One aspect of interior detailing which is often overlooked by most is a vehicles steering wheel. Many may not even realize it, but the steering wheel is arguably one of the dirtiest parts of a car due to it being constantly touched by the driver.
Over time, dirt, grease, sweat, oils from our hands and bacteria can build up on the steering wheel’s surface. A dirty steering wheel does not only affect the appearance of the interior of a car, it can also be a breeding ground for germs. This is not the most hygienic situation, especially in the cases where more than one person is regularly driving the vehicle.
While a dirty steering wheel may not always be obvious, one telltale sign (especially on a leather steering wheel), is a shiny appearance. In other cases, you can tell as soon as you lay your hands on it. The steering wheel can feel sticky or greasy. In my opinion, it is extremely important to keep on top of cleaning your steering wheel regularly ( in my case I do it at least once a week ).
Before we dive into the best methods for cleaning your steering wheel, it is important to note that there is not a “one size fits all” solution for this job. This is mostly due to there being a variety of different materials being used for this part of a car, which can differ between vehicles.
To find out what kind of material your steering wheel is made out of, you can check your owner’s manual or check the car’s brochure online if it’s still available. Remember, polyurethane material (faux leather) will look and almost feel like real leather, so it’s best to be sure before cleaning it. Each type has its dos and don’t when it comes to detailing, so it’s best to be careful.
Let’s look at the most common types of steering wheels and how to clean them.
Type 1 – Plastic Steering Wheel
Plastic steering wheels are often found in older vehicles ( or even some modern entry-level stuff ). While plastic steering wheels may not be the nicest to hold ( Or safest, as they tend to be less grippy ), they are arguably the easiest type of surface to clean when it comes to detailing. Plastics are also less likely to absorb sweat, bits of food etc than some of the other surface types.
As plastic is also not a sensitive or delicate material, you can take more liberties when it comes to choosing a cleaning solution.
When it comes to cleaning plastic wheels, I often find a more simple approach works best.
How to Clean A Plastic Steering Wheel
Cleaning a plastic wheel is quite easy. In terms of a cleaning solution, I usually recommend using an All-Purpose Cleaner diluted down with some water in a spray bottle. For example Carpro Multi-X. You can adjust the dilution ratio depending on how dirty the steering wheel is.
This is probably the most cost-effective way of cleaning a steering wheel ( besides using soapy water, but I don’t usually recommend that as it may not remove all dirt buildup on a particularly dirty wheel ).
You will also need some microfiber cloths for agitation and also to remove any leftover solution.
Spray the APC directly onto the microfiber cloth. Do not spray the solution directly onto the steering wheel or else you could end up covering your whole dashboard in the cleaner, which makes the cleaning process longer.
Place the microfiber cloth on the wheel and place your hand on top of it.
Turn the microfiber around the wheel to clean the front, top, and back. Work around the entire circumference of the wheel. With plastic, you don’t need to be too careful with the amount of pressure used, as it won’t be delicate enough to harm in most cases.
Make sure to clean the centre of the wheel as well but watch out for any buttons etc you may need to be careful of on the surface.
Dry off any remaining residue with a second microfiber cloth, giving the steering wheel a final wipe down.
I tend to not recommend any additional products on plastic ( for protection etc ), as they could potentially make the steering wheel increasingly slippy. For plastic wheels, the simple approach is best.
Type 2 – Synthetic Resins
Often confused as plastic steering wheels, synthetic resin is also among one of the easier steering wheel materials to clean. As the properties of the wheel are pretty close to being the same as plastic material, my recommendation would be to follow the exact same steps as above for these types of wheels
Type 3 – Leather
Leather steering wheels are often found in most modern luxury or high-specced cars. They are a joy to hold and grip and can greatly increase driving enjoyment and engagement.
The trade-off to this is that they require a bit more care when cleaning. The last thing you want to do is to damage the integrity of the leather, which can be caused by using too much pressure when cleaning, or using a cleaning solution that is too harsh. ( This will dry out and damage the leather )
Highly concentrated diluted APC and some strong interior cleaners promote cracking in the leather because they will remove the natural oils.
How to Clean A Leather Steering Wheel
Extra care should be taken with a real leather steering wheel, and the correct products should be selected for the job. I nearly always recommend a dedicated leather cleaner for this, as you want something that will clean and condition the leather. Something like Meguiars Gold Class Leather Cleaner should be fine for steering wheel cleaning, no need for getting a super expensive leather cleaner unless you have it already. ( Eg Colorlock – which may be more worth it for cleaning car seats etc )
For a cleaning tool, I would recommend a very soft detailing brush for agitation of the cleaner. ( You can also use a microfiber cloth if you don’t have a brush )
These soft brushes will be gentle on the surface material, while also having the ability to clean in and around the stitching of the leather.
Apply the leather cleaner/condition product to the end of your detailing brush and gently rub it into the surface of the leather. Brush thoroughly around the entire steering wheel until all of the wheel has been covered.
No need to use excessive pressure, let the brush do the work.
