25 Genius Car Cleaning Hacks Every Parent Needs

The car used to be so tidy—and then kids happened. Here’s how to reclaim the clean and stave off the mess in the first place.
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By Holly Pevzner, Contributing Writer
Published March 18, 2019
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The family car is, quite literally, your home away from home, complete with the mess and disarray you’ve come to expect as a parent. Your vehicle’s formerly pristine leather interior is now streaked with jelly (or is that marker?). Your once immaculate foot wells are now littered with an array of decapitated Goldfish crackers, half-drunk sippy cups and toys just waiting to be barfed on. While you might cringe in disbelief and disgust each time buckle your child in, know this: 1) You’re not alone; 2) this can be fixed; and 3) you can actually prevent this mess-on-wheel from occurring in the first place. Here, 25 car cleaning hacks to help you get the car clean as quickly and painlessly as possible—and keep it that way.

1. Dust Your Vents with Foam Brushes

Don’t wait to clean your car vents until a gross puff of dust and grime blows directly into your kiddo’s face. Instead, gather some unused foam paint brushes from your kid’s art bin and wiggle them around in your car vents to catch all the gunk. You can even toss a couple behind you and have the backseat crew help too. When you’re done, rinse them off and stow them in the glove compartment for the next round of cleaning.

2. Duct-Tape Kids’ Shoes to Clean Filthy Floors

We’re big fans of car cleaning hacks that get the little ones to actually help out. Once your kids’ feet can touch the floor, stick a loop of duct tape on the soles of their shoes and challenge them to a game of Who Can Lift The Most Grime Off The Floor.

3. Diaper Up Spills

Diapers are designed to be ultra-absorbent and therefore are the perfect car cleaning hacks for quickly soaking up sippy cup spills, coffee mishaps and any other uh-oh overflows before the car upholstery gets stained. Plus, it’s always smart to have spare nappies in the car, right?

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4. Slime Your Car to Clean Nooks and Crannies

Car seat hacks that double as fun kids’ arts and crafts activities? Sold! Get the big kids to whip up a batch of slime by combining a half cup liquid starch (like Sta-Flo) with 4 ounces of clear or white Elmer’s glue and a quarter cup of water. When it’s all set, bring your special cleaning slime to the car—in all of its malleable and gooey glory—and press it into all of the dusty and dirty nooks and crannies, like the window buttons and the car logo on the dash. The slime gently lifts it all up with ease.

5. Baby Wipe the Windows

Chances are, you already have a boatload of baby wipes kicking around, so toss a fresh package in the car. They’re perfect for cleaning up your car’s dashboard and windows. Plus, they leave behind an anti-static residue, which helps keeps new dust at bay.

6. Keep Trash Compact

Kids are essentially a bunch of Oscar the Grouches: They’re totally comfortable hanging out in a sea of garbage. To fix the sitch, offer the kids an honest-to-goodness backseat trash can. Try one of those lidded plastic cereal containers. Simply line it with a small trash or plastic grocery bag, put the lid back on and place it within arm’s reach of your child. Every time you stop for gas, dump out the bin.

7. DIY a Bloody Nose Stain Remover

If you’ve got a child who’s prone to nosebleeds, keep this DIY stain remover recipe handy. Stir two teaspoons of salt into one cup of cold water. Dip a clean white cloth into the solution and carefully blot the blood stain from the car upholstery. Work your way from the edges to the center to stop the stain from spreading. Finally, rinse with cold water. PS: Dry air from the car’s heating system can exacerbate the problem, so try cracking a window.

8. Shampoo the Bird Poop Away

Got a car dotted with bird poop? Turn to your kiddo’s baby shampoo for a great car cleaning hack. Dilute the shampoo with equal parts water and wipe it onto the droppings in a circular motion using a clean cloth. It’ll break apart the poo quickly and gently. Just be sure to rinse your car immediately afterward to prevent any possible paint fade.

9. WD-40 Your Way to Sticker-Free Windows

And you thought the kids were quietly listening to Michelle Obama’s audiobook with you. Hah! Here’s how to remove those stickers the kids quietly plastered all over the car windows: First, pick off as much as you can, then spray WD-40 on what’s left. Let it sit for a few minutes and wipe the rest off with a clean, damp cloth. (It works on regrettable bumper sticker choices too.)

10. Knock Out Urine Smells

Potty training accidents can happen anywhere, including the backseat of your car. Be prepared with this car cleaning hack: Gently stir about 2 cups of cold water with 1 tablespoon of white vinegar and another tablespoon of liquid dish soap. Dip (don’t soak) a clean sponge into the mixture and carefully blot the pee-stained area from the outside in. Finally, with a clean, dry cloth, blot until dry.

11. Blow Away Crumbs

If the seams of your backseat could talk, they’d probably call for help! To rid them of their crummy past, use pressurized air-in-a-can to blow all of the disgusting bits out of the nooks and crannies so you then vacuum it all up.

