How to Sanitize Your Car Without Ruining the Interior

Amidst a viral outbreak like COVID-19, it’s important to sanitize those high-touch areas. This, of course, includes doorknobs, faucet handles, keyboards and even your mobile device. However, as you go about your disinfection binge, don’t overlook your vehicle! Steering wheels, knobs and shifters collect all those nasty germs – and considering a coronavirus like SARS-CoV-2 can last up to 72 hours on plastic, that means even a weekend away from your vehicle won’t kill off the virus naturally.

So, how do you go about cleaning and sanitizing your car properly without ruining your interior?

Sanitize the 10 germ hotspots

The most common touchpoints on your car should be wiped and disinfected frequently. Take extra care to sanitize these 10 places:

  1. Key Fob and Key – It’s the first part of the car you touch
  2. Door Handle – Wipe down both the outside and inside door handle thoroughly, paying attention to the inside of the lever, which harbors germs that come from your fingertips.
  3. Rearview Mirror – Sanitize the sides and back of your rearview mirror; the glass itself is not likely to be infected, but give it a light wipe-down, too.
  4. Garage Door Opening & Visor – You may only touch your garage door opening twice per day, but once is enough to transfer germs from your finger to the button.
  5. Vents – A sneeze or cough can transfer viral droplets onto your vents and spread germs throughout the cabin.
  6. Gear Selector – You touch it, you clean it.
  7. Steering Wheel – The most obvious touchpoint in your car is the steering wheel and any mounted controls and buttons.
  8. Center Stack – Volume knobs and HVAC controls should be sterilized as safely as possible, which means no bleach.
  9. Seat Belt and Buckle – The most overlooked part of your car that should be sterilized is the entire seat belt system, including the belt, the buckle and the fastener button.
  10. Levers and Buttons – Any controls for windows, headlights, blinkers or wipers should be sanitized with a car-safe product.

Clean Then Disinfect

First: Clean

Step one should be to clean your interior with your preferred car-safe interior detailer or cleaner. Follow the product’s instructions and focus on cleaning the high-touch areas, and repeat the process on stubborn stains. This won’t kill any chemicals, but it will remove oils and “agitate” and prep the area for disinfecting.

Wear gloves and refrain from applying cleaning sprays directly to any touchscreen or fabric.

Second: Disinfect

Disinfectant wipes should only be used on the high-touch portions of your vehicle as seen in the section above. These wipes can discolor or damage some fabrics and materials, but they’re effective at doing their job. It’s a good idea to test this on nonvisible areas of the car to ensure there is no damage before utilizing throughout the cabin.

Household cleaners like Clorox® wipes are for your household and your hands, not your car. They’ll clean off objects in a pinch, but doing so frequently will almost certainly accelerate the deterioration of your car’s interior, especially leather, soft-touch plastics and touchscreen displays. However, a disinfected car is far better than one with slight discoloration.

Today’s touchscreens are coated with a special anti-smudge protectant. Any harsh chemical, like bleach, or alcohol will destroy that layer of protection over time. An alcohol-based fluid like hand sanitizer, for instance, will also rub off the lettering on objects like turn signals, windshield wipers and headlight control levers. Even diluted bleach can damage your car’s interior dyed color coat or both porous and nonporous surfaces.

Additionally, once you destroy the finish of the steering wheel or other common cabin objects, you’re creating even more porous surfaces – the kinds of surfaces that invite and harbor viruses and bacteria. So, refrain from using these wipes on any supple leather seats or material.

Pay attention to “Dwell Time”

To be effective as a disinfectant, products must be left on surfaces for a certain length of time – this is known as “dwell time.” Be aware of the product’s listed dwell time, and follow it to a T. If you don’t follow this dwell time, you won’t be effectively killing all viruses, bacteria and germs.

Don’t wipe disinfectant when your vehicle is hot. A heated surface will reduce the dwell time.

Disinfectant vs. Sanitizer

Disinfectants are not the same as sanitizers. Sanitizers lower the number of germs on a surface; disinfectants kill germs. This is a crucial piece of information. Choose a disinfectant to clean your car and home, not a sanitizer.

Some people recommend using a cleaning agent with benzalkonium chloride to safely disinfect your vehicle, though the CDC notes that this chemical is less reliable at killing this novel coronavirus.

For a full list of disinfectants that are capable of killing COVID-19, please review EPA’s website. Not all products listed on the EPA site are safe to use on your vehicle’s surfaces, but they will work on the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

Be patient

Your steering wheel is probably dirtier than a toilet seat. But time, especially in the case of the coronavirus outbreak, is on your side. When exposed to air, most viruses won’t last long without the ability to find a host. COVID-19, as we mentioned, can live up to 72 hours on plastic. And when exposed to higher temperatures and UV rays, there’s a belief that viruses will have an even shorter lifespan.

Just be sure to use hand sanitizer before entering your vehicle again. This ensures your car won’t have a chance to harbor COVID-19 or other viruses.

Hands-Free Features Help

Hands Free Liftgate

Adopting a hands-free approach to life will prevent the number of infection touchpoints. Check out features like the Honda CR-V’s rain-sensing windshield wipers, hands-free access power tailgate and auto-on headlights help reduce those potential risks while also adding day-to-day convenience. It’s a win-win.


If you’d like to hear about how our Jacksonville-area Honda dealerships are serving customers during the Coronavirus pandemic, contact your nearest dealer for information.