Why Keeping Your Car Clean Matters

Healthy Living

July 19, 2022

Here’s a dirty little secret: your car is less clean than you think it is.

And let’s be honest. It’s easy to forget about your car, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t mind a few fries or straw wrappers littering the floor here and there. Who even has time to dust the console, anyway?

Unfortunately, that devil-may-care attitude when it comes to cleaning (or not) could create more than just a messy interior. Over time, germs and air pollution may take up residence in your vehicle. And before you know it, your health and the health of your passengers could suffer as well.

If that sounds a bit dramatic, it’s not. A clean space is a happier, healthier space, and that extends to your vehicle, too.

Bottom line? You need to clean your car. Here’s why.

Car clutter can affect your mental health.

Let’s deal with the most obvious type of vehicle mess first: clutter. Whether it’s sports gear in the backseat, food wrappers on the floor or empty cups in the cupholders, there may be stuff everywhere.

Families with young kids may be especially prone to this problem. Children tend to leave trails of toys and crumbs wherever they go. Plus, as any parent knows, it’s always a good idea to have extra gear on hand in case an emergency pops up. Where do you keep kids’ spare wipes and clothes? In the car, of course!

No matter the source of the chaos in your car, it can be rough on your mental health. Experts say that clutter in your environment places demands on your attention. It calls you to focus on it instead of fully immersing yourself in your current activity.

Such disruptions can amp up your stress and anxiety levels. In particular, women who are surrounded by excess junk may have greater amounts of the stress hormone cortisol in their bodies. Research even shows a link between cluttered environments and mood disorders like depression.

So it’s not just in your head. All that stuff you’re driving around with can affect how you feel. Clean it up to unburden yourself — literally and figuratively.

How to Beat It

To tackle the dirt and clutter in your car, start by taking everything out. Then sort it into separate piles. Your categories might differ, but options include:

  • Trash or stuff to throw away
  • Things that need to be washed or cleaned, like clothing or dirty toys
  • Stuff that belongs elsewhere
  • Things that need to be put back into the car, like emergency supplies

While the car is empty, give it a thorough cleaning. Shake out the floor mats and wipe them down. Use a wet wipe to swipe crumbs from the cupholders and door pockets. Run a vacuum over the floors and seats. If you have kids or pets, you may need to do a few extra passes with the vacuum to make sure you get everything that they’ve left behind.

If you don’t have a portable vacuum, declutter your car and then take it through a carwash that has a free vacuum, or just skip the exterior wash and pay for vacuums separately. Those high-powered machines at a carwash may be able to suction more than your home-based standby.

Before returning anything to your car, come up with an organizational system. You can buy backseat organizers that hang from the front seats or rest in the middle passenger spot. They’re great for stashing kids’ gear, but even people without youngsters might find them handy.

Pick up another organizer for your trunk. It will keep loose items from rolling around in the back. Plus, you’ll always know where to find essentials like the first aid kit or a spare dog leash.

Your car is also a breeding ground for microorganisms.

Everyone knows that public toilet seats are germy. You’ve probably heard, too, that cell phones are filthy. We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your car’s even worse.

It’s true. Research shows that steering wheels have four times as many bacteria as public toilets. They’re also six times germier than cell phones. Yikes.

Other microbe magnets include seatbelts and door handles. You’ll also find plenty of bacteria hanging out around the cupholders, the gear selector and the dashboard knobs.

It’s not hard to see why your car is full of bacteria, though. Think about how many things you come in contact with out in the world. As you do, you pick up germs. When you get back into your car, those microbes transfer to the vehicle’s touch surfaces. 

One study found that the average car harbored 700 different types of bacteria.

The outdoor environment can contribute, too. If you live in a cold area, fungi will find it easy to reproduce in your car. Living in a warm, humid climate can also encourage bacterial growth.

How to Beat It

Some automotive experts recommend using a solution with 70% alcohol to wipe down and disinfect your car’s interior. Others suggest sticking with dish soap and water. As a general rule, though, don’t use any cleaning products with bleach or hydrogen peroxide.

Use a microfiber cloth to wipe down broad surfaces. For small nooks and crannies, try a damp toothbrush instead.

Think through all the surfaces you touch when you’re in your car. Go over each one of them with your cleaning solution. Suggestions include: 

  • Door handles
  • Dashboard knobs and buttons
  • Sun visors
  • Seat buckles

Don’t forget areas away from the front seat, either, such as the trunk’s door handle. And take a minute to wipe down your keys as well.

Consult the manufacturer’s directions for the best way to clean your car’s touchscreen if you have one. Ammonia and other chemicals can ruin its coating. 

And if you have car surfaces that require special handling, read up on how to wipe those down before you use a product that damages them.

The air in your car may not be so fresh, either.

Even if you drive with the doors closed and the windows up, you’re not shut off from the outside world. Outdoor air makes its way inside cars. And when you’re driving in areas with high pollution especially, you can expect the air in your car to become loaded with contaminants.

The exhaust from other cars is one major source of in-car air pollution, but it’s not the only one. As brakes and tires wear down, they release fine particles into the surrounding air. The same goes for the roads you’re driving on.

The interior of your car can also be a culprit here. The material that makes your car comfortable — foam, fabric, leather and the like — also releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

All these sources of contamination add up. 

The time you spend in your car could expose you to more air pollutants than anything else you do in a day. According to one study, professional drivers breathe in four times as much contamination when on the road as they do at home.

Air pollution is associated with a variety of breathing problems. Research also suggests links to dementia, eye irritation and even heart attacks.

How to Beat It

Polluted cabin air is one of the trickiest issues when it comes to maintaining a clean car. That’s because tossing your trash and wiping down surfaces alone won’t necessarily fix the problem. 

The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to change your car’s cabin air filter frequently. The filter’s job is to trap particulates. It can’t grab all of them, but it does make a difference. Dirty filters are less effective, though.

The usual advice is to change your filter once every 12,000 miles. Your owner’s manual can give specific advice for your car model, and people with allergies or health concerns may need to change the filter more often than advised.

You can also look into a filter upgrade. Nicer filters will cost you more, but they may trap finer particles and keep your in-cabin air cleaner. 

Keeping your car’s interior clean might not be high on your priority list, but it’s essential to your overall health — especially if you’re in the car a lot. Make cleaning your vehicle part of your general cleaning routine. You may just enjoy a healthier time on the road.