Car looking a little sad? Is the upholstery in need of some love but you’re not sure where to start? We’ve all been there, and it can feel a little overwhelming when you first take a look at your interior but cleaning the upholstery is actually a pretty simple task. You just need to make sure you’re doing it right.
There are loads of different materials in your car, and many of them are going to need different kinds of care in order to look amazing again.
Cleaning them with the wrong solutions could damage them permanently or leave them discoloured, and that’s the last thing you want.
There’s an easy solution to your dilemma, and it comes in the form of a quick and easy guide on how to clean car upholstery including car seats.
Yes, I’m talking about this one. Below, you are going to find everything you need to get your car back to its beautiful self. Tired of being ashamed to pick up friends and family? Feel that way no more because we’ve got your back.
It’s time to pull out the cleaning supplies, or order the right ones, and give your car upholstery the clean it not only needs, but also deserves.
The Tools of the Trade
Upholstery Cleaning 101
Cleaning Cloth and Vinyl Seats
Cleaning Leather Seats
Cleaning the Carpet
Drying the Seats
Tricks of the Trade
The Tools of the Trade
You can’t just jump into cleaning your car upholstery, you need to be prepared first. It’s not just about getting the right materials and tools either, it’s about assessing the situation. Before you can begin, there are a few steps that you need to follow closely.
Step One: Evaluation
For this step, you need to take a look inside your car and see what needs to be done. How much mess is there? Are there any stains? If so, how bad are they? Make a note of this so that you can come back to it later when you are actually cleaning. Next, list the materials found inside your car. Look at what your car seats and interior furnishings are made of.
Step Two: Break it Down
Now that you have your list, you can break everything down into manageable tasks. For example, this is how I usually do it:
Once you’ve sorted that out, you can move onto the next stage, which is determining the tools you’re going to need. Before you get any wild ideas, no nothing complex is required. No steam cleaners or anything of the sort. Unless your car is a bomb site, in which case we might come back to that.
Step Three: Tools and Products
Different materials are going to need different products and care, but there is a basic kit that you’re going to need in order to get started. I like to refer to it as the utility belt because it makes the process of cleaning the car feel a little more exciting. So, what are you going to need?
- Empty spray bottles for your chosen cleaning solution. I have a favourite set that is pretty comfortable to use and have a great capacity; two really important features. You can reuse them too, so they have a lot of value in terms of cleaning.
- Scrubbing brush. You’ll need this for car seats and carpets if you’re working dirt and stains out. Soft or hard bristles is up to you, but if you have leather car seats I would strongly recommend the former of these to avoid potential scratching.
- Tyre brush. This is for those really tough stains that just don’t want to go away. They give you the extra force you need to really take control of the situation and blast those stains away.
- Microfibre cloths. These are incredible. Once you use microfibre everything else feels inferior. They are soft and gentle on surfaces, while also performing excellently at cleaning surfaces and absorbing liquids.
- Cleaning solution. Perhaps the obvious one, but also saved until last because the type you use will depend on the surfaces in question. There are quite a few different types of cleaner out there, and the form you use rests with your preferences. However, I will always recommend a concentrated solution so that you can make your own strength blend, and something that is safe for the environment. Otherwise, go wild.
- Fabric protector. This is used on the car upholstery when you have finished cleaning, and it may seem like a waste of time but it certainly isn’t. It makes the car upholstery easier to clean in the future (no exaggeration) and adds a layer of protection that makes it more resistant to stains, scratches, and general damage. It’s worth the money and using after every single cleaning session.
Now that’s done, you might have decided you’re ready to clean. However, you have a quick lesson in Upholstery Cleaning 101 before you can move onto the real deal. It’s worth a read as it has some invaluable information about car materials and the way in which they work.
Upholstery Cleaning 101
There are a few more things you need to know about cleaning car upholstery. The first of these is that they are all different, and this can be true for different car seats made from the same material, for example.
A lot of this is to do with the weave in a carpet or car seats. It’s a pretty key feature, but also one that we don’t really notice until we’re told about it. I certainly had no idea until I discussed it with my local garage the last time it was serviced.
Essentially, the tighter the weave the harder it is to clean. It means that if you have a very stubborn stain that settled in quickly or you forgot to wash away, it may never fully come off. Even with all the scrubbing in the world, car upholstery with a tight weave is a lot more difficult to get through. But what do I mean when I talk about the weave?
The weaves refer to what is known as a nap, and this is the number of fibres that stick up on the car seats. You know when you stroke the seat with your hand and it runs through some short fibres on the surface? That’s the nap.
So, if you feel hardly any fibres when you stroke the seat, you have a really small nap, and this leads to a tight weave. In carpets, it can also be referred to as a closed-loop weave, and the feeling is the same as when you test the car seats.
A lot of the time you will find that cheaper cars will have carpets that feel more like felt than actual carpet. This doesn’t really have any separate fibres, which means absolutely everything sticks inside it.
