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How to Clean Your Car: Interior & Exterior Ultimate Guide

Here’s to streak-free, odor-free cars. 

We get it: after spending time every single day cleaning the inside of your house, it can seem like a massive inconvenience to clean your car as well.

But a well-cleaned car is more inviting for you and any passengers you may have. Plus, once it’s clean, it’s easier to maintain.

We’ll show you the best tips for how to clean your car, including both the exterior and outside. Now it’ll be sparkling clean and super fresh!

Key Takeaways

  • Start by cleaning wheels with soapy water and a sponge.
  • Use toothpaste to clean headlights and make them shine.
  • For the car’s body, use a foam cannon or soapy water and a microfiber cloth.
  • Finish by cleaning windows and windshield with a glass cleaner.

How to Clean Your Car Exterior

This step-by-step guide will break down instructions for cleaning your wheels, headlights, body, windshield, and windows.

What You Need

  • Two buckets.
  • Wheel cleaner.
  • Sponge.
  • Soft-bristled brush.
  • Microfiber cloths.
  • Car cleaning soap.
  • Masking tape.
  • Toothpaste.
  • Car wax.
  • Pressure washer or hose.
  • Wide nozzle for pressure washer.
  • Foam cannon for pressure washer; foam or spray gun for hose.
  • Microfiber mitt.
  • Clay bar.
  • Glass cleaner for cars.


Starting with the wheels gets a really gross job out of the way first.

  1. Create cleaning solution: In a bucket, mix together a cleaner of your choice (make sure it’s safe for wheels) and water. Don’t use acidic cleaners or dish soaps.
  2. Get water: Fill another bucket with clean water — this will be for rinsing.
  3. Soak sponge: Soak a sponge for a few minutes in the cleaning solution.
  4. Start cleaning: Take the saturated sponge and clean each wheel from the top down.
  5. Nooks and crannies: Dip a soft-bristled brush into the cleaning solution and use it to get into the nooks, crannies, and crevices.
  6. Rinse: Dip the sponge into the clean water and rinse the wheels from the top down.
  7. Dry: Use a soft cloth to dry the wheels afterward.


Clean headlights create a less blurred light which is safer for oncoming traffic.

  1. Clean with soap: Firstly, use car cleaning soap to wash down the headlights. Rinse well and let air dry for a few minutes.
  2. Apply masking tape: Apply masking tape around the headlights to protect the car’s paintwork from the next few steps.
  3. Apply toothpaste: Yep, toothpaste. Toothpaste is mildly abrasive so it can get off sticky residue on your headlights. Apply toothpaste and a bit of water to each headlight.
  4. Leave: Leave for five minutes.
  5. Rinse: Rinse each headlight with water.
  6. Dry: Let the headlights air dry. Buff with a clean cloth.
  7. Optional: Apply car wax to the headlights to prevent them from getting as dirty and cloudy.


Now for the body of your car. This is one satisfying job, and here’s a great method. Keep in mind there are many different ways to do this, but here’s one of our favorites.

  1. Rinse car: You want to remove as much excess dirt and grit as possible. You can do this with a power or pressure washer using a wide nozzle and standing a few feet away, or you can use a garden hose. Rinse the car thoroughly, starting from the top working down. If there are any stubborn spots, don’t work too hard there. We will deal with that later.
  2. Attach foam cannon: Mix together water and dish soap in your foam cannon. The dish soap will degrease the car. Hook up the foam cannon. If you don’t have a foam cannon or power washer, you will have to do this manually by mixing soap and water and applying it with a microfiber cloth. Alternatively, you can buy a foam gun that connects to a hose.
  3. Apply foam: Cover the entire car with foam.
  4. Rinse: After letting it soak for a few minutes, rinse the soap off.
  5. Fill buckets: Fill up one bucket with car soap and water. Fill another bucket with just plain clean water.
  6. Apply foam again: Apply foam to the car again.
  7. Scrub: Wearing a microfiber mitt, clean the car manually. Start at the top, moving in vertical motions to avoid scratching. Work your way down. After each panel, rinse your wash mitt in the rinsing bucket. Dunk the wash mitt into the soap and continue scrubbing the car.
  8. Rinse: After you’ve scrubbed the entire car, rinse off all the soap.
  9. Clay bar: Now use a clay bar to remove contaminants. You’ll know if this is necessary if you feel grit on the car’s surface. If it’s smooth, you can skip this step.
  10. Spray car: Before using your clay bar, spray the car with Soapy Wooder lubricant.
  11. Flatten clay bar: Spread the clay bar so it’s wide and flat. Press down lightly and rub in vertical motions until the car feels smooth.
  12. Rinse: Rinse again using your hose or power washer.
  13. Apply soap again: Use your foam cannon or gun to apply soap again. Rinse well.
  14. Dry car: Use a microfiber towel with deep fibers to dry the car. Start at the top, going in vertical lines, and work your way down.

