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Keeping your car interior clean during Coronavirus (and in general)

Published in blog.hemmings.com

All photos via AMMO NYC on YouTube.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, personal hygiene is more important than ever, and that extends to our vehicles. Of course it’s a good idea to keep a car sanitary in general, but it’s even more important if you’re buying or selling a car. Because our classifieds and our auctions site are one of the main reasons people come to Hemmings, we want to offer some guidelines for keeping cars clean and helping prevent the spread of disease.

Before we begin, however, we can’t stress one message enough: Don’t put yourself or others at risk. If that means putting off buying or selling a car for while, just wait. As we’ve mentioned, Hemmings is taking every precaution while we keep our business running, and we want you to be safe, too. If you do go ahead with a purchase or sale, take extra precautions. And remember, it’s not just a matter of protecting yourself from infection, but protecting others in the event you yourself are sick.

The basics: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face

The general guidelines for preventing the spread of any disease are the same around cars as anywhere else. Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after touching any unknown surface that someone else might touch, whether you’re picking up a car from a repair shop or doing some socially-distant car shopping. These guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are worth a refresher, even if you think you’re already a hand-washing expert. If you don’t have access to soap and water, hand sanitizer works as a backup.

Also, keep your distance. Don’t get in a car with someone from outside your household, even if the third row of an old station wagon is 6 feet away from the driver’s seat and the windows are down. Coronavirus isn’t classified as airborne, which can be confusing because it definitely can be spread through sneezing and coughing. And, because coronavirus can spread through people who aren’t showing any symptoms, you don’t want to risk exposure in the confined space of an automobile interior. Does that mean letting a car sit for a while, even days, after someone else is in it? Again, there’s no harm in taking that kind of safety measure.

The difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting

Kosilla always wears a mask, eye protection, and gloves whenever he’s cleaning a car, not just recently, because as a professional detailer he comes into contact with car-related germs on a daily basis.

For details on how to effectively make a car germ-free without ruining the interior with bleach, we turned to Larry Kosilla, a professional detailer with his own line of AMMO NYC car care products and a YouTube channel full of tutorials. His recent video, which we’ve included below, is a good overview of how make your car clean. “It isn’t a blanket approach, you need to be specific to each panel,” Kosilla said in a phone interview, noting that a typical car interior is made up of many different porous and non-porous materials.

He recommends focusing on the six spots in the car most likely to host germs, bacteria, and other infectious material: the steering wheel, cup holders, seatbelt, inside door handles, gearshift knob, and radio buttons. But before you get into cleaning, you need to know the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Cleaning is the act of physically removing dirt and other substances from a surface, usually with a detergent. Sanitizing lowers the number of germs on a surface, while disinfecting uses chemicals to actively kill germs. Don’t skip the first step, Kosilla said. “Cleaning is actually important. The CDC says you actually have to clean a surface before you disinfect it.”

Equally important is understanding how sanitizers and disinfectants work. Most disinfectants require a certain amount of dwell time to work effectively. That usually means leaving the surface wet for the indicated amount of time. “You have to read the bottle,” said Kosilla, “and then do what the bottle says.” You should also check out the list of EPA-approved disinfectants for Coronavirus, and look for the EPA label on the back of any sanitizing or disinfecting product, which allows the manufacturer to make legitimate effectiveness claims.

Besides cleaning your cars for your own safety and peace of mind, if you’re selling a car, you should do this any time a new person gets in and out of the vehicle. The same goes for your personal cars when you pick them up from service. And if you’re car shopping, don’t be afraid to ask the dealership or seller if you can give the car a wipe-down yourself.

Disinfecting your car without ruining the interior

So if you can’t bleach the inside of your car, how do you disinfect it? With dwell times for disinfectants typically 3 minutes or longer, “That’s a long time for a very high-pH product to sit on a very soft material,” said Kosilla. In his video, he recommends a deep clean on the whole interior, disinfecting those six hot spots, and sanitizing whatever else can be done without any visual discoloration. Plus, Kosilla notes that most sanitizing products are made for non-porous surfaces. On seats and fabric where you can’t keep the surface wet, it doesn’t do much. Bear in mind, as Kosilla himself stresses, he is not a doctor or an infectious disease expert – he’s figuring it out as we go just like the rest of us.

As with any cleaning product, always test an inconspicuous area first. Once your car is clean, you can take some extra steps to ensure you don’t bring any new dirt or germs inside. And don’t forget to clean your keys.

Lastly, we’d like to remind you that avoidance is one of the safest ways to prevent getting sick. Limiting trips outside the house extends to the garage – you can put off non-essential car repairs or buying and selling until the Coronavirus infection rate dies down. We’ll still be here when you’re ready, and we’ll have plenty of stories to keep you entertained in the meantime.