A car’s interior can get just as dirty as its exterior. In fact, it’s likely the interior gets dirtier over time because giving it a proper, thorough clean is often overlooked.
The fact is car interiors, especially car seats and points of contact like steering wheels and arm rests, spend years being coated in oil and dirt from your clothing and your skin. Shaking out the floor mats isn’t really enough; all that ingrained dirt and those upholstery stains can be dealt with and the results will blow you away.
We will go through the basics on how to clean car seats, skills that can also be transferred to carpets and steering wheels too. For relatively little time and money, the interior of your car can look new again.
Before you tackle your car seats you’ll need a few tools and products, and they’ve been broken down into categories depending on your motivation and budget.
You will see a massive improvement in your seats and interior with just these most basic tools, and the minimal outlay will see you rewarded over and over for years to come.
1. Vacuum cleaner with crevice tool
A hand-held vacuum cleaner is essential for any type of interior cleaning. If you don’t have access to one for whatever reason, any decent fuel station or carwash facility will be suitably equipped.
2. Clean microfibre towels
Cheap and easy to find, so having many at hand shouldn’t be an issue; can be reused after washing. These are also useful for cleaning and drying parts of your car’s exterior.
3. Round detailer’s brush/soft nail brush
A brush is the perfect tool to help agitate any cleaning product used on your seats. Useful for other parts of your car as well, inside and out (like wheel lugs, but keep the brushes separate!)
4. Interior scrubbing pad
Perfect for removing the most stubborn stains on your seats, carpets, and arm rests of your car, but make sure to not use a pad with a material that is too aggressive as you might irreparably damage your upholstery.
If you intend on tackling your seats just with water, you will need a bucket. Hopefully you have at least two already for washing your car.
6. Carpet scrub brush
As the name suggests, more useful for carpet and mats, but can also be used on cloth seats in a pinch.
If you take your interior cleaning more seriously, or have reasons your car seats get dirty regularly (kids, dogs, camping trips), investing in some additional tools could be money well spent and can help speed up the overall process.
1. Steam cleaner
Not only useful for car seats, a steam cleaner can do wonders for lifting dirt off vinyl and plastic interior trims. Used by most professional detailers.
2. Dual Action Polisher brush attachment
Your DA polisher can be used inside as well as outside the car with the correct attachment, but it is really only necessary for the dirtiest seats and carpets.
3. Wet and dry vacuum cleaner
To prevent upholstery and carpet from getting too wet, and useful for cleaning a range of surfaces including mats and carpet.
4. Air compressor
An air compressor is handy for blowing out dust and debris from seams between seat panels and hard-to-reach places in your car’s interior, this is a tool that you might already have.
Unfortunately, elbow grease isn’t enough most of the time so a couple of products will be necessary to get the job done.
1. Warm water
Some of your cleaning can be done easily enough with a bucket of warm water, but there is every chance something a little stronger will also be required. Avoid hot water as it can potentially damage adhesives for foam and fabric.
2. Fabric and carpet cleaner
For cloth and alcantara seats, along with carpet, it is a different product to leather and vinyl cleaner. Look for an interior cleaner that is pH-neutral and solvent-free.
3. Leather and vinyl cleaner
This is really essential for an effective clean, and it can also be used for plastic interior trims. Leather cleaning products are designed to lift the dirt out of the upholstery so it can be easily wiped away.
4. Leather conditioner
To keep leather soft and supple, and a must in a sunny Australian climate; many conditioners also provide UV protection.
The cleaning process
Here, we break down the cleaning process from the most gentle method, and work through to the more serious options to get those car seats and interiors looking fresh and stain-free.
Step 1: Vacuum
Using your crevice tool attachment on a vacuum cleaner, vacuum your seats, focussing on seams and gaps to ensure big debris sitting loose on the surface is removed. This is essential if you or your passengers eat in the car, but do it even if you don’t. While you’re at it, get in under the front seats and slide them forward and back, vacuuming in and around the rails, and also between the seats and the centre console.
Step 2: Warm water cleaning attempt
(Head to step 3 if you have some cleaning products/solutions)
For your cloth car seats, add just a tiny bit of laundry detergent to your warm water bucket and give it a stir. Now, grabbing your carpet brush, soak it in the bucket but befo re using it on the seats, shake as much water off the brush as you can. Brushing up-and-down and side-to-side, gently brush the cloth with a little bit of force.
