsh enough while others are too harsh…finding one that works for you may take some time. It’s a little challenging to find a dedicated interior cleaner at your local auto parts or department store – often they will sell an ‘interior detailer’ or ‘quick interior detailer’ product…these are great for lightly soiled or lightly dusted interiors but will not work very well on interiors that are heavily soiled. My recommendations:
All Purpose Cleaners
Perhaps the most often used automotive cleaning product is an automotive “All Purpose Cleaner” (APC). APCs are actually concentrated cleaning products that need to be diluted to a certain ratio depending on what you are trying to clean. APCs will almost always have a guide printed on the bottle telling you what ratio to use for what job…car interiors will often require a pretty dilute mixture…in other words, you will have a small amount of product mixed with a lot of water. Meguiar’s makes a nice APC with well-explained dilution ratios: 10:1 for medium (for example, you can mix 10 ozs of water with 1 oz solution…or 20 oz with 2 oz solution, etc.) and 4:1 for strong. Make sure you label your spray bottle if you decide to use an APC. Keep in mind that an APC is the most economical choice as you can mix other solutions at different ratios for different applications (e.g. a 4:1 ratio for strong cleaning – like wheels/tires or the engine bay). I highly recommend you invest in a good APC as you will use it often. Meguiars’ All Purpose Cleaner and Optimum Polymer Technologies’ Optimum Power Clean are perhaps the two most popular APCs used for automotive detailing but there are other APCs that are just as good – it really depends on your budget.
Dedicated Interior Cleaning Products
I have had great success with dedicated interior cleaning products but they will cost you more money. In particular, Surf City Garage’s Dash Away (which also offers protection), Griots Interior Cleaner, and Ultima’s Interior Shampoo Gel are decent cleaning products. I would NOT recommend using typical household cleaners on a car interior as they may be too harsh as they are simply not meant to be used for a car interior. Stay away from using isopropyl alcohol (IPA) on the interior – it is too harsh. Also, I know a lot of people recommend the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser…I would not recommend using this product as it is, again, too harsh. In addition, there are a lot of people who recommend using Woolite to clean leather and cloth seats…Woolite is not recommended for such applications. Woolite is a product that cleans very well but is designed for cleaning clothing – its formulation does NOT lend itself to the cleaning of car interiors as it needs to be well rinsed…this is often hard to do in a car interior and, as such, a residue stays behind that may attract dirt. I strongly suggest that you use either an APC or a dedicated car interior cleaning product – this, along with some patience, will yield awesome results!
Interior detailing products that clean and protect
There are products on the market that will clean and ‘detail’ at the same time. In other words, they will leave behind some level of protection, albeit minimal. These products are excellent once you have the interior properly cleaned – often, these products are used for ‘maintaining’ the interior. Einsett 1Z Cockpit Premium is perhaps the best with Meguiar’s Quik Interior Detailer coming in a close second. Surf City Garage’s Dash Away is on par with both of these and is highly recommended and easy to find. Keep in mind that these products are for lightly soiled interiors…by all means, start with them and see if they do the trick – if not, then move to an APC or other dedicated cleaning product.
Cleaning: First things first
To begin, you will want to try and work in a shaded area – car interiors can get extremely hot and the heat will make the level of work seem much greater than it actually is…move to the shade or if you have access to a garage, move inside. Open the doors of the car…all of them…get a few bags and remove everything from the interior that didn’t come with the car when it was new (except for audio stuff like the radio – leave that)…use one bag for garbage and one bag for the other ‘stuff’ that you will put back in when you are done…also remove the floor mats and put them aside. Once everything is out of the car it will be much easier to start the detailing process. At this point, do a quick vacuum…it’s best to get as much ‘junk’ out of the car before you start to actually ‘clean’ the various parts of the interior. Once all of the ‘stuff’ is removed and the car is vacuumed, it will look much better! Also, if you have access to an air compressor, go ahead and ‘blow’ out all of the crevices and areas where you won’t be able to get to with a towel or brush…you may want to put on safety glasses at this point as there may be a lot of ‘stuff’ getting blown out of some tight spaces. Then do another quick vacuum. Ok, now you are ready to begin cleaning.
We have discussed what to use…and what not to use. Armed with a dedicated interior cleaner designed for cars or a decent APC, let’s begin! You have vacuumed the car interior, and should have cleaned the windows as well.
