Alcohol-based disinfectants might be bad for your car’s interior. Here’s what to use instead

We should now all be familiar with the whole wash, dry, and sanitise routine that has been hammered into our heads ever since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. But aside from our personal hygiene, we are also advised to sanitise our surrounding areas such as the working table and our cars as much as we can, and that’s for good reason.

Recent studies suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can persist on glass, metal, and plastic surfaces for up to nine days, all of which make up a majority of the cabin in most cars. With our cars being the first contact point from the “outside world”, they can become a virus hotbed if not cleaned and disinfected regularly.

So should we all be rushing out to buy those popular alcohol-based disinfectant sprays that are making rounds on the internet? Not quite yet.

Leather upholstery, such as these in the BMW 330i M Sport, is especially prone to damage when exposed to alcohol.

While alcohol is an effective disinfectant against coronavirus and can work wonders on our hands, alcohol-based products such as rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) might not be the best solution for our cars – especially if it’s upholstered with leather, as it can easily dry out the leather, causing it to crack prematurely.

On plastic surfaces, high concentrations of alcohol can cause what is known as “chemical etching”, essentially melting the plastic surfaces, turning it opaque and creating a hazy effect. Additionally, alcohol-based disinfectants can also sometimes cause discolouration on certain materials in our cars.

So what should we use to remove potential virus particles from our cars then? According to Katzkin Automotive Leather senior marketing director Dara Ward, nothing beats good ol’ soap and water. The advice is also echoed by Larry Kosilla, founder of Ammo NYC vehicle detailing products and host of popular YouTube channel of the same name.

Soap works effectively against viruses because of its fatty-like substances called amphiphiles, which can essentially destroy the lipid layer that encloses the virus particles. Even if the virus is not “killed”, scrubbing a surface with soap and then wiping it off can also physically remove the virus from the surface itself.

It is important to agitate the soap on the surface, either by using a microfibre cloth or a small brush in hard to reach areas. Once a lather is formed, immediately wipe up the soapy liquid with a clean and dry microfibre cloth. The small hook-like fibre strands in a microfibre cloth is great at scooping up loose dirt, bacteria, and virus particles.

Make sure to cover all high-contact areas such as the steering wheel, door handles, gear knob, indicator stalks, seat belts, air conditioning controls, air vents, infotainment display and buttons, and the often-forgotten car keys. Be wary not to spray soapy liquid directly onto electrical parts – always use a microfibre cloth.

Test the product at an out-of-sight area of the same material to ensure that no discolouration occurs, before using it on the main bulk of the surface.

To be clear, using disinfectant wipes in our cars – alcohol-based or not – should still be fine if only used once in a while. Ensure that you follow the instructions for the “wet contact time” written on the packaging to properly sanitise or disinfect the surface – different types of product will require a different contact time to effectively remove or destroy the virus particles.

Additionally, when using a new product, test it on a non-visible area first – such as the back of the steering wheel, or lower parts of the seat – to ensure no discolouration occurs. If you are using an alcohol-based disinfectant on a leather surface, be sure to treat it with a car leather conditioner afterwards as soon as possible, ensuring that the moisture content in leather is sufficiently replenished.

As most of our car interior surfaces are either dyed or painted, using bleach-based products can cause irreversible damage!

However, it is important to stay clear of any products containing bleach. While it is an effective disinfectant, bleach can cause severe irreversible discolouration on most materials! Save the bleach for your toilet floors.

Lastly, open the windows when possible to air the cabin, and as always, wash your hands whenever possible. No matter how much we clean our cars, we’ll still be bringing in dirt, germs, and viruses if our hands are dirty. Keep a bottle of hand sanitiser with you at all-times in case you can’t wash your hands.


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