Coronavirus (COVID-19): How to sanitise and clean your car

  • Cleaning your car can prevent the spread of viruses
  • But it's also nice to have a sparking interior at any time
  • Common touch points to keep your car spotless

Modern cars are surprisingly well-engineered to help in the battle against germs and grime - the muck you can see is easy enough, but many vehicles now have antimicrobial coatings on surfaces like steering wheels or gear levers.

However, those aren't going to prevent germs on dirt, or keep the car looking nice - so a quick clean isn't just reassuring, you'll enjoy sparking trim and dust-free displays for a while too.

  • Washing your hands, and not touching your face after contact with your car, is the best regime
  • Give your car one good clean, then santise contact surfaces when other people have touched them, or you're concerned you may have contaminated them
  • Many cars now have antimicrobial materials for steering wheels, seat fabrics and handles
  • Water is usually enough for cleaning dirt, but not germs - remove dirt/built up grease first
  • Let your car interior dry in sunlight if possible. Windows, sunroof or roof down - UV light isn't proven to kill Coronavirus COVID-19 specifically, but it is effective against many micro-organisms
  • Most antibacterial cleaners are a form of isopropyl alcohol. 70% or less is safe for the majority of surfaces as a wipe - don't let products sit or sit or soak unless directed, and designed for cars
  • The risks are still very low, so don't panic. As long as you haven't shared the car with someone infected, it should be a safe place
  • If you are concerned about passengers in your car, pay attention to their seatbelt, the seat or dashboard in front of them, inside of windows and surfaces they touch when getting into, or out of, the car
  • Current advice is that the virus lives for less time on fabrics than it does on hard surfaces - about 48 hours - so if you haven't had passengers for two days the risk should be reduced
  • These are all guidelines - knowledge about COVID-19 is continually evolving

Which cleaning products are safe to use on my car interior?

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Given the wide variety of materials and finishes in modern cars, you're wise to ask - from soft-touch rubberised plastics, to open-pore woods and delicate chrome effects there's a lot to consider, and some of these materials can be cosmetically damaged by the wrong solvents.

At the moment, specialist car cleaning products are readily available on Amazon and from garages and car parts stores such as Halfords.

For the most part, using just water to remove visible dirt is enough, in small amounts - a damp cloth and some patience, followed by soap and water to clean the surface. But you'll be pleased to know that if you're more concerned about what you can't see, the majority of isopropyl alcohol wipes will do an excellent job of removing grease, germs and marks without harming the soft materials.

During a pandemic or mass concern around viruses, there are shortages of products - it's worth remembering that this article is just a guide, and if you can't get items such as isopropyl alcohol, making do with what you have is better than nothing - please, don't panic, or panic-buy.

Apply hand sanitiser gel to a towel or microfibre cloth before using on your car

That unscented, un-coloured hand sanitiser gel that's become so valuable to us all during measures against COVID-19 is arguably the best thing for wiping your car touch points with too. If you car is reasonably new that's all you'll need for routine sanitising between drives and drivers.

However, if you've got an older car, or haven't been as focused cleaning it for a while, it's worth going over some of the controls and trim with more detail as built-up dirt provides an easier surface for things to adhere to. Like sneezes, for example...

This is a quick guide, but Toyota has helpfully posted its detailed car cleaning checklist - used to ensure demonstrators and fleet cars are spotless, and free of invisible nasties too.

Before starting: vacuum!

Every bit of dust, grit and muck in the car that you can remove with a vacuum cleaner will make your life easier further down the line. If you've got a decent cordless model, like the Dyson V8, we envy you - but any household vacuum with a detachable hose will do the job. Lift all the mats out, noting any hooks or catches used to secure them, and the rest is self-explanatory.

You can get specialist attachments for clearing tighter gaps in seats, or brushing bits like the space above the steering wheel where dust builds up. We tend to avoid using hard tools on the dashboard, but the soft brushes are ideal if there's space.

Mats can be given an easy clean by bringing them indoors and using the carpet tools. If they're particularly stained, don't be afraid to make liberal use of interior shampoo and plenty of water - undless they're very old and fragile, rinsing under a hose won't hurt them; just run it until the water runs clean and give them plenty of time to dry out.

How to clean stalks, levers and switches

You might forget just how many little levers and switches you use in your car...

Mercedes-Benz C250d control stalks - car cleaning

You touch the gear lever, steering wheel and we hope, indicators on every single drive - and so has everyone else who has ever driven your car. A wipe over with a damp cloth, anti-bacterial gel or mild household cleaner (Dettol) will suffice if you're primarily focused on exposure to viruses. Try to avoid applying cleaning products directly to the car - put them on the towel or cloth first.

