Aaron Widmar
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How to Make the Used Car You Just Bought Less Germ-Infested

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Tips for cleaning a used car that's filled with festering mold, bacteria, and microscopic critters

man cleaning car interior and wiping leather seats

You’ve spent months looking for a used car that’s within your budget and meets all your expectations. As you exchange the money for the title and drive away in your new car, don’t forget one very important fact: This car was previously driven by someone else.

Studies show that car interiors are crawling with bacteria, so if the car’s previous owner was even half as messy as you are, you can be sure that your new purchase is a haven for germs. Seriously, would you buy a used toilet seat or utensils without cleaning them?

In addition to all the legal and mechanical boxes to check when obtaining a used vehicle, make sure you don’t neglect another important step: cleaning!

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Black steering wheel with Hyundai logo and cloth cover
Photo: The News Wheel

Wipe the steering wheel

Most drivers don’t wipe down the steering wheel after they pick their nose or sneeze, and all that gunk builds up for you — the next owner — to touch. Before you drive this car even for a test drive, wipe down the steering wheel with disinfectant.

Photo of a car driver's seat grey fabric headrest and the back of the driver's head taken from rear sear
Photo: The News Wheel

Don’t touch the headrest

On your way home or to the DMV after buying the car, remove the headrest or drape a towel over it — particularly if it’s cloth upholstery. If there are any lice or parasites living in the car, there’s a strong likelihood they’d be hanging out in the headrest. Once you get home, scrub and sanitize all headrests rigorously.

Red and white carpet brush being used on a car's floor mat or seat upholstery
Photo: The News Wheel

Vacuum and Scrub the Upholstery

Following the headrests, vacuum the rest of the upholstery (including in between the seats, the floors, and the headliner) and thoroughly wash it with upholstery shampoo, preferably using a portable spot cleaning machine (even if you have to rent one). Park the car in a hot place so any lingering moisture can evaporate.

A Hyundai Elantra carpet floor mat next to a Weathertech Floorliner rubber car mat on a concrete surface
Weathertech Floorliner vs. original carpet mat for a 2014 Hyundai Elantra
Photo: The News Wheel

Mop the Mats

While trying not to think of all the trash and feces that has been smeared on the floor mats, remove them and lay them where you can shampoo them and spray them with a power washer. Or, buy completely new ones to replace the grungy old fabric ones.

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Person changing cabin air filter in a car
Photo: The News Wheel

Change the cabin air filter

Any smoke or particulates which were floating around the cabin will have been sucked through the ventilation system. Replace the filter with a brand new one. While you’re at it, spray disinfectant into the intake vent while running the AC so the whole system is sanitized.

Person cleaning and sanitizing car dashboard with a spray bottle and a cloth
Photo: The News Wheel

Wash the Plastic

Non-fabric surfaces can also house disgusting substances. Thoroughly wipe the dashboard, gear stick, levers, buttons, handles, and leather seats with disinfectant wipes. Afterward, polish them with conditioners, especially any leather surfaces.

Person holding a car key fob
Photo: The News Wheel

Don’t Forget the Keys!

After washing the car itself until it’s fresh and spotless, don’t forget to wipe down the keys and fobs that the previous owner kept in their pocket and smeared their fingers on.

If you take the time to clean out your used car after you buy it, you won’t have to fret about all the gross bacteria and nasty substances that were left behind by the prior owner; you can just hit the road in your new ride!