Take a clean microfiber towel and remove any excess product from the surface of the wheel. Examine the wheel and check if the surface now has a matte appearance ( this will indicate whether it is clean or not )
Repeat step one if the wheel still has a shiny appearance.
Tip – always make sure all product has been removed before driving the vehicle, as you don’t want to risk the steering wheel being slippery with any cleaner being left behind
Type 4 – Faux Leather
Faux leather, also known as synthetic leather, begins with a fabric base such as polyester. The fabric is then given an imitation leather finish and texture with wax, dye, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or polyurethane.
As faux leather is a man-made material, it is much cheaper than real leather. This also means that it doesn’t need nearly the care or maintenance of real leather, however, that doesn’t mean that you should still be careful when cleaning a faux-leather steering wheel.
How to Clean A Faux Leather Steering Wheel
For cleaning a faux-leather steering wheel I would recommend using an interior cleaning product such as Carpro Inside teamed with an interior cleaning brush ( it doesn’t necessarily have to be super soft, but nothing too hard should be used ).
Apply the product directly to the cleaning brush and agitate on the surface of the wheel until the product starts to foam up as you see in the picture below
Remove any excess product with a microfiber towel.
If you find the surface to be a little bit sticky after, spray a little water onto the surface and used a new clean towel to remove any leftover product. The surface of the steering wheel will then be left smooth, non-sticky and clean
Type 6 – Alcantara Steering Wheels
Alcantara is a synthetic textile that was developed in the 1970s by a Japanese chemist and manufactured by an Italian company called Alcantara. Many of the reasons Alcantara is used in race car interiors apply just as much to road cars. On the seat and steering wheel, it provides more grip than leather does.
Alcantara is a great material for surfaces that aren’t touched often or at all by flesh, but on steering wheels, it tends to wear down quite quickly. ( The oil and dirt from your hands will wear out the Alcantara )
The trick to keeping Alcantara looking good is to clean it super regularly and don’t allow any oils or grease to build up on the surface. You also want to make sure your hands are clean before driving your car. If you are the type of person to be eating burgers and fries in the car and then go for a drive, forget it! This is a surefire way of destroying your steering wheel.
How to Clean An Alcantara Steering Wheel
For cleaning Alcantara, you will want to use a dedicated Alcantara cleaning product such as Sonax Alcantara & Upholstery Cleaner along with a soft-medium detailing brush or suede brush. If you don’t have any of these, you can also use a clean toothbrush, if you are stuck.
Most of these Alcantara cleaners come in the form of a mousse, so you can apply the product directly to the Alcantara, or onto the brush, whichever you prefer.
Agitate for 20-30 seconds on the steering wheel with the brush
Take a microfiber cloth and gently rub it on the surface of the wheel to pull any of the contaminants from the material
After cleaning Alcantara surfaces, use a very gentle brush to allow the surface to “stand up” once again
Type 7 – Natural Wood Steering Wheels
These types of steering wheels are far less common than the others I have mentioned above. This style is mostly used in old and vintage cars.
They come in different varieties of wood such as maple, walnut, or mahogany. They also can be stained to give it more color variation
How to Clean a Wooden Steering Wheel
Natural wood steering wheels can crack easily, especially when exposed to a lot of moisture, so cleaning steering wheels of this type using a lot of solution is not recommended.
In this case, I would recommend misting a small bit of water or interior detailer directly onto a microfiber cloth and just gently wipe the wood. Be careful with the force used as putting too much pressure on the surface may end up scratching the finish of the wood.
Some people recommend using wood polish to keep the wood looking good, but as I mentioned above ,I would generally stay away from anything that has the potential to make the steering wheel slippery.
Type 7 – Steering Wheel Covers
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one, but in some cases, you may come across a car with a steering wheel cover over the wheel that needs to be cleaned.
The method for cleaning the cover depends on the type of material and the manufacturer’s recommendations for cleaning.
Many cloth steering wheel covers are machine-washable, but synthetic and genuine leather only need to be wiped down or given a gentle clean with a leather cleaner as I have outlined in the leather example earlier in the article
Summary / Steering Wheel Cleaning Tips
Hopefully, the methods I have outlined above will cover most scenario’s you may encounter when cleaning and detailing a car. When it comes to keeping your car clean, particularly the steering wheel. Below are some summarized tips for keeping your wheel in great shape.
- Clean your steering wheel regularly and don’t let the dirt/grime build up
- Wash your hands before getting in the car to reduce the amount of sweet/oils that you transfer onto the wheel
- Never eat in the car, as food is a big offender for making a steering wheel look filthy
- Always choose the correct product for the type of steering wheel in your car to ensure the best results / least damage in the case of sensitive surfaces
- Never use any hand lotions/moisturizers before driving
- Some people recommend using driving gloves ( even though they look funny! )
If you have any of your own personal tips, please let me know in the comments below! Until next time
About the Author – Darren O Hara
Darren is the founder of the DriveDetailed blog and is a keen detailing enthusiast living in the rainy south of Ireland. When he is not cleaning his car he is always researching ways he can improve his techniques and enjoys testing out new products.
Darren currently drives an Audi TTRS and is a big fan of performance cars.
You can follow Darren on Instagram @darrenoharacork