Door Panels/Dash/Center Console
Door panels are primarily made of vinyl or plastic with some sections of cloth and, in higher-end cars, you may also find some leather. The vinyl/plastic/leather that is used on door panels is usually pigmented/painted and then protected with a clear coat. For this reason, you do not want to be overly harsh or use a harsh cleaning product on these surfaces. You will need a microfiber towel and a small brush for most of the cleaning. I highly recommend that you spray the product on your towel as opposed to the door panel itself. There will be occasions where the soiling on the panel is so much that you will have to spray it and let the product dwell…but for the most part, spraying the product on the towel is recommended – this way you won’t get the cleaning product into areas that you don’t want it. Simply spray the towel and, starting at the top of the door panel, work your way down to the bottom using a mild brush (like a tooth brush) when and where needed to remove stubborn soiling. If the interior is light-colored then you will be able to better see your progress…if it is a black or dark interior then you will have to rely on the level of soiling that gets transferred to your towel to know if you are making progress. Just take your time – this will be a laborious process and will take patience! Once you have it clean, move on to the other panels. Keep in mind that we are cleaning the door panel…not the door jambs – those are usually pretty nasty and will be addressed in another section of this site.
The dash cluster is also made of vinyl or plastic and will also react poorly to overly harsh cleaning methods/products. Just like you did for the door panels, spray the cleaner on the microfiber towel and, starting at one end, clean the whole dash cluster. Be careful on the clear plastic over the gauges, it will scratch easily – there is no need to apply a lot of pressure on the clear plastic lenses. Whatever you do, DO NOT not use paper towels as they will scratch the plastic. The dash has a lot of crevices where dirt will reside – use a small brush such as a tooth brush to get into difficult areas or try to blow the dirt/dust out with compressed air.
Continue to clean the center console in the same way – cup holders are typically nasty and you may find that you will have to use multiple towels. Also, keep in mind that most center consoles have shiny surfaces or ‘piano molding’…no need to apply a lot of pressure – be gentle or you will scratch these surfaces.
Once you are done with the door panels/dash/center console, move on to the seats…if they are leather or vinyl, just look at the leather section of this site. If they are upholstery, then you will really use similar methods to cleaning the carpets…as a result, I won’t discuss that here – please see the carpet section of this site.
OK, everything should now be clean…and the interior should look awesome – if not, go back and clean those areas that need help. It’s now time to protect the interior. Here we will discuss the dash/door panels/center console…leather and carpet protection are discussed elsewhere in this site.
Should you use a dressing and what’s with all the hype about UV protection?
Dressings will leave behind a greasy, oily, shiny film that will attract a lot of dust and alter the appearance of your interior to the point where it will simply look bad. After all your hard work, don’t use a dressing. In addition, removing the shiny look that a dressing leaves behind is difficult and will cause a lot of reflection off of your windshield – the interior of your windshield will also get a ‘film’ on it over time that you will need to clean regularly due to out-gassing of the dressing. Professional detailers do not use interior dressings – many detailing shops do, but professional detailers don’t. I wouldn’t even use 303 Aerospace Protectant on the interior and I do know that there are some detailers who do this. Dressings are simply not needed. The interior of the car should have a matte finish to it – just as it did the day it left the showroom floor! Oh, and don’t worry so much about the UV affecting your dashboard…you would be amazed at how well normal window glass does at filtering out the UV…what is more detrimental to your dash is heat…simply invest in a windshield shade if you are parked in the sun for long periods of time.
So, what should you use?
Einsett 1Z Cockpit Premium, Meguiar’s Quik Interior Detailer, Surf City Garage’s Dash Away, and/or Ultima’s Interior Guard Plus are the only products you will ever need to protect your door panels, dash, and center console (once you have the interior cleaned!). Just pick one you like and stick with it. 1Z Cockput Premium and Meguiar’s Quik Interior Detailer are superior products. Remember, leather is a bit different…you can use one of these products to protect leather but I would highly recommend one of the products that I discussed in the ‘leather’ section. Follow the directions…most of these are applied simply by spraying a microfiber towel and moving it over the surfaces to be protected. Ultima’s product requires a pad (that comes with the product). It’s as simple as that…cleaning is super hard but protecting is super easy. If this is a car that you have access to on a regular basis – go ahead and use 1Z or the Quik Interior Detailer once a week or once every two weeks – it really depends on how bad the interior gets – once cleaned, maintenance is quick and easy and you probably won’t have to ‘clean’ the interior very often.