Some cars have grooves and recessed textures that can build up grease and dirt, and this will hold contaminants even on anti-microbial finishes. Over time, this can look like the markings on your controls have worn off, or the stitching on the leather steering wheel has faded.

How dirty can a car stalk be? This car's been valeted recently...

Before cleaning, a gel-type cleaner (often marketed for cleaning computer keyboards) is a quick and easy way of lifting dust and grease from around switches and vents. It's unlikely to make everything spotless, or provide a polished shine, but you'll get all the fiddly things are are too recessed for a duster and too sticky for a vacuum.

Cleaning gel for keyboards. It's not anti-microbial, but it lifts grease and dirt particles in difficult places

There are various specialised tools for gaps and textured surfaces, but little beats an old, cleaned toothbrush (if you're feeling flush, you could buy a new cheap child's one, and yes, it is easier if you have a powered one with a rotating head).

Cleaning a car's controls with a toothbrush gets into grooves and textures that can retain dirt

For serious muck, get a mug of lukewarm water to dip your toothbrush, kitchen towel or microfibre cloth in. Just water is often enough here, but you can add a small amount of interior shampoo. The technique is simple - don't apply pressure, you're not trying to buff or polish, you just want the dirt to loosen and move. This is particularly important on soft-touch stalks and switches.

Dettol and similar disinfectant surface cleaners are okay to use in the car, sparingly

On newer, or cleaner cars, some Dettol or other surface cleaner applied with a kitchen towel is enough. Don't spray it directly on the surface, just dab it on and wipe away. Disposable towels may leave small fibres, but at least they're disinfected fibres...

Once cleaned, pat-dry with a microfibre cloth - a pack of ten is usually less than £6, so you can keep colour-coded ones for cleaning and finishing, and then wipe again with your antibacterial wipes or gel. Now you've got a factory fresh, clean control ready to use. On modern cars, you may not use the handbrake much - but don't forget it.

A recently valeted car can still have a lot of dirt on frequently-used controls

You'll be amazed at how grubby even a recently valeted, newish car can be on those important places.

Seats, doors and handles - the forgotten areas

All those controls up front are easy to remember. What about when the kids were in the back of the car on the way back from school? Or when you had to move a two-door car's seats forward?

Children and adults will touch many parts of the trim when getting into a car

Children and adults alike will hold onto the seat, window frames and trim when getting in and out of the car, so don't forget to get those areas with the wipes or spray and cloth.

Gloves: Good, but not essential

You'll notice most of these pictures lack gloves. They're a nice to have, but in short supply - and you'll be okay if you don't have any. The key advice is to avoid touching your face (mouth, eyes and nose are where most viruses, including COVID-19, have the easiest access) and wash your hands (with antibacterial soap if possible) thoroughly after you're done cleaning.

Using your disposable gloves as the first bag when double-bagging waste saves on plastics

For the best protection, it's also advised to double-bag your disposable cleaning products. You should remove gloves by hooking your thumb inside the opposite glove, and turning it inside-out without touching the outside. You can also minimise waste a bit by throwing away your tissues/wipes inside the gloves...

There's no disinfectant in the shops - what can I use?

Soap and water is all you really need, just make sure you've taken time to get surfaces clean and dab them dry with a paper towel, then dispose of the towel. The gentler the soap the better - dishwashing products have additives that are harsh for skin and car trim and paint alike (they'll be okay if that's all you have, but rinse thoroughly).

If you want to feel you've done more, UV light is a proven sterilising technique, and as spring gets underway there's a decent amount of it available free. Dry the car with it parked in direct sunlight, with windows/sunroof or roof open where safe to do so.

Above all, even making a small effort is better than ignoring the risks entirely.

Parkers recommends

That level of thoroughness can be hard to maintain, and difficult when items are in short supply, so our advice is to give your car one good clean - and worry about things like interior controls when you have changed drivers, or let others use your car such as at garages or MOT centres.

Exterior handles are worth wiping down regularly, particularly if you've given lifts to people outside of your own family, and if you do have disposable gloves the best time to use them is at the petrol station - when using the filler, cash machine, pay-at-pump and door handles, then dispose of the gloves in the forecourt bins before touching your car. You can minimise contact there by using pay-at-pump apps, too.

Clean door handles with dettol or similar, applied to a wipe or kitchen towel - don't spray directly on the handle

Top-tip we learned making this article: Cars with touch sensitive handles, like our long-term Mercedes-Benz C-Class Cabriolet, are best cleaned with the doors open to prevent the car from repeatedly locking and unlocking...

Read more cars and the pandemic advice from Parkers:

>> Car dealers are still open for business

>> Advice for drivers during COVID-19

>> Car payment holidays: Can you move payments during COVID-19?