12. Line Your Cup Holders

Drop silicone cupcake liners into your cup holders. This way, the liners will get sticky and dirty and gross, instead of your actual car. Next time you give the car a cleaning once-over, remove the liners, wash them out and pop them back in. Done and done.

13. Cover Seats to Keep the Backs Clean

Kiddos love to press their dirty shoes into the back of the driver and passenger seats. To keep the seat backs free of footprints, slide a big ol’ T-shirt over the front seats.

14. Make a Car Sick Kit

If you know you’ve got a puker on your hands, keep a Car Sick Kit in the car, which includes things like paper towels, a few plastic bags, a trash bag, a change of clothes, a bottle of water, hand sanitizer, some ginger candy and baking soda. Once you’ve cleaned the vomit up as best you can, pour a decent amount of the baking soda onto the remaining stain. It should form powdered clumps that can easily be vacuumed up later, taking the odor with it.

15. Stop the Drop

Thanks to its success on Shark Tank, we now have the amazing Drop Stop, which is a handy little gadget that blocks the gap between the driver’s seat and the center console—you know, the place where all those quarters and French Fries go to die, and where you phone slides every few weeks.

16. Ice Out Gum Stains

Stuff a zip-close freezer bag with about three handfuls of ice and place it directly onto the gum (or the stuck-on lollipop or anything else that’s sticky and stuck). Leave it on for about five minutes. Once the mess hardens, use an old gift or credit card to gently scrape the gum off your car upholstery or carpet. Vacuum up the loose bits. Next, dab a sponge in warm, soapy water and blot the mark in a circular motion. Cover with a clean rag and pat dry. If the gum landed on vinyl, try an adhesive remover, like Goo Gone.

17. Upcycle a Yoga Mat to Protect the Backseat

Finally, a use for your old prenatal yoga mat! For this genius car cleaning hack, trim the mat to match the shape and size of the seat where your child’s car seat or booster lives. Place the newly cut yoga mat on the seat, re-install the booster/car seat and—boom—the car is protected from spills, stains and car seat dents. And you recycled.

18. Transform Yoga Mats into Floor Mats

Got another yoga mat lying around? On it, trace the outline of your carpeted floor mats and cut around the perimeter. Place the yoga mat cut-outs on top of the carpet and you’ve got yourself some easy-to-clean, who-cares-if-it-gets-filthy floor mats that are perfect for a kid-packed backseat.

19. Nix the Stink with Charcoal

Vomit. Pee. Forgotten milk-filled bottles. To get rid of lingering unpleasant car odors, leave an opened bag of charcoal briquettes in your car overnight. And—voila—stink be gone! Car cleaning hacks don’t get much easier than this.

20. Clip a Clothespin for Fresher Smells

Once you get those icky odors out, keep the car smelling fresh: Grab an old fashioned wooden clothespin, rub in several drops of your favorite essential oil and then clip it to your car’s air vent. The air flow will naturally disperse the good smells.

21. Magic Erase the Grime Away

Good ol’ Mr. Clean and his Magic Eraser. He’s been there for the crayon on the wall incident, all the fingerpainting and even the spaghetti-on-the-ceiling splatter. This bad boy also makes for an awesome car cleaning hack, proving to be an ace at removing scuffs from vinyl seats. Make sure it’s very wet, and scrub very gently. If your rims need a clean-up, upgrade to Mr. Clean Magic Eraser Extra Durable, which is stronger than the original and contoured for rim-cleaning ease.

22. Banish Grease Stains with Cornstarch

Greasy hands and car upholstery just don’t mix. To undo what the Happy Meal did to your leather or cloth seats, apply a scoop of cornstarch to the affected area and gently rub into the stain with a clean rag. Let it sit for about 8 hours, allowing the cornstarch to soak up the grease. Once the time is up, use a hand vacuum to remove the cornstarch.

23. Undo Crayon Mishaps with WD-40 and Dish Detergent

Coloring in the backseat seemed like such a good road trip idea, until you spotted the ground-in crayon stains on the carpet and upholstery. To remove the stain, first scrape off any remaining crayon bits with a spoon. Next, spray a small amount of WD-40 over the area and gently dab it with a sponge. Finally, work some liquid dishwashing detergent onto the spot to help remove the last bits of crayon and the WD-40. And maybe consider one of those Magna-Doodles for the next long-haul trip.

24. Remove Dead Bugs with Dryer Sheets

Crusty dead bugs have a way of sticking around—and once they’re all dried up, they’re harder to remove. Give this car cleaning hack a try: Wet a dryer sheet and gently scrub the bug graveyard on your vehicle.

25. Squeegee Fur-Covered Seats

When your fur baby is just as messy as your real baby, lightly spray your upholstered seats with water and run a small squeegee over them. The rubber blade does a fabulous job of catching dog hair. The best part of this car cleaning hack? Since no chemicals are used, the kids can totally handle this job.

Published March 2019

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