Dirt, spilt soft drinks, you name it, it’s probably stuck. It makes them really hard and tiresome to try and clean - both in terms of vacuuming and shampooing. It’s possible, but it’s going to take you a while and your success really depends on your patience.
“You don’t always need separate cleaning products for every part of your car”
Here’s the best piece of advice though, you don’t always need separate cleaning products for every part of your car. For leather, you absolutely do because it’s a delicate material that needs special treatment - hence I have reiterated that you can’t have a one-solution does all situation.
If you don’t have leather seats? Well, you might just find a really good all-purpose cleaner. It does depend on you as well, not everyone trusts the capabilities of an all-rounder, and that’s fair. If you want to use different products, nothing is stopping you.
Ready to get onto the actual cleaning? The chapters below will take you through the different materials found in your car, as well as the ways in which they should be cleaned. Let’s get this show on the road.
Read More: How to Vacuum the Car Properly - Top Tips to Save you Time
Cleaning Cloth and Vinyl Seats
This is one of the easier materials to clean, but it also stains really easily and so is not always the superior choice. That tiny drop of soda you spilt on the seat? It’s likely going to stain. Before you do anything, make sure you vacuum the seats to remove any debris and pet hair. It makes everything a little easier for you.
Once that is done, you can grab the car upholstery cleaner of your choice and pour it into a spray bottle. If you have bought it from concentrate, mix up a batch that you feel is strong enough for the stain at hand. Soda? Not too bad. An accident with that spag bol last week, we’re going to need to kick that up to maximum strength. As a side note, you should always follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer.
Usually, you will need to spray the solution onto the affected area and then gently agitate it with a brush. Once you have done this, you can leave it to sit for an allotted period of time so that it can loosen all the grime. It’s best to make the seat damp with a solution, but not soaking wet.
Once that’s done, grab a clean cloth and gently mop the area so that you absorb all the damp and grime.
To give you another cleaning option, I also found a nifty YouTube video for you. In this, you can use household products (think washing up liquid) to clean your cloth seats. The best part? It does actually work pretty well. Check it out and see what you think.
You should focus on small areas of the seat each time so that you are fully focused on that one spot, and to ensure that there aren’t different soaking times for various patches of cleaner. As a quick tip make sure the car upholstery cleaner is spread evenly or you could end up with water stains afterwards.
For vinyl seats, you can follow all of the advice above because the same method is used for both types of seat.
Cleaning Leather Seats
Leather is a fun one because it’s so different from the other materials you find in a car. The good news is that leather is pretty good at resisting stains, and that means it can be a little easier to clean in some regards. However, it is also really delicate and scuffing it is very simple to do.
Therefore, it is essential that you remember to be exceptionally gentle when you are washing leather seats.
You’ll need to use a leather upholstery cleaner as opposed to a standard one because it has been made specifically to deal with this material. There are some great leather car cleaners out there, and one of the best has got to be the Dodo Juice featured in the link above. However, you can choose whichever brand and type you like.
There will be specific instructions on the bottle, but generally speaking, you will need to rub a good amount of the cleaner into the affected area after it has been left to sit for a few minutes. You can use the brush to really agitate and scrub the area if it’s quite dirty. Following this, you can wipe up the remains (and see the dirt) until you are pleased with the results.
The above image shows the results you can get when you apply a good quality leather cleaner.
Cleaning the Carpet
The carpet isn’t a massive amount of your car, but it does tend to fall victim to the most dirt. Muddy shoes, dropped food, spilt drinks. It all ends up on the floor in the end. It’s also one of the simplest areas of your car to vacuum, so you’re in luck there.
The first thing you need to do is vacuum the interior. Get rid of all that chunky debris, pick up the hair and leaves, and you are left with a carpet that’s not clean but certainly looking better. Now, you can grab your chosen car upholstery cleaner and apply it to the affected area.Use a scrubbing brush to rub it in, and then let it sit for a few minutes and soak. Once that’s done, take a clean cloth and use it to collect the excess moisture, dirt, and cleaner from the carpet. This will help it to dry. It should only take a few hours for the carpets to dry out, and will be even faster on a warm and sunny day. Just remember to leave the windows open a crack.
There isn’t much rubber inside cars, but if you have rubber mats on the floor then this chapter is for you. They tend to last a long time, and while they do get dirty it often happens so gradually that we barely notice until the colour has changed completely.
he video above gives a really detailed look at how to clean rubber mats, and it’s actually pretty handy to have. You don’t need much to get the job done. You just have to pick up some cleaner of your choice, this is my pick for cleaning all-black rubber car components, a sturdy brush, and ensure there is water to hand for rinsing it off afterwards.
The method itself is much the same as those described in the above chapters, where you apply the solution before scrubbing it in. Just in this case, you rinse it off with a load of water instead of mop it up. Then, leave it in the sun to dry and it will be ready for use again in no time.