Frequently use a clean microfibre towel to soak up as much water as possible (use a clenching/twisting motion), or alternatively use your wet-vac to suck up residual water. You might find all you do with this method is spread any stains out over a larger, though less-intense, area.
Before going in, all guns blazing, find a piece of material hidden away from view and test the cleaning product on it, just to make sure nothing untoward occurs. Not all products are the same so it is hard to know what chemicals they have. If everything is fine, you may continue using it.
Step 3: Cleaning product and microfibre towel
With your leather or vinyl seats, apply or spray your product onto the towel, and clean the seat panel with a forceful rubbing motion. Fold the towel over frequently to avoid repeated contact with dirty towels.
Do not let the product dry on the seats, always use a clean cloth to remove it. If the leather is still soiled, move onto the next step (Note this step can be used on cloth seats as well, but going to Step 4 straight away is a better use of your time).
Step 4: Product and detailer’s brush
With either cloth seats or leather seats, spray some of the cleaning product onto your brush (and at your discretion, on the panel to be cleaned), and with the brush agitate the product into a foamy lather. This action is what will lift the dirt from the cloth and the leather.
Remove the lather with a clean microfibre towel before it dries; hopefully by this stage you can see an improvement.
Step 5: Product and scrubbing pad
For particularly soiled car seats you will need to get more serious. Grab your scrubbing pad, spray on some of the cleaning solution and scrub away, but very gently at first to test the upholstery’s integrity (and in the case of leather, to not remove any colour).
Wipe away the product with a clean microfibre towel. Old and cracked leather needs to be dealt with more gently than newer leather as you risk causing more damage, so this step might not be possible.
Step 6: Leather Conditioner
Apply a leather conditioner on your car seats, gently massaging into them until it has been absorbed.
This will not only keep the leather soft and prevent cracking, it will stop the seats getting soiled so quickly. Repeat once more if the leather is very dry.
Advanced cleaning process
The advanced process is really dependent on the additional tools you might have at your disposal, and for the most part it follows the basic process in any case.
The steam cleaner is excellent because surfaces will not get overly wet, and the heat of the steam will open up the pores of the seat’s upholstery, which means the product will be even more effective at removing dirt and stains.
Wrap a microfibre towel over the end of the steam cleaner before you start working on the seats, as it will absorb excess moisture and reduce the temperature.
DA polisher brush
This will really speed up the entire detail process. Using a low speed, but working in the same way as you would with the other hand tools, clean one panel at a time and work the product into a lather, wiping it away before it dries.
Tips and hints
Be mindful of a few things when cleaning to make sure there are no issues later on.
One panel at a time
Seats are made up of several different panels, which means it is easy to focus on one small area at a time, ensuring it is cleaned satisfactory before moving onto the next panel.
Never let cleaning products dry on your seats
Wipe each seat panel dry before going to the next step or moving to the next panel. Do not let any product or solution dry on the seats!
Spot clean ASAP
If you spill some coffee or chocolate (two of the worst stain offenders), clean it up immediately using the methods above. A toothbrush can be a great tool for working on small stains on cloth seats especially.
Less is more
It is possible to do too much when cleaning your seats; too much scrubbing and elbow grease, too much product, or very hot water when warm is enough. Be gentle on stitching, don’t scrub it unnecessarily. Just work your way up in intensity if dirt. You wouldn’t use a flame thrower to light a campfire.
You can always add more cleaner or water, but removing it without a wet vac or extractor is difficult. You can also damage underlays, foam, and their adhesives so go easy.
Avoid all-purpose cleaners
They have their place, but their high-pH nature means they are generally too aggressive for interior surfaces like leather and fabric, leaving it dry and stiff. What’s worse is if it isn’t removed entirely, every time the surface gets wet, the cleaning process is reactivated and your dirty shoes or clothes will just leave stains.
Be mindful of the condition of the seats
If your leather seats are cracked from years of sun damage and neglect, they might need more attention than a simple clean; a condition and recolour may be in order.
Vinegar and baking soda can be used on cloth stains
If you’re adverse to using various chemical cleaners, then a 1:4 baking soda:water solution can be used on tough stains with a brush. Let the solution sit for 10-15 minutes if the stain is bad. Mix a splash of vinegar added to warm water in a spray bottle and spray onto the stained fabric. Don’t use dish soap, as it can contain dyes and solvents which damage fabric; laundry detergent is preferred.