The professional detailer has always dealt with cleaning surfaces prior to the application of dressings. But what about disinfecting — the removal of what could be deadly pathogens within the interior?

The first place I looked for help was in the owner’s manual of my car. The only other time it was ever opened was when I needed to program the clock on the dashboard. Surprisingly, it provided extensive instructions on cleaning and caring for the interior, but nothing on disinfecting. Contacting the dealer and manufacturer didn’t help either. Dealing with Coronavirus is a first for most of us.

A mask can help.

As COVID-19 spreads, you have probably already learned the proper technique for washing your hands and which soaps, cleaners, and disinfectants can destroy the coronavirus.

The New England Journal of Medicine did a study on how long novel human Coronavirus survives on a range of surfaces. The report also listed the half-life (pace of decay) on the same substances. Decay rate is important because the longer the virus remains alive on a surface the greater the chance it can locate a new host. The report concludes Coronavirus can exist on stainless steel and plastic for two to three days.

Another study listed in the Journal of Hospital Infection surface tested several nasty viruses including SARS. It concludes the viruses can live on ceramics, metal, glass, rubber, and plastics for two to nine days. These are the same materials used inside a car.

Considering these disturbing studies, one can’t be too careful. We are in a pandemic. The detailing professional, client, and the client’s car all need careful consideration. Before detailing the interior, it must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. Who knows, your client could be an Uber or Lyft driver serving hundreds of customers!


Consider safety first. Common sense dictates detailers wear protective gloves. There are many good choices available for hand protection. The good doctor favors disposable Nitrile gloves. Introduced during the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, Nitrile helps protect from perforation, chemical, and biological threats during sanitizing. After one use, gloves should be discarded, and hands thoroughly washed.

What about a mask? It won’t hurt and can help, especially during decontamination. When an industrial respirator or disposable N95 face mask and face shield (or goggles) are used, the possibility for chemical inhalation and biological harm are reduced. Also, the likelihood of the detailer touching his face or eyes while wearing a mask is lessened, and that is a good thing.


Secondly, OSHA’s best practices dictate cleaning bio-threatened surfaces with a one-use cloth. Disposable microfiber towels are ideal for this application. The softness and scouring proficiency of microfiber is far superior to cotton cloths and disposable wipes, especially on textured surfaces.

Since disposable microfiber towels are available at a low-cost, they are ideal for this application. Being available in five colors enables “color coding,” reduces the possibility of mixing contaminated towels with drying and polishing towels.

Another option would be “closeout microfiber towels.” They’re discontinued towels that were purchased from a distressed seller. The towels are never distressed and very economical.

Why discard the towels? Think of it this way, if you were cleaning in a hospital, would you want to bring the cloths home, wash them and use around the house?

Bacteria and, more importantly, viruses live and thrive in damp cloths. Detergents do not necessarily kill Ebola, bacteria or Coronavirus. Cleaning cloths in hospitals always leave the building as biohazard waste, and so should yours.


Third, what are the best chemicals for disinfecting car interiors?

When it comes to disinfecting an interior, the potential for unwanted interactions can be formidable, especially when some cleaning ingredients can do lasting harm to the materials that make up a car’s interior.

Nearly every interior surface (except for leather)
of a car can be cleaned occasionally
with isopropyl-alcohol-based cleaners.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using alcohol solutions containing at least 70 percent alcohol are an acceptable method of killing Coronavirus on flat and textured surfaces. This means nearly every interior surface (except for leather) of a car can be cleaned occasionally with isopropyl alcohol-based cleaners. Vodka contains alcohol, but not enough to kill the virus. Save the vodka for after work.

Quoting from a recent Consumer Reports article on this subject, Jeff Stout, executive director global innovation at Yanfeng Automotive Interiors claims “for the most part, nearly every interior surface of a vehicle can be cleaned with isopropyl alcohol.”

As listed in Consumer Reports, Yanfeng is the world’s largest supplier of automotive interior parts and works with every major automaker. If you’ve been in a car, you’ve probably seen or touched something Yanfeng has made — and it uses isopropyl alcohol for cleaning parts in its own factories.

Further quoting Mr. Stout: “We will use that [alcohol] to clean smudges or any kind of last-minute details before we ship the product.” Stout asserts his company’s products — from plastic trim to painted chrome to imitation leather — have been tested to ensure they don’t degrade when exposed to pure isopropyl alcohol. He says, “that it’s even possible to rub the exterior surface of soft cloth upholstery with alcohol in order to clean it.”

What about other disinfectants?

Stay away from using bleach or hydrogen peroxide in the car’s interior. Those products could easily damage a car’s upholstery. And do not use ammonia-based cleaners on car touch screens, as they can damage their anti-glare and anti-fingerprint coatings.

Also used for disinfecting are Quats (quaternary ammonium compounds). Quats are commonly used as surfacedisinfectants. They’re applied alone or added to cleaning products.

Quats can be found in an extensive variety of well-known consumer products including several all-purpose cleaners and wipes. Although Quats are not harmful on most hard, non-porous surfaces they should be used with caution, wearing gloves and eye protection in well ventilated areas. I would recommend applying it first to a small hidden surface area to determine if there is any interaction.

One vendor to the industry has introduced an interesting new product. It is called RTU Interior Car Surface Sanitizer, Disinfectant & Deodorizer. It is described as: A proven soft surface sanitizer that gives you the power of cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting in one easy step. It claims to do everything the detailer needs to get done.


What about leather and upholstery?

Volvo Cars of Dayton, a dealership in Dayton, OH has an extensive section on their website titled: Disinfecting Your Vehicle Interior to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19. The site lists:

“If your Volvo or other vehicle has a leather interior, it probably has a thin protective coating to prevent discoloration. Isopropyl alcohol can deteriorate that coating and even remove the dye from the leather itself.”

The dealership further advises: “For leather steering wheels, seating, and trim, a combination of soap and water is a safe and sufficient way to clean them.

Do not scrub hard when cleaning your leather interior and avoid excess suds and water.” After the soap does the sanitizing, use soft microfiber towels with a good leather cleaner and conditioner to finish-up the job.

What about other upholstery?

Viruses have been detected on fabrics after 24 hours. In an article in Consumers Reports Larry Kosilla, president of car detailing company AMMO NYC recommends: if your car has fabric upholstery, he cautions against cleaning it with too much water or too much soap. “The goal is not to create too many suds. If you get suds, you’ll have suds forever.” The article also mentions, “if you soak through the fabric down to the cushion beneath, it could end up creating a musty smell or encouraging mold growth.”

Clean and disinfect all leather and upholstery surfaces with a microfiber towel. The cloths are made up from fabric that contains hundreds of thousands of microscopic fibers that lift and hold dirt particles and pathogens.

Of course, the most effective way to clean and sanitize automotive carpet and upholstery is with steamers and extractors. Hot steam is very useful in killing most viruses and bacteria lurking in the fabric. Extractors, on the other hand, allow for deep disinfecting and cleaning with a variety of chemical solutions that can destroy pathogens continuously over a period.

Who knew that in the modern era detailing would become so challenging?

In my lifetime I have seen the detailers’ business model evolve from “a guy with a bucket, can of wax, and a few rags,” to a true professional with extensive knowledge of chemistry, paint finishes, best practices — and is now moving into public health!

Joe Gartland, AKA Doctor Joe, is the founder of Towels by Doctor Joe®, longtime vendor to the car-care industry. You can reach the good doctor at