Now your car body is clean and dry and hopefully looking a lot better!

Top Tip

Remove any jewelry beforehand so you don’t cause any additional scratches. It can help to wear soft clothes without zippers or buttons, too, so you don’t scratch the car while you’re leaning against it.

Windshield and Windows

Your windshield and windows would have got

ten a good clean while you cleaned the body, but it may have left watermarks. Or perhaps it’s not gotten rid of some nasty build-up on the windows. Let’s get the windshield and windows clean! You can also use this tip for side mirrors too.

  1. Spray: Spray a microfiber cloth with a glass cleaner specifically made for cars.
  2. Wipe: Wipe the windows, windshield, and side mirrors. Use straight vertical and horizontal motions rather than circular.
  3. Repeat: Repeat on the inside of the windows and windshield.
  4. Dry: Let the solution air dry.

How to Clean Your Car Interior

Now that your car’s exterior is dealt with, it’s time for the interior. We always find this a little less satisfying, but once it’s done — you’ll be glad you did it.

What You Need

  • Car vacuum with attachments.
  • Upholstery cleaner.
  • Oxygen bleach (optional).
  • Spray bottles.
  • Scrub brush.
  • Microfiber cloths.
  • Fan (optional).
  • Moisture absorbing crystals (optional).
  • Fabric protector (optional).
  • Leather cleaning solution (for leather seats).
  • Scrubbing brush with horsehair (for leather seats).
  • Dish soap.
  • Metal clamp.
  • All-purpose cleaner.
  • Wet vacuum.

Car Seats

Let’s start with your car’s seats which are subject to all kinds of dirt: food crumbs, pet dander, and drink spills. Let’s start with cloth car seats before moving onto leather seats.


  1. Vacuum: Use a vacuum cleaner to remove dirt, dust, and debris. The crevice tool is handy here to get down the back of the seats. The upholstery attachment can help to get dirt embedded deep into the fibers.
  2. Treat stains: If there are any noticeable stains, pre-treat them. An upholstery cleaner will work great here. Just follow the manufacturer’s advice, as each product is different. If you have a dye-based stain, mix together oxygen bleach, and water and spread that over the stain. Let it sit for about an hour before vacuuming the powder up.
  3. Apply upholstery cleaner: If you don’t have an upholstery cleaner machine (which we definitely recommend, by the way, they are awesome), then you will need to manually apply the cleaning solution. Follow the manufacturer’s advice on how to dilute the cleaner and apply it to the car seats. Start at the top and spray the entire seat. Don’t oversaturate the fabric.
  4. Scrub the seats: While the upholstery cleaner is working its magic, scrub the seats with a scrub brush. Start at the top and work down. Rinse the brush in a bucket of clean water to remove excess dirt on the brush.
  5. Wipe seats: Use a microfiber cloth to lift off excess moisture.
  6. Repeat if necessary: If the seats still look dirty, repeat all of the above steps. Some seats may need going over a few times.
  7. Let seats dry: Open the car doors and let the seats air dry. This can take a few hours. To speed the process up, you may want to use fans and blow air towards the seats. It can also help to park the car in a bright sunny spot. If, after a few hours, the seats are still damp, put a container of moisture-absorbing crystals into the vehicle.
  8. Optional: You can use a fabric protector if you’d like, which will prevent dirt and stains on the fabric. If your car is subject to a lot of dirt and stains, this will be a very smart choice.


