Washing hands and cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces are two of the best ways to defend against spreading the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As COVID-19 spreads, you’ve probably already learned the proper technique for washing your hands and which household cleaners can destroy a coronavirus.
But what about the inside of your car?
If you or someone else who has been in your car show symptoms of the illness, you should clean frequently touched surfaces, including the steering wheel, door handles, shift lever, any buttons or touch screens, wiper and turn signal stalks, passenger and driver door armrests, grab handles, and seat adjusters, according to Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center.
If you’re a taxi or ride-hailing driver who carries lots of passengers, driving a rented or shared car, or if you live somewhere with many cases of COVID-19, regularly cleaning these surfaces is a must.
A car’s interior is less durable than, say, a kitchen counter or bathroom sink. So how do you protect those surfaces without damaging them?
With a few notable exceptions, many of the same household cleaners that kill coronaviruses on hard surfaces at home can also clean a car without damaging its interior. Chances are, you may already have some of these products at home.
Alcohol solutions that contain at least 70 percent alcohol are effective against coronavirus, according to the CDC. For the most part, nearly every interior surface of a vehicle can be cleaned with isopropyl alcohol, says Jeff Stout, executive director global innovation at Yanfeng Automotive Interiors.
Yanfeng is the world’s largest supplier of automotive interior parts, and works with almost every major automaker. If you’ve been in a car, you’ve probably seen or touched something Yanfeng has made—and it uses isopropyl alcohol for cleaning parts in its own factories.
“We will use that to clean smudges or any kind of last minute details before we ship the product,” Stout says. All the company’s products—from plastic trim to painted chrome to imitation leather—have been tested to ensure they don’t degrade when exposed to pure isopropyl alcohol. Stout says that it’s even possible to rub the exterior surface of soft cloth upholstery with alcohol in order to clean it.
Whatever you do, don’t use bleach or hydrogen peroxide on the inside of your car. While they can both kill coronaviruses on surfaces, they will likely damage your car’s upholstery. And do not use ammonia-based cleaners on car touch screens, as they can damage their anti-glare and anti-fingerprint coatings.
Vigorous washing with soap and water can also destroy a coronavirus. Coronaviruses are surrounded by a protective envelope that helps them to infect other cells, and destroying that envelope can effectively disarm them.
"Friction from cleaning also participates in the destruction,” says Stephen Thomas, M.D., chief of infectious diseases and director of global health at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. “You want to do the best with what you have, so even soap and water can chip away at the risk."
Soap and water are also safe for most car interiors—especially fabrics and older leather that may have begun to crack. Just be sure not to scrub too hard, says Larry Kosilla, president of car detailing company AMMO NYC and host of a popular YouTube channel about car detailing.
Most car leathers and imitation leathers have urethane coatings for protection, which is safe to clean with alcohol. But most leathers are dyed, and cleaning too vigorously can remove the dye.
Kosilla says he’s heard from car owners who think their light-colored leather is getting dirtier as they scrub it, which isn’t the case. “It’s not getting dirtier, you’re removing all the color on top,” he says.
Take care of your leather upholstery after you clean it, says John Ibbotson, chief automotive services manager at CR. “You should use a good leather cleaner, then a good leather conditioner afterwards,” he says.
If your car has fabric upholstery, Kosilla warns against cleaning it with too much water or too much soap. “The goal is not to create too many suds. If you get suds, you’ll have suds forever,” he says. In addition, if you soak through the fabric down to the cushion beneath, it could end up creating a musty smell or encouraging mold growth in the cushions. Instead, Kosilla recommends lightly agitating the fabric with a small amount of water and laundry detergent.
Both Stout and Kosilla recommend cleaning all surfaces with a microfiber cloth. That’s because they’re made of fabric that consists of tiny little loops that capture and sweep away dirt and dust particles before they can scratch delicate or shiny plastic surfaces. By comparison, the dirt and debris in your car can stick to even the cleanest paper towels or napkins and scratch surfaces—”like sandpaper,” Kosilla says.
Once you’re finished cleaning, don’t forget to wash your hands before and after driving. It’s a good habit to get into even outside of the spread of COVID-19, as it will keep your steering wheel and other frequently touched surfaces in your car from looking dingy.
“The number one thing is to clean your hands,” Kosilla says. “You can clean your steering wheel, but if you have dirty hands, you put that dirt back on.”
Washing your hands is still one of the best ways to defend yourself against COVID-19, says Thomas.
"It is known that coronaviruses can persist on surfaces, but as of right now we still think infections via respiratory transmission are still primarily the main route from person to person,” he says.
—Additional reporting by Perry Santanachote