Vehicles harbor a surprising amount of germs and bacteria, but tackling the contamination is easier than you might think.

By Kristina McGuirk
September 03, 2020
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Americans typically spend 290 hours driving each year, yet a study from Expedia’s CarRentals.com found that roughly half of car owners do not clean their vehicles on a regular basis. In fact, almost one-third only clean their cars once a year. But according to Brian Aylward, senior director of global textiles business at Microban, it is generally recommended that users clean the interior of their cars once a month.

And you might want to increase that frequency once you know what’s living inside your car. A 2014 study on bacteria found in car interiors looked at 11 high-touch areas of your car, and found the dirtiest spots to be the steering wheel, gear shifter, door handles and window switches, and the center console or beverage holder area. Not to mention, steering wheels were almost four times dirtier than public toilet seats (cupholders and seatbelts harbored more than twice as much bacteria), according to the same CarRentals.com study.

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Much of this has to do with eating in your car. Spilled drinks, errant fries, and overlooked crumbs are breeding grounds for germs and bacteria. In turn, continuing to eat in that environment exposes you further to germs while enhancing what’s already living there.

But a significantly germier activity impacting your car's cleanliness is pumping gas. Gas pumps are thousands of times dirtier than both steering wheels and public toilets. Research suggests that bacteria found on car interiors are likely to have come from contact with human skin, meaning you and your passengers are adding germs from the gas pump—and everywhere else—directly to your car’s interior.

This is especially significant given this year's pandemic. While the CDC believes coronavirus is mainly spread through respiratory droplets, it’s also possible a person can get COVID-19 from touching a surface with the virus, then touching their face. With summer road trips winding down, and work commutes and school drop-offs starting back up, now is a great time to clean and disinfect the inside of your car and make sanitization part of your regular routine. “If you are going to spend hours in your car because of travel restrictions, or just personal preference, you are going to want a vehicle, that is cleaner, has less stains, and doesn’t stink," says Aylard.

Stop Germs Before They Enter Your Car

Your first step to a cleaner car is to avoid bringing germs and bacteria inside when possible. Keep wipes or a small bottle of hand sanitizer in the car, in your purse, or on your keychain and immediately sanitize after entering your car when you’ve been in a public place. Frequently cleaning your hands will help prevent transferring germs onto those high-touch surfaces of your car. You should also take extra precautions at the gas pump.

How to Clean and Disinfect Your Car Interior

When it comes to cleaning for COVID-19, the CDC offers recommendations for disinfecting transport vehicles that also work as a guideline for personal vehicles. John Paul, also known as the AAA Car Doctor and senior manager of public affairs and traffic safety at AAA Northeast, also shared his advice for disinfecting your vehicle. Although not a medical doctor, Paul knows the ins and outs of cleaning a car.

The first thing to note is a two-step process: cleaning and disinfecting. Before disinfecting, the area should first be cleaned. Cleaning refers to removing germs from a surface. Getting rid of debris, stains, and other gunk allows disinfectants, applied in the second step, to successfully tackle surface bacteria. Disinfecting refers to using chemicals to break down and kill germs on a surface. When using a disinfectant, it's imperative to closely follow the manufacturer's instructions for concentration, application, and contact time in order to successfully disinfect an area.

Some interior car cleaners, such as Adam’s interior detailer with Microban ($13, Amazon), have antimicrobial ingredients with extended protection against mold and bacteria. Although this product does not kill viruses like COVID-19, it does help prevent other bacteria and gives disinfectants a cleaner surface on which to work.

To disinfect for COVID-19, you must choose a disinfectant from the EPA’s approved products list. Many standard car cleaners will not fight COVID-19, but some, such as Spray Nine ($13, Amazon), are approved and commonly used in a variety of environments including car interiors. Alternatively, soap and water is also appropriate for both cleaning and disinfecting most surfaces inside a car. When using soap and water to disinfect, treat the surface like your hands—remember to wash the area for at least 20 seconds.

Do not use ammonia-based cleaners and disinfectants or those containing hydrogen peroxide or bleach. They can damage the vinyl and plastics that make up most car interiors.

When disinfecting a vehicle, the CDC recommends wearing gloves, keeping windows and doors open to allow for ventilation, and wearing any personal protective equipment suggested by the product’s manufacturer.

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How to Clean Car Steering Wheels, Dashboards, and Other Hard Surfaces

The most high-touch areas in a car are not only the dirtiest, but they are also the areas you should prioritize cleaning first. Germs, bacteria, and viruses can typically live longer on hard, non-porous surfaces, including the steering wheel, door handles, rearview mirror, turn indicators, ventilation grills, temperature controls, gear shift, emergency brake, seat belt buckles, trunk, and gas-tank levers.

Some spots, like the center console, cup holders, and gear shift, might benefit from a quick vacuum to suck up large particles in crevices. Then, use soap and water or a preferred car care product to clean these areas. To disinfect, Paul recommends disinfecting wipes, which is what most auto care professionals use. They can be used on most interior car surfaces without causing damage. However, since wipes can be difficult to come by in some stores, 70% isopropyl alcohol ($4, Walmart) is also a safe disinfectant for hard surfaces in car interiors.

Do not apply a spray or liquid solution directly to the surface being treated. Instead, apply it to a soft towel first before wiping down the area. Microfiber cloths ($10 for 10, Bed Bath & Beyond) are a popular choice because they pick up dirt without scratching the surface.

How to Clean Car Seats, Carpet, and Other Upholstery

Start by vacuuming or brushing seat cushions, seat belts, floor mats, and carpets to remove dirt and large particles. Pull out any removable floor mats. Use soap and water or a preferred car-care product to eliminate dirt and grime. To disinfect, treat these surfaces with EPA-registered disinfectants approved for porous surfaces. Or, simply treat all surfaces with soap and water.

Whether cleaning or disinfecting, be gentle so water doesn't sink too deep into the material. When treating porous surfaces like car seats, using too much water can soak into the cushioning and take a long time to dry, potentially causing mold or other bacteria (as well as strong odors) to develop.

Paul recommends working soap or detergent into more of a lather and applying that to a towel or soft cloth, rather than directly onto the seat. “I mix up dish detergent in a little container,” says Paul. “Get it frothy and then use the suds on a sponge to apply it to the seat.” The same mixture can be used on the carpets and other fabric surfaces. Let carpet dry thoroughly before putting the floor mats back in.

How to Clean Leather Car Interiors

Leather car upholstery requires a bit more upkeep. Alcohol is not recommended for cleaning leather surfaces because it may damage the material by breaking down its protective coating. Again, soap and water works well for both cleaning and disinfecting leather; just remember not to flood the material with water. It’s recommended to apply a leather conditioner, such as Meguiar's Gold Class leather conditioner ($7, Walmart), after cleaning to prevent the natural material from drying out.

How to Clean Car Electronics and Touch Screens

Many cleaners are too harsh or too liquid to be used for GPS, digital touchscreens, and other electronics in your car. If available, follow manufacturer instructions for cleaning and disinfecting these items. Alternatively, a disinfecting wipe is commonly recommended. You can even look for technology or eyeglass wipes, like you would use on your cell phone, to use on your car systems. Make sure all electronics are turned off and be gentle when wiping. Paul cautions against wipes that include gritty particles like microbeads that could scratch the surface.

Can’t clean your car yourself? Or you have reason to be extra cautious about the cleanliness of your vehicle? Paul suggests checking with local auto detailing centers, many of which have started offering disinfecting services.

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