Leather car seats are more difficult to clean because they can be easily damaged. Before you get started, never use cleaners that contain alcohol, acetone, or petroleum as these can damage the seats.

  1. Vacuum: Gently vacuum the seats to remove surface-level dust and debris.
  2. Spray: Spray your chosen leather cleaning solution directly onto a microfiber cloth.
  3. Wipe: Using the dampened cloth, wipe the seats in straight lines starting at the top and working your way down. If the cloth becomes dry, add more cleaning solution. If the cloth is dry, it can become abrasive against the leather and cause damage.
  4. Scrubbing brush: If the seats still aren’t clean after using the cloth, try out a scrubbing brush. Make sure the brush is soft-bristled, ideally made of natural horsehair. Work in circular motions to lift dirt while still being gentle to the leather.
  5. Air dry: Open the car doors, and air dry the seats. Stay out of the sun, as this can cause the leather to fade.

Cleaning Solution Alternative

If you don’t want to buy a leather cleaning solution, you can make your own. Mix together equal parts olive oil, distilled white vinegar, and water into a spray bottle. Shake well to mix.


Now that the seats are clean let’s tackle those carpets. Remove the floor mats first, if possible, and apply these steps to both the carpets and the floor mats.

  1. Vacuum: Firstly, vacuum the car’s carpets and floor mats to remove excess dirt and debris.
  2. Make cleaning solution: Mix together warm water and dish soap in a spray bottle to create a bubbly cleaning solution.
  3. Spray: Spray the carpets thoroughly with the carpet cleaning solution.
  4. Apply dish soap to scrubbing brush: Apply a layer of dish soap to a scrubbing brush and scrub the entire carpet to thoroughly distribute it. This will also lift up dirt and stains.
  5. Spray again: Use the cleaning solution spray bottle to spray the carpets to dilute the suds down to water again.
  6. Wipe: Wipe dry with a microfiber cloth. Repeat with a separate cloth that’s been soaked in water to fully rinse the carpets.
  7. Air dry: Open the car doors and let the carpets air dry in a breezy, sunny spot.


Seatbelts might not be something you think of deep cleaning along with the rest of your car, but hey — they get dirty, too. Here’s how to clean them:

  1. Pull down and clamp the seatbelt: Pull out the seatbelt as far as it will go and put a metal clamp near the reel so that it will remain unspooled while you clean.
  2. Spray: Spray the seatbelt with an all-purpose or fabric cleaner. Alternatively, you can mix together warm water and a few squirts of dish soap in a spray bottle.
  3. Scrub: Use a stiff-bristled cleaning brush to scrub the cleaning solution into the seatbelt. Don’t forget to do this on both sides. Start at the top and work your way down.
  4. Wipe: Wipe off excess soap and moisture using a microfiber cloth.
  5. Air dry: Let the seatbelt air dry. This may take an entire night, so be patient.

Interior Ceiling

While your car’s interior is probably looking pretty good by now, we can’t forget the ceiling. You may want to do this first, in case a lot of dirt and debris fall onto your seats. Here’s the best method for cleaning the interior ceiling:

  1. Apply cleaning solution: Apply an all-purpose or upholstery cleaner onto a stiff-bristled brush.
  2. Scrub ceiling: Scrub the ceiling with the dampened brush in long strokes. You’ll see the cleaning solution suds up. If not, add more cleaner and a bit of water. Make sure to be gentle.
  3. Work at stains: Where you notice stains, spend a little extra time scrubbing these in a circular motion.
  4. Wet vacuum: Use a wet vacuum or an upholstery cleaning machine to go over the ceiling. This will remove dirt embedded into the ceiling fibers. Work at the front of your car and move back the way. If you smoke in the car, this will work wonders at removing residue and odors.
  5. Air dry: Let the ceiling air dry by keeping your car doors open for a few hours. If you’re able, we recommend leaving the car open for 24 hours. This will allow it to fully dry.

