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Coronavirus: How to Clean your Car Interior Properly

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With the coronavirus crisis currently spreading across the globe, it’s important in a whole number of ways to follow the advice provided by the authorities and experts. This includes specific recommendations and instructions on how to disinfect our immediate environment - including the car we use. Of course, this is all the more important if the vehicle is used by large numbers of people, for instance taxis and UBERs, shared cars, etc. That even applies to us auto journalist hacks, who happily exchange vehicles week after week!

Even for us, the issue is therefore extremely relevant. The same applies if you’re about to buy a used vehicle. In short, there are many different situations.

Here then are a few useful tips that will help you keep the interior of your vehicle as free as possible from germs of all types, including of course the coronavirus. Note that the following information is taken from a report published recently by American website Autoblog.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

The challenge
When it comes to disinfecting a vehicle's interior, the risk of undesirable chemical reactions can be a concern, as some ingredients in cleaning products can cause permanent damage to the materials and surfaces that make up the passenger compartment.

The good news is that it's actually quite simple to keep your car's interior free of harmful viruses and other undesirable elements, as long as you follow a few guidelines. As such, Autoblog called in an expert on the chemical components found in cleaning products. She works for an international chemical and consumer goods company and preferred to remain anonymous. Nevertheless, she was kind enough to share her expertise with some practical advice.

The key ingredient
The key ingredient in any good cleaning operation is good old-fashioned soap. “Soap chemically interacts with the surface of the virus in a way that degrades it very quickly and basically destroys the virus," says the expert.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

If you're used to an environment where use of hand sanitizers is encouraged, it may seem counterintuitive, but the fact is that while alcohol-based products like Purell do a good job of eliminating microbial threats, they're not really ideal for car interiors.

The good news is that soap is one of the key ingredients in many easy-to-get items like liquid hand soaps or dishwashing liquid (think Dial), for example. The idea here is to avoid cleaners labeled as detergent-free.

If you already own a cupboard-full of car cleaning products, you're probably good to go. The simple Armor All cloth, for example, contains a mild detergent.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

For people who have to deal with leather-covered interiors, make-up remover wipes represent an excellent solution. The reason is simple: skin care products usually contain moisturizers, which is good for organic materials.

"Unlike our skin, which has the ability to self re-moisturize, your interior can't," explains the specialist.

Avoid alcohol (in the cleaning products)
Alcohol-based cleaners and detergents can dry out organic materials. Why? Well if they leave your hands dry after use, chances are they will also dry out the natural oils in your car's leather.

If you don't have access to detergent-based cleaners containing moisturizers, or if you plan to use an alcohol-based cleaner, you can mitigate the drying effects by using leather conditioners. These will replenish the oils that your cleaning process has removed.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

In addition, leather conditioners usually contain surfactants (surface active agents). Surfactants are the chemicals that help cleaners do their job. They reduce the surface tension of water, helping it get to places it would otherwise be unable to reach. In other words, they make the water more... moist.

Here’s a good illustration of that phenomenon: Have you ever used dishwashing soap to clean a tent, only to find out afterwards that water was running through the material? Congratulations, now you know how surfactants work and they do the same thing to the outer layer of the coronavirus, effectively neutralizing it in the process.

However, you shouldn't rely solely on conditioners to keep your leather surfaces free of viruses, and you don't want to overuse them, as they will leave the leather greasy if you overdo it. If you’re using a product that claims to be both effective for cleaning and for treating interior surfaces, make sure its packaging indicates that it’s safe for leather.

Whatever the product or the way you use it, remember to wipe the surfaces clean after treatment. Avoid having even the mildest cleaners linger on your materials.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

Non-leather surfaces
For those who don't have real leather, the job is even easier. Although interiors made of vinyl or other synthetic materials shouldn’t be cleaned with alcohol or bleach-based products, they have one advantage: they’re much easier to disinfect.

"They don't absorb anything, so once you clean the surface, it's clean," the expert says.

And what about other surfaces or objects such as key rings and the like that may not have been built to the same rigorous standards as the interior parts?

"Painted surfaces will not love alcohol, but will generally tolerate bleach well. Vinyl-wrapped surfaces — many 'chrome' surfaces are actually vinyl wraps — will not do well and the finish will be damaged. Simple plastics can tolerate bleach well," explains Autoblog’s expert.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

Other products to avoid?
"All solvents (alcohols, acetone, kerosene, etc.) should be avoided, not just because they can damage expensive interior bits, but also because they don't really affect viruses," she said.

If you must use household cleaning wipes such as Lysol or Clorox, avoid anything containing bleach at all. And beware of aerosol disinfectants (again, Lysol) because they only work through direct contact. If you forget a stain, it's as if you haven't used anything at all.

The expert consulted by Autoblog also has some advice for those who use car-sharing series or folks like us – car reviewers, journalists, etc. – who frequently exchange cars that are used by quantities of people.

"Focus on the steering wheel, assorted switchgear, shifter, and the [infotainment interface]. The rear view mirror merits a wipe, too, [and] don't forget the gas cap!"

Photo: D.Boshouwers
Photo: D.Boshouwers

If you run out of cleaning products, you can probably skip the seat surfaces, as they don't really touch the parts of your body that may be in contact with viruses. Unless, of course, you're driving for a service like Uber or Lyft.

The best advice she had for those who ferry passengers around for a living is to do so in a car interior of which is the simplest and easiest to clean. Plastic dashboards and vinyl seat surfaces are much easier to maintain than those decorated with more luxurious materials.

Photo: D.Boshouwers

Here’s a quick summary of things to keep in mind if you’re cleaning/disinfecting the interior of your vehicle:

- Soap is always your best ally. It will destroy germs, including the coronavirus.
- Avoid bleach, except on basic plastics.
- Do not use solvents.
- Hand sanitizers contain alcohol, which can dry out leather. Use leather conditioner to keep leather in good condition.
- When in doubt, test your cleaners on a surface that may not be visible inside.
- Wipe surfaces after cleaning; do not allow chemicals to act on them.
- Focus especially on the surfaces you touch. Try to hit all the buttons and switches, the rearview mirror and the gas cap.
- Simple interiors are the easiest to clean.