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Deep-Cleaning Tips and Tricks to Make Your Family Car Feel Like New

If you long for the days when your car was actually clean (ha!), try these cleaning tips to rid your car of crumbs, fingerprints, and long-forgotten toys.
Using Rag to Clean Car Dashboard
Updated: December 1, 2022

It can be defeating: You’ve finally rid your car of stray toys, forgotten food wrappers, and cast-aside art projects to reveal an even bigger mess—stained seats, grimy floors, and sticky surfaces. Sound familiar? Here are some quick cleaning tricks to help you make your car look like it did before you even had kids (until the next playdate, that is).

Lift Grime, Stains and Gunk from the Seats

Spills from sippy cups and juice boxes, cookie crumbs, and discarded gum can quickly become embedded in your car's upholstery. Over time, your car's interior can end up looking like a day-care center at closing time. Fortunately, you can easily spruce up your upholstery with a few tricks.

What You'll Need

  • A spray bottle filled with two-parts water and one-part liquid soap or laundry detergent (Any brand of detergent will do, but if you or your family have chemical sensitivities, try a non-toxic, eco-friendly cleaner such as Miracle II Soap or Dr. Bronner's Castile Liquid Soap.)
  • A non-abrasive scouring pad
  • A vacuum equipped with a wand attachment
  • For leather upholstery: paper towels
  • For hardened gum on the seats: ice, a plastic bag, and a dull butter knife
  • For ink stains: white vinegar and a soft cloth



Start by using the vacuum to lift dirt and crumbs from the vehicle's upholstery, taking time to get into creases and seams. Next, spray the seats with the detergent solution. Pay special attention to the areas with the most caked-in grime.

If your car has cloth upholstery, follow up by using the non-abrasive scouring pad to break up and cut through all stains. Then polish things off by giving the seats another pass with the vacuum, using the wand attachment to thoroughly clean all crevices and corners.

If your car is upholstered in leather or vinyl, use paper towels to gently lift buildup from past spills after the detergent solution has been applied. Then thoroughly dry the area.

To remove gum, hold a bag full of ice against the gum for at least five minutes. (This will freeze the gum and cause it to harden, making it much easier to remove.) After a few minutes, remove the ice and dislodge the gum. Use a butter knife to gently lift any persistent bits of gum that remain on the seats. (Be careful to avoid tearing the upholstery.)

To get rid of ink stains, combine one tablespoon of liquid soap, two tablespoons of white vinegar, and a cup of water in a spray bottle. Spray this solution on the ink stain, and allow it to soak in for about 10 minutes. Soak a cloth in water, and use it to gently rub the area until the stain is lifted. For stubborn stains, you may need to repeat the process a couple of times. Once the stain is removed, use a wet cloth to remove all traces of the vinegar solution.

Mend Tears in the Upholstery

The wear and tear of taking car seats in and out, transporting sports equipment, and little feet kicking the seatbacks can take a toll on your car's upholstery. After a while, you may notice scratches or tears on the cloth or leather.

If your car's upholstery has significant rips or tears, you'll get the best results by having a professional tackle the problem. A professional will be able to repair the seats so that the damage is indiscernible, which will help protect the resale value of your car.

However, if you have leather seats with a hole that's smaller than a 1/4 inch, you can address this problem yourself and achieve decent results.

What You'll Need

  • Leather repair adhesive
  • Artist's paintbrush


Dip the paintbrush in the leather repair adhesive and apply the adhesive to the hole, making sure the hole is completely covered.

Give the adhesive time to set, keeping passengers off the seats until it has fully dried.

Remove Stains from the Floor

Your car's floor can become home to all kinds of unsightly horrors. The floor is often a repository for spills, crumbs, dirt, sand, and salt. Left unattended, this mess can be ground into floor mats for a tough cleaning challenge.

What You'll Need

  • A vacuum cleaner with wand and roller brush attachments
  • A non-abrasive scouring pad
  • A spray bottle filled with two-parts water and one-part liquid soap or laundry detergent
  • Plastic bags to collect garbage
  • Rubber gloves


Start by doing a visual inspection of the vehicle's floor. Slide all the seats in the vehicle all the way forward and all the way back so you have a clear view of debris hiding underneath. With your gloves on, gather any trash lurking on the floor and under the seats, and deposit it in your plastic bags.

Now it's time to address crumbs and grime that may have become embedded on the floor. Do an initial pass with the vacuum to get rid of loose dirt. Follow up by spraying the floor with your detergent solution, taking care to apply extra pumps of liquid to those areas with the most grit and gunk.

Next, roll up your sleeves and grab your scouring pad. Use this pad to clean and clear those areas with the heaviest buildup of dirt and grime.

To clean rubber floor mats, spray them with the cleaning solution and rinse them off with water from a garden hose or kitchen faucet. Use the scouring pad to remove lingering grime. Let them sit in the sun for a couple of hours to dry. 

Complete the process with the vacuum: Use the roller brush attachment to clean any remaining dirt on the floor. Use the wand attachment to clean those hard-to-reach places under the seats.

Make Plastic and Vinyl Surfaces Shine

We love those little handprints the kids put on craft projects in preschool. But on door handles and seat backs? Not so much. Here’s how to get rid of those smudges and blotches.

What You'll Need

  • A spray bottle filled with two-parts water and one-part liquid soap or laundry detergent
  • Paper towels
  • Olive oil


Spray the detergent solution onto plastic and vinyl surfaces, including the dashboard, cup holders, and door handles. Use the paper towels to clear the buildup and remove excess liquid.

Dip a paper towel in some olive oil. Wipe down the dashboard, door panels, door jambs and seatbacks. The olive oil will help clear scuff marks, and it will moisturize these surfaces and leave them with a gorgeous sheen. As an added bonus, this approach is inexpensive and non-toxic.

Try these cleaning tricks to give your family car a complete makeover, and the only evidence of having kids in the car will be the kids themselves!

Warren Clarke is an automotive expert and writer for CARFAX, an online resource for used car shopping. He enjoys sharing car care tips to help car owners maintain the value of their family vehicle.


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