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The right way to disinfect your car during the coronavirus pandemic

A gloved hand cleaning a steering wheel of a car. Photo by Tom Wang / Alamy Stock Photo

As you step up COVID-19 hygiene and sanitizing practices, don't forget your vehicle, because germs can lurk on the steering wheel and other surfaces.

Since March, most of us have been practicing new habits to help keep ourselves and others safe from COVID-19. Such habits include wearing masks, washing our hands frequently, social distancing, and wiping down frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, countertops, computer keyboards, and smartphones.

There’s another item you can add to that checklist: your car. Disinfecting your car’s interior is important—even if you’re driving less than you usually do—because you might be less aware of contaminated surfaces there. And there’s a way to do it that will both destroy pathogens and protect and beautify the surfaces.

Your car’s interior is far less sanitary than you might think. For instance, CarRentals.com found that four times as many germs lurk on the typical steering wheel than on a public toilet seat. And, oh, those dirty Brits: European insurance company Ageas found the typical British car interior to be 19 times germier than a toilet seat—a distressing thought during a flu and cold season, and even more so in the midst of a pandemic.

CarRentals.com says the dirtiest parts of the interior are, in descending order: the steering wheel, cup holders, seat belt latches, door handles, gearshift, and the audio controls. Ageas found car trunks and child seats also to be particularly nasty. Car keys, too, frequently become contaminated.

Porsche Cars North America and car-care products company Meguiar’s have developed a cleaning/disinfecting protocol for Porsche dealers. Porsche owners are notoriously fussy about their cars, and dealers take great pains not to damage customers’ vehicles. Here are the two companies’ recommendations for cleaning and disinfecting your car:

1. Get rid of junk

Cleaning and disinfecting are related but are not the same. Cleaning removes dirt, grime, and grease, along with some bacteria and viruses, and is preparation for disinfecting.

Start by tossing out accumulated junk—old gasoline receipts, remnants of a fast-food feast, etc.—then vacuum the floors, seats, and trunk/cargo area. 

Michael Stoops, senior global product and training specialist for Meguiar’s, says wiping down interior surfaces with soapy water and a damp cloth is fine, but it isn’t as effective as using products specifically designed for the task.

Instead, use a spray-on interior detailer to safely clean any interior surface, including delicate touch screens and the plastic covers over instruments. Apply it with a microfiber towel; microfiber grabs and holds on to dirt better than cotton towels, Stoops says.

2. Disinfect surfaces. 

Apply disinfectants to kill remaining bacteria and viruses, but use the right type.

Never use hydrogen peroxide or bleach, Stoops warns, because their strong oxidizing effect can discolor interior materials. Alcohol, the ingredient in many hand sanitizers and wipes, is acceptable in moderation. 

Porsche supplies its dealers with Bioesque Botanical Disinfectant Solution, an environmentally friendly, EPA-registered norovirus-fighting product. Available in spray bottles at Lowe’s, The Home Depot, and PetSmart, it can be used on all interior surfaces. 

3. Condition and protect.

Conditioning and protecting interior materials is the final step in the process. Alcohol, especially, dries out materials on car interiors, so it’s important to moisturize after you disinfect. Specially designed conditioners are available to treat leather upholstery and leather-covered steering wheels, as well as vinyl, plastic, and rubber components. Some products also claim to block damaging ultraviolet light. Meguiar’s products and similar potions from other car-care product manufacturers are sold in auto-parts stores.

“Don’t drench a surface with any product,” Stoops says. “Less is more when it comes to detailing your car.”

4. Sanitize your hands.

Remember, too, that the interior is disinfected only until the next time you contaminate it. Rather than grabbing the steering wheel right after pumping gas (the average pump handle is 11,835 times germier than a public toilet seat), sanitize your hands and let them dry before you get back in the car.

Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than four decades.

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