Other Fixtures

What about the rest of the car? The cupholders, the inside paneling, the handles, wheel, gearstick, and the rest? For these elements, you can use a multi-surface cleaner and a microfiber cloth.

  1. Spray cloth: Spray your cloth generously with a multi-surface cleaner.
  2. Wipe car: Go over each part of the car, cup holders, steering wheel, gear stick, etc., and scrub gently with the wet microfiber cloth. Work harder where stains or sticky residue are visible.
  3. Dry: With a separate dry microfiber cloth, dry these fixtures well.

How to Clean Your Car Without a Hose

If you don’t have a hose or pressure washer, how can you clean your car? Of course, a hose helps to rinse your car extremely well, but not everybody has one.

One great option is to use a no-rinse car cleaner, like the Optimum No Rinse Wash & Shine. When you use this, you don’t need to rinse it off since there are no soapy surfactants in the cleaning solution.

Another option is to rinse really well with a microfiber cloth and bucket of clean water. This may take a lot longer and might leave behind some residue since it’s not as thorough as a hose, but it may do the trick for the time being.

Tips for Cleaning Your Car

Let’s leave you with a few extra tips to keep in mind so that your car is sparkling clean without any damage.

  • Rinse your cloth regularly as you’re cleaning in a separate bucket: This will remove grit and dirt from the cloth to protect your car from scratches. You may also want to use a grit guard to capture dirt particles so they don’t remain in this bucket of water.
  • Don’t skip the clay bar: It may sound like a luxury product, but it actually lubricates the car and protects it from sharp grit.
  • Dust the air vents: Use a soft-bristled brush to dust off the air vents. Alternatively, you can try a cheap foam brush. Have a vacuum nearby to suck up the dust so it doesn’t settle elsewhere in the car.
  • Always use a microfiber cloth: These are the most gentle and effective cloths for cleaning your car that won’t damage the paintwork but will still absorb as much moisture from the cleaning solutions as possible.
  • A carpet cleaning machine may be your best investment: We recently bought one of these for cleaning our couch (there are a lot of dogs in the family), and it was incredible to use. But it can also be used for deep cleaning your car.
  • Whip out the toothbrush: An old toothbrush can be just the right thing for getting into nooks and crannies and dislodging some of that stubborn residue.


Is It Better to Wash Your Car At Home or At a Car Wash?

Knowing if it is better to wash your car at home or at a car wash depends on finances. Washing at home is free, although it involves effort and you may not get the same results. Using a car wash is fast, easy, and convenient, but it will cost you.

When Should You Not Wash Your Car?

You should not wash your car in the rain. You will get rain spots as the car dries, and instead of gleaming paintwork, it will look streaky and patchy.

What Household Products Can I Use to Wash My Car?

There are several household products you can use to wash your car. Diluted vinegar, baking soda, mild detergent, dish soap, and some laundry detergents work wonders on your vehicle’s paintwork.

Can I Wash My Car With Just Water?

You can wash your car with just water if it is absolutely necessary, but for the best results, you should always use a cleaning agent to get rid of ground-in dirt.

Should I Wash My Car With Distilled Water?

If you want the best results you should wash your car with distilled water; however, it can be expensive. Distilled water better protects your car’s paintwork.

Is It Bad to Let Your Car Air Dry After Washing It?

It is bad to let your car air dry after washing it because water residue sits on the paintwork and dries leaving water spots that ruin the overall result.

Clean Car

Now that you know the best methods for cleaning your car, the next passenger you pick up is going to be super wowed! These tips will give you a spotless exterior and interior, all while protecting your car.

While this may be a big job that takes all afternoon, it’s super satisfying and totally worth it. Plus, once you’ve deep cleaned, it doesn’t need to be done again for a while as long as you maintain it!

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Headshot of Beth McCallum

About the Author

Beth McCallum

Beth McCallum is a freelance writer & book blogger with a degree in creative writing, journalism, and English literature. Beth firmly believes that a tidy house is a tidy mind. She is always looking for new ways to sustainably clean and tidy her house, that's kind on the environment but effective in the house, too!