Revitalize Your Ride: Proven Techniques for Deep Cleaning Car Seats

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Updated on:

July 13, 2023

Deep Cleaning Car Seats: Effective Techniques for Stain Removal and Maintenance

Most people spend a lot of time inside their cars. Whether it's going to work, running errands or going on vacation, the cabins can get quite dirty. Dirt, dust, leaves, road chemicals and more easily find their way inside, not to mention food and drink. It goes without saying that car seats take the brunt of the abuse as drivers and occupants sit on them and use them as mobile desks, eating areas, and more. If you have young children, each with their own car seat, dirt can accumulate even more. As your car ages, the interior begins to smell stale and moldy, not to mention dingy-looking and filled with stains.

Key Takeaways:

  • Vacuum and pre-treat stains before cleaning car seats. Use a gentle solution for stains and remove debris with a vacuum.
  • Steam clean and shampoo seats for effective cleaning. Steam lifts dirt, while shampoo removes stubborn stains. Repeat if needed.
  • Take extra care with leather seats. Work in small sections, avoid damaging chemicals, and use a soft brush. Finish with leather conditioner. Regular maintenance is crucial.

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Table of Contents (Show)

Table of Contents (Hide)


  1. Renew Your Cabin by Deep Cleaning Your Car Seats
  2. Considerations for Cloth Car Seats
  3. Give Leather Special Treatment
  4. Considerations for Child Car Seats
  5. Using Natural Cleaners

1. What tools and supplies will you need

2. Seven steps of deep cleaning your car seats to remove stains

Periodically deep cleaning your car seats is the only way to remove stains and keep them from coming back. Although you may have to use a slightly different solution depending on whether you have leather or fabric car seats, the basic process remains the same, even if you clean a child car seat. The methods used in how to remove car seat stains can be applied to all types of car seats, no matter what type of surface you have. We'll take a look at the cleaning methods that apply to removing stains on car seats in general and then examine specifics for various surfaces.

2.1 Vacuum the Upholstery

No matter if you have fabric or cloth seats, start by vacuuming the entire surface. This step is doubly important for infant and child car seats as little ones tend to drop everything while sitting in an auto. When working with a child car seat, remove it from your vehicle to get better access. Vacuuming will remove dust, debris, pet hair and anything else that shouldn't be on the car seat. Removing this debris will prevent you from pushing it deeper into the seat when you clean. Use a crevice tool with a long nozzle to reach deep into pockets and the back of car seats to get all of the accumulated debris. If you own a handheld vacuum, use it to clean child car seats as the process will be easier. Vacuuming debris is particularly important for leather seats as crumbs, and other debris can damage car seat surfaces if you try to shampoo the area without cleaning it. Run the vacuum attachment along seams and crevices to pick up as much dirt as possible. Once you have made one pass with the vacuum, check car seats to see if there are any areas with excessive dirt that remain. If so, go over the area once again with the vacuum. Once you've finished, take a clean microfiber cloth and wipe off the seat surface. For cloth seats, use an upholstery brush to help lift the fabric fibers and make the surface ready for deep cleaning.

2.2 Pre-Treat Seats Stains

This part of the process is especially important if you have especially deep-set stains. Applying pre-treatment is essential to thorough stain removal. Always use the most gentle solution to pre-treat stains. Try household solutions first before moving onto commercial ones. Try to avoid chemical ones, if possible. No matter what type of cleaning solution you use, always test it on an inconspicuous spot of stained area. If the surface appears discolored or otherwise compromised, don't use the solution and move onto another choice. Always put the solution on rage first; never apply it directly onto car seat surfaces, let it sit for 10 minutes to let chemistry start to work.

For most stains, including those from food and drinks, grease and mud, work your cleaning solution into the surface with a brush and let it stand for at least 10 minutes. Dye-based stains require solutions to sit for at least an hour. After the required amount of time, vacuum or wipe off the solution. If you use a commercial cleaning solution, you may need to mix it with warm water in spray bottle. Follow package directions before application of stain remover. Using a spray bottle to pre-treat stains is the best way to apply cleaning solutions as you won't oversaturate the area. Use a scrub brush to lightly work the cleaner into the surface.

pretreat stains with eco-friendly  cleaning solution
pretreatment of stains is important

2.3 Clean the Car Seat Surface

Use a steamer to lift dirt to the surface of the car seats. Work quickly, moving from left to right, starting at the top of the car seat. Don't linger too long over excessively dirty areas, as you can always repeat the process. After steaming the car seat, switch to the shampooer/extractor tool to finish cleaning, moving in the same manner as the steamer. As with pre-stain treatments, the solution used in the shampooer should be as gentle as possible. Repeat steaming and shampooing as necessary to remove stubborn stains. Repeating the process several times will allow multiple layers of dirt to migrate to the surface to be whisked away with clean microfiber towel.

2.4 Use a Car Steam Cleaner

The best way to deep clean car seats and the entire cabin of your vehicle, including carpet, is with a commercial-grade steam cleaner. Models such as the Fortador Electra are light and easily maneuverable for do-it-yourselfers to use. Steam cleaning renews your car seats to a like-new condition. The steamer process does much more than remove dirt and stains from car seats. It disinfects them too. The high temperature of the steam plus the sheer force produced by the machine blasts away undesirable particles and kills organisms like viruses, bacteria, pollen, mold, mildew and many other things that can make you sick. With such power, you'll clean seats and other interior surfaces in less time. Also, you won't have to spend as much effort scrubbing away stains as the blast of steam will do most if not all of the work.

steam cleaning of car seats
steam cleaning of leather seats

2.5 Use air blower or steamer to clean between car seats

2.5.1 Air

Use the air blower to blow out any loose dirt and debris that may be present.

2.5.2 Steam

Use the steamer to apply steam to the area, making sure to move the steamer around slowly and thoroughly to ensure that all dirt and grime is removed.

2.5.3 Vacuum

Use a vacuum to suction up any remaining moisture or debris, leaving your car seats looking clean and fresh.

2.6 Wipe Away Excess Moisture and Allow Seats to Dry

Use an absorbent microfiber cloth to wipe away excess moisture, although if you use a steamer and a shampooer extractor, you won't find much excess moisture. Give the car seats time to completely dry before using your vehicle. The process should take no more than two to three hours. If you need to speed the process, place a fan inside the cabin or leave your vehicle in the sun. Using a clean microfiber towel to collect moiseture help a lot.

ceramic coating for protection
ceramic coating protection helps to keep leather out of stains

2.7 Add a Protective Coating for interior surfaces

Once you have deep cleaned your car upholstery, it makes sense to apply a protective coating. Fordator's Kevlar Ceramic coating kit provides the ideal barrier against dirt and stains. By applying a protective coating to your leather or cloth seats along with carpeting, you'll spend less time cleaning your car's interior in the future.

If you got water spots at your car paint and windows, check our guide for water spots removal.

3. Best tips of removing tough stains out of cloth car seats

Ideally, you should try to keep your car's interior as clean as possible between deep cleanings. Doing so will also make the job easier each time you clean.

steam extracn from fabric seats
Steam extraction on seats

3.1 Dealing With Dirt and Spills on car seats and floor matts

Mishaps will happen no matter how hard you try to keep your vehicle interior clean. Keep a towel in your car from those times when you eat inside to minimize the number of crumbs that fall onto your clean seats. Keeping a towel or wet wipes in your car will also help with spills. Wipe up spills as soon as possible, and spot treat the affected areas if needed. Consider adding a small kit to your car, especially when on road trips, to deal with interior mishaps.

3.2 Knowing the Type of Fabric Affects Maintenance

Nylon is porous and soaks up spills. Polyester will look like microfiber or microsuede, and while the soft texture is comfortable, it is difficult to clean. Perform maintenance accordingly.

3.3 Detail Quarterly

To keep your car interior and its cloth upholstery, detail your car's upholstery at least quarterly. You may want to do it more often if you use your vehicle heavily.

Expert Tips for Stain Removal from Car Seats

  • Utilize the Power of Steam: If available, start by using a steamer on the stained area. Steam helps to break down stains and make them easier to remove.
  • Allow Chemicals to Dwell: After steaming, let the cleaning chemicals dwell on the stain for optimal results. Give them enough time to work their magic.
  • Practice Patience: Be patient and resist the urge to rush the process. Allow the chemicals to work thoroughly.
  • Agitate the Stain: Gently agitate the stain to loosen it before proceeding with the cleaning. Use a soft-bristle brush for this step.
  • Let the Cleaning Solution Sit: Once agitated, let the cleaning solution sit on the stain for 1-2 minutes. This allows it to penetrate and break down the stain effectively.
  • Brush the Stain: After the dwell time, continue brushing the stain with the soft-bristle brush. This further helps to loosen and remove the stain.
  • Extract the Stain: Use a cloth or extraction machine to extract the loosened stain and remove excess moisture from the car seat fabric.

4. Best tips of cleaning leather car seats and removing stains

Leather car seats add a touch of luxury to your vehicle, but that also means that the interior needs special treatment. You must treat the leather surface well so it can last a long time. Car manufacturers offer many options for leather car seats, ranging from basic to luxe, each offering its style and comfort. Most leather car upholstery is already installed with some level of surface protection, making the surfaces easier to clean and maintain. However, leather car seats still need special consideration when it comes to care. In addition to the tips for cleaning cloth car seats, make sure you follow these if you have leather car upholstery.

4.1 Work in Small Sections

While you don't want to let a cleaning solution dry on cloth seats, it's even more important on leather. Work on small sections to avoid any chance of your chosen cleaner drying. Always put your cleaner on a microfiber cloth first, never directly on the leather surface. Applying the cleaner directly to the surface can allow it to drip into crevices, increasing the possibility of damage.

wrk on small sections with soft brush and mild chemicals
cleaning of leather seats with soft brush

4.2 Avoid Leather-Damaging Chemicals

When determining what substances to use to clean your leather seats, the DIY cleaner route is often the best as you will know what is in the solution you use as you want to keep the seats soft, supple and attractive. