Filth No More: How to Keep the Family Car From Getting Kid Cruddy

KidKrud-3.2.jpg illustration by Paul Dolan

CARS.COM — If you can block out the concerns over lost sleep, perpetual clutter, rising childcare costs and the mortgage-sized time bomb of college tuition, then — then! — parenthood is one of life’s precious seasons. Don’t let a dirty car add to the stress.

Related: How to Clean Up Spills in the Car

Messy cabins can be veritable germ factories. But they’re part of the territory with family vehicles, what with your progeny festooning every cranny with food, mud, toys and body fluids (’nuff said). A few practices can keep the mess manageable, however. We queried the parents on’s editorial staff along with a few outside parents for tips to keep the car clean.

Here they are:

Anticipate Trouble

Spill-proof cups, trash bags, cargo liners and organizing containers can limit stains and clutter. Betsy Breuer, who co-founded family-fashion website The Little Style File, leaves tote bags in the cargo area to organize her children’s sports equipment. Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Newman keeps a roll of dog waste bags for trash collection, while News Editor Jennifer Geiger totes Ziploc and disposable shopping bags in case of vomit.

Have pets in the family? Secure them properly, then protect the upholstery. You can buy a dedicated seat cover, but other items can work in a pinch. Photo Editor Christian Lantry hits the laundry closet before he loads up the family canine.

“I take an old bed sheet and retrofit it to cover the entire second row,” Lantry said. “I cut holes for the head restraint and seat belts, and basically tuck it wherever I can to keep in place.”

Senior Research Editor Mike Hanley advises floor and seat coverings — all-weather floormats to protect footwells and thin seat protectors to keep a cinched-down child-safety seat from tearing the upholstery.

“I’m amazed how much debris the seat protectors catch when I take our car seats out to clean our van, and the seat upholstery still looks good,” Hanley said.

Of course, check your car seat owner’s manual to ensure the seat protector is acceptable to use underneath it. It’s possible your seat hasn’t been crash-tested with the seat protector you paired — or any protector at all.

Mitigation doesn’t just mean supplies. Set a few ground rules, and it can make a big difference. Breuer limits snacks to road trips and insists her children leave the car with whatever they brought in. Newman demands the same, but with mixed results. “Never let the kids leave the car empty-handed: Grab that water bottle, book or wrapper,” she said. “I strongly believe in this, but my children sadly don’t; as a result, my car looks like a rolling trash heap.”

Keep Cleaning Supplies in the Car

Your car doesn’t need a kitchen’s worth of household cleaners, but a few items can help triage the mess until you get home. Editors and outside parents alike praised baby wipes as a first line of defense. Tricia Fandrey, who started a blog called The Night Owl Mama, has wipes and paper towels on hand. And Jennifer Evers, who runs family blog Me, Myself and Jen, pairs both items with Ziploc bags.

“There aren’t many kinds of messes — from an exploding diaper to vomit to crackers and cereal flying out of a container — that can’t be cleaned up with either a wet wipe or a paper towel and then locked away in a Ziploc until you reach your final destination so [the] car does not smell,” Evers said. “Plus, you can use paper towels as a dry barrier between your child and their wet [or] messed-in car seat until you reach your destination and can properly pull it out and wash it.”

It bears mention to treat in-car cleaning supplies like the items in your home. Keep them out of reach for children and choose nontoxic cleaners whenever possible. Store them securely, too: Unsecured objects in a vehicle become projectiles during a crash. The last thing you need during an impact is a box of baby wipes hitting occupants at 40 mph.

Know the Severity

Milder messes, like dry food or small amounts of water, can wait until you get home to address. Others require immediate cleanup — and it’s important to know the difference. Parents called out food as the worst culprit.

“Ketchup is the worst, especially if it dries, [but] sticky soda is right up there with ketchup,” Fandrey said. “When the kids didn’t tell me and I found it days later, what a mess. Sticky and some stain.”

Then came spilled milk. You might not cry over it, but you’ll probably wrinkle your nose. “One of the worst [smells] is a milk spill that goes unattended for a few days,” Lantry said.

Consider the Upholstery Beforehand

Dark interiors hide stains better than light ones — except ground-in dust from the baseball field, Newman notes — but the upholstery itself matters, too. Let a stain soak into cloth, and you could face discoloration and odor for eons to come.

“I’d never buy a car with cloth upholstery unless it was a very, very dark color,” Geiger said. “Even when my kids are in test cars for a day, they leave some messy trace of themselves behind — even if they’re not eating anything.”

Stain-resistant fabric affords some degree of resistance, and we’ve been impressed by examples like Yes Essentials, offered in certain current Hyundai-Kia models and a few past models from Toyota and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. But nothing beats leather for stain resistance — it’s “a must for a family car,” Breuer said. “It is much easier to clean. I had tan fabric seats in my car when the kids were young; it was a nightmare.”

Don’t want to pay the cowhide premium? Consider vinyl, often called leatherette or some proprietary name, as an in-between choice that’s similarly easy to clean.

That said, not all leather or vinyl is equal. Evan Sears, assistant managing editor, photo, notes that perforated cowhide introduces hideouts for spills.

“Leather is easy to clean, which was a big consideration for us when we bought our current car after our first kid was born,” Sears said. “What I didn’t consider was if you have perforated leather, you’re cleaning all the unsavory kid messes out of each little tiny hole. My workaround was re-moistening the entire area and vacuuming out the mess.”’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

Photo of Kelsey Mays
Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey Mays

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