Coronavirus cleaning: Are you properly disinfecting your car's cabin?

We asked an expert how to keep a car clean without damaging the interior

If your routine includes a lot of time either behind the wheel or in the back seat of strange automobiles, you may be wondering how best to protect yourself from the coronavirus pandemic. Or maybe you drive for Uber or Lyft and you want to protect yourself and your customers from accidental transmission. 

Take our fleet, for example. In the Autoblog office, we often have a half-dozen manufacturer-supplied vehicles rotating in and out every week, with just as many members of our staff taking turns behind the wheel. That's a lot of cars being driven by a lot of people, and keeping them as disease-free as possible is a difficult, time-consuming task. 

When it comes to disinfecting an interior, the potential for unwanted interactions can be daunting, especially when some cleaning ingredients can do lasting harm to the materials that make up your cabin. 

The good news is that keeping your car's interior free of harmful viruses and other unwanted elements is actually fairly simple if you follow a few guidelines. Since we're a bunch of car geeks, we reached out to an industry expert in cleaning chemistry. She works for an international chemical and consumer goods company and didn't want to be named for this article, but she was kind enough to give us a few cleaning pointers.

The key?

"Basic, good old soap. Soap chemically interacts with the surface of the virus in a way that degrades it very quickly and basically destroys the virus," she said. 

If you're used to an environment where the use of hand sanitizers is encouraged, this may seem counter-intuitive, but while alcohol-based products like garden-variety Purell may do a fine job of eliminating microbial threats, they're not actually ideal for car interiors. 

Conveniently, soap is a key ingredient in a lot of easily obtained items — classic liquid hand or dish soaps (think Dial), for example. The trick here is to avoid any cleaners that are labeled as being free of detergents. 

If you're already sitting on a cache of automotive cleaning supplies, you're probably in good shape. Basic Armor All wipes, for example, contain a mild detergent. 

For those with leather interior bits, makeup removal wipes (such as the Biore wipes pictured above) are a great solution; that's because skin care products typically contain moisturizers, which are good for organic trim materials. 

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

Both alcohol- and detergent-based cleaners can dry out organic materials. In other words, if it leaves your hands feeling dry after use, chances are it will sap the natural oils out of your car's leather interior, too. 

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

As an added bonus, leather conditioners tend to contain surfactants, which are the chemicals that help cleansers do what they do. They reduce the surface tension of water, helping it get into places it may not otherwise. In other words, they make water wetter. 

Ever used dish soap to clean a tent, only to find out it made the water leak right through the material? Congratulations, you already know how surfactants work, and they do the same thing to the outer layer of coronavirus, effectively neutralizing it. 

You shouldn't rely on conditioners alone to keep your leather surfaces free of viruses, however, and you don't want to over-use them, as they will leave leather greasy if you saturate it. If you use a product advertised for both cleaning and treating interior surfaces, make sure its packaging indicates it's safe for leather.

Regardless of what you use and how you use it, remember to wipe surfaces down after you're done cleaning them. Even gentler cleansers shouldn't be left to linger on your interior materials.

For those without real leather, there's more good news. While these vinyl or other synthetic interiors should not be cleaned with alcohol- or bleach-based cleansers, they do have one key upside: They're much easier to disinfect.

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

What about other surfaces, or items like key fobs and such, which may not have been built to the same exacting standards as highly trafficked interior bits?

"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," she said.

What else should you avoid besides bleach?

"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're going to use household cleaning wipes such as those made by Lysol or Clorox, absolutely avoid anything with bleach. And beware of spray disinfectants (again, Lysol), as they only work through direct contact. If you miss a spot, you may as well have not used anything at all. 

She also had tips for those who, like us, might frequently be swapping between cars that we don't own. 

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

If you're low on supplies, you can probably afford to skip the seating surfaces, as they don't really touch the parts of your body likely to come into contact with viruses. Unless, of course, you drive for a ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft. 

"Those drivers have it the worst," she said. 

The best advice she had for those who carry passengers for a living is to do so in a car with the simplest, most easily wiped-down interior possible. Plastic dashes and vinyl seating surfaces are far more easily cleaned than those adorned with fancier materials. It's like taxi fleets know what they're doing or something.

So, when cleaning your car's interior, keep these tips in mind:

  • Soap is always your best bet. It is harmful to coronavirus.
  • Avoid bleach except on simple plastics.
  • Don't use solvents.
  • Hand sanitizers contain alcohol, which can dry out leather. Use leather conditioner to keep it healthy. 
  • When in doubt, test cleaners on a surface that can't be easily seen first.
  • Wipe off what you wipe on; don't leave chemicals to linger.
  • Prioritize the surfaces you touch. Don't forget buttons and switches, your rearview mirror, even your gas cap.
  • Ride-hailing drivers should stick to the basics. Simpler interiors are the easiest to clean.

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