This is one of the quickest jobs in the car, and it applies to the plastic trim as well as the plastic that forms part of the car upholstery. All you really need is some cleaner of your choice Dash Devil is a good product for plastic and a microfibre cloth.
You can spray the cleaner onto the surface and wipe it away. When you do so, it will bring a load of dirt with it, encouraging you to repeat the process until it’s clean.
If you want to go a bit deeper, you can also use a soft brush to agitate the cleaner into the grooves of the plastic to reach deeper dirt that needs to be lifted. Just make sure to wipe it away quickly in this case, or it may dry up.
If this happens, the dirt will just get redistributed. You can also use a scrubbing pad if it’s really grimy, but this tends to be a more extreme method.
If you want to get extra clean, you can even use a steam cleaner on your plastic trims. Most of the time, it is recommended that you put a microfibre cloth around the nozzle of a handheld model so as not to damage the surface.
You can find out more about cleaning plastics, as well as get a visual representation of these steps in the video above.
Drying Your Seats
Don’t pull out the hairdryer. I know it’s tempting, but it’s not the recommended course of action. Unnatural drying can cause the results to be uneven (cue your lower back on a damp spot), or leather to crack due to the increased heat. Instead, there is only one way you are supposed to dry your car upholstery; naturally.
“Don’t pull out the hairdryer. I know it’s tempting, it’s not the recommended course of action. Unnatural drying can cause the results to be uneven”
When you clean your interior, do so on a day when you don’t have any plans to go anywhere. It’s best to do the work in the morning, and on a day with fair weather. That way, you can leave the car with the windows cracked open to dry all day. It’s the calmest option.
If it’s a nice warm day, you may even find that your car upholstery is dried within a few hours instead, so you can get back on the road much faster.
Tricks of the Trade
How do you keep your car seats cleaner for longer? I’ve mentioned fabric protector before, and I want to bring it back to your attention again. You might have skimmed past it in the utility belt section, but it’s actually very important.
It’s especially useful if you are only leasing the car and need to give it back at the end of your agreement.
For leather seats, you will need a leather conditioner. This can be massaged into the car seats as per the manufacturer's instructions, and you may need to use the soft brush to rub it in there. For all other materials, you can just use a standard fabric protector.
Honestly, I’m a fan of G3’s protector because it works so well, and quickly. You can use it all over the car, and they even do a leather version if you need it. Just a thought if you’re looking for a place to start.
Here are some other ways you can protect the upholstery in your car:
- Block the sun. The sunlight can cause the material to fade or black over time, and it causes leather to crack. Parking in the shade or using a sunshade is the best way to overcome this issue.
- Put down a towel. If you have dogs or muddy passengers, place a towel on the car seats to avoid getting too much on the car seats. You should also have a towel to hand at all times in case of any spillages, allowing you to mop them up quickly and potentially avoid a stain.
- Seat covers. It’s a permanent solution that makes sure your car seats are taken care of. The covers are easier to wash, and they prevent stains and mess from reaching your upholstery. They are also quite affordable and a lot more comfortable than you might think.
- Don’t eat or drink. It’s the quickest way to avoid unwanted mess. It’s not always possible to avoid, but doing it as little as possible certainly minimises the risk.
- Rubbish removal. There’s nothing worse than looking on the floor and realising how much garbage is there. Week-old sandwich wrappers and long-forgotten packets of crisps. Clear the car out every day, or at least once a week if daily is too much.
- Rubber mats. Place these on top of the carpet and you have yourself the perfect form of protection. Dropped a drink? No worries. Muddy feet? Not a problem. They are easy to rinse off, and they keep the carpet lovely and fresh.
- Clean regularly. Once a week, take the time to vacuum the interior of your car. There are loads of great little car vacuums out there that you can carry out and whizz around the interior in less than ten minutes. It keeps you on top of things so that you don’t need to full-on wash it too often.
I hope that this guide has been able to teach you more about how to properly care for your car and give it the clean it needs. There is some specific advice to follow for certain materials, but it shouldn’t be too hard to remember or get the hang of.
Looking after your car is important, both in terms of hygiene and the way it makes you feel. Having a grubby car doesn’t exactly impact your mental mindset in a positive manner, and taking the time to clean it up and get it back to a point where it made you proud is good for your head. Take pride in your car, and you’ll feel more for yourself.
Let me know what you thought of this guide to cleaning car upholstery. Did it give you the tips you were looking for, or do you still have questions?
Let me know in the comments because I love to hear your thoughts. Don’t forget to share this with your friends so that they can benefit from these handy tips.
Last Updated on February 8, 2021 by Gemma Tyler
Gemma Tyler is a freelance journalist with 15 years of experience writing for consumer publications. She has tested and reviewed a wide range of household items from vacuum cleaners to washing machines and dehumidifiers to steam irons. Her attention to detail and exhaustive testing certainly makes her an expert in her field.