How to Clean a Car

A person vacuuming the floor of the backseat of a car.

How often do you clean your car? If your answer is a sheepish “almost never,” don’t worry: I’m about to vindicate you. Cleaning your car—washing the exterior in particular—is one of the most environmentally unfriendly things you can do. Think about it: the job requires gallons and gallons of water to dilute soap of often-mysterious chemical origins and rinse away road dirt laced with oil, exhaust, and tar. Most of us compound the problem even further by letting the wastewater run down the driveway and into a storm drain. So the less often you clean your car, the better off the planet is.

Of course, most of us take at least a little bit of pride in our vehicles, so it would be unreasonable to give up car cleaning entirely. But there are ways to minimize the environmental fallout from the pursuit of a clean car. These days, greened-up products are available (on the Internet if not at your local auto supply store) to replace all the traditional car cleaning supplies. When I set out to clean my car, I didn’t actually buy any car wash products; instead, I used everyday household items at every step in the process. Keep reading to find out exactly how I did it.

Steps to Cleaning a Car

  1. Target bag full of garbageFirst things first: empty the car out. Throw away any garbage, recycle the crusty old soda bottles and the driving directions to unrecognizable destinations, and pull out the floor mats. If your car has plastic or rubber mats, quickly spray them down with water and sprinkle some baking soda over them. Let these sit a while, then give them a quick scrub with a brush or rag before rinsing off the baking soda. If your car has carpeted floor mats, skip the water of course, but do throw a layer of odor-absorbing baking soda over the mats and let it sit until you’re ready to vacuum.
  2. wiping the inside of the door with a ragNext, wash any plastic or vinyl interior surfaces with a rag dampened in hot water. Yep: just hot water. You might want to run a dry rag over a dusty dashboard first, to avoid making mud. If you want your interior vinyl and plastic surfaces to be shiny and protected from fading and cracking, choose an environmentally conscious product like Eco Touch Dashboard Protect, and let the surfaces dry completely before applying it. Because I drive a decade-old Saturn, I didn’t have to worry about how to clean car leather, but if you do, there isn’t actually anything to worry about: you can simply wipe those surfaces down with gentle soap and water and then condition them with a small amount of olive oil, as described in my article on cleaning leather.
  3. Cleaning the inside of the windowsNow clean the interior windows and rear-view mirror with white vinegar. I just put it in a spray bottle straight up, but a mixture of equal parts vinegar and distilled water works just as well. The only drawback to using vinegar on windows instead of harsh ammonia-based products is that vinegar doesn’t always dry as quickly, and cloth rags usually leave streaks behind. I try to use paper towels only as a last resort, so instead I used folded-up pieces of old newspaper, which absorbed the vinegar and left the windows streak-free.
  4. Vacuuming the car seatsThe last step in car interior cleaning is to vacuum all the carpets and upholstery. Make sure you vacuum the trunk, if you have one, or lay down the seats to reach otherwise unexposed areas of carpet, if your vehicle has that feature. And, of course, don’t forget to vacuum carpeted mats you may have pulled out of the car earlier. Once again, sprinkling baking soda on all the upholstered or carpeted surfaces and allowing it to sit for at least five minutes before vacuuming will help remove odors. If the seats in your car have stains you’d like to get rid of, you can clean them after vacuuming by following the steps in Eric’s article about cleaning upholstery. Afterward, put back in the car the things that belong there, like your road atlas and jumper cables.
  5. Washing the hood of the carFinally, the fun part. Washing the exterior of the car is the fun part, right? The trick here is to use as little water as possible and, if you can, to park the vehicle on the lawn. That way, the wastewater will be filtered in the ground instead of running straight into the storm drain, which would lead it, unadulterated, into nearby waterways. Unfortunately, because I live in a large apartment complex, my only option was to use the car wash bay in the underground garage. Before you go after the car with a soapy rag, give it a quick rinse to loosen the dirt and wash away some particles that could scratch the paint as you scrub. To wash the car, limit yourself to a single bucketful of liquid. I used a homemade mixture of liquid dish soap, powdered laundry detergent (both made by Seventh Generation), and water. You can make a concentrate of this soap to keep handy by stirring 1/3 cup dish detergent and 1/4 cup laundry detergent into a gallon of water. Or you can make a single-use solution, like I did, by mixing a couple tablespoons of each soap into 2-3 gallons of water in a bucket. After you’ve soaped the car up thoroughly, give it one last quick-as-possible rinse, and let it dry.
  6. Washing the tiresAt this point, you can be done cleaning your car, or you can put a couple of finishing touches on it. To scrub tires, hubcaps, and bug-encrusted license plates, rub on a thick paste of baking soda and water. As always, be sure to use rinse water sparingly. If you want to put a coat or two of wax on your clean car, try to use an environmentally friendly brand. These are relatively hard to come by, even though most car waxes use natural carnauba wax as a base; the problem is all of the hazardous chemicals that most companies mix in with the carnauba wax. Your best bet for an eco-friendlier alternative is probably Optimum Car Wax, which is made by Eco Car Care and is available at several online shops.

Which is Better for the Environment: Washing a Car at Home or at the Carwash?

Washing the car is one of those rare tasks that the environmentally aware might be better off leaving to the professionals. The International Car Wash Association has estimated that a do-it-yourself car wash uses two to three times the amount of water pumped out in an automatic car wash. The other major benefit to taking your car in to be washed is that professional car washes are required by law to treat their wastewater, whereas most of the water used in a typical driveway car wash runs into storm drains, which lead to local wetlands and waterways, not to water treatment plants. Many professional car washes even recycle or reclaim their water after it’s been filtered and treated.

On the other hand, automatic car washes run on electricity while at-home car washes run mostly on elbow grease, which is the ultimate green energy source. Also consider that when you patronize a professional car wash, you have no control over what kind of chemicals they use to do the job, unless you’re lucky enough to have an eco-friendly car wash in your area. So if you make efforts during a hand car wash to emulate the water efficiency of a commercial car wash—such as using a hose with an automatic shut-off valve, rinsing as quickly as possible, and parking the car on the lawn instead of the driveway—you may very well be choosing the lesser evil.

Eco-Friendly Car Cleaning Products

Bottle of Ecover Interior cleanerEcover Car Glass & Interior Cleaner and Car Wash and Waxare two excellent products from one of the most reputable manufacturers of eco-friendly cleaning supplies. Both cleaners are plant-based, biodegradable, and made with the safety of waterways and their inhabitants in mind. What’s more, both products also shine and protect the surfaces they clean.

Bottle of Simple GreenSimple Green Car Wash, made by another well-regarded environmentally conscious company, is a gentle but effective, non-toxic, biodegradable solution for washing a car’s exterior. You can buy bottles of Simple Green at Amazon

Eco Touch Waterless Car Wash PictureEco Touch Waterless Car Wash is just one of several new products designed to make washing your car at home way more water-efficient than taking it to the carwash. To use this plant-based, biodegradable, phosphate-free solution, spray it directly on your vehicle and wipe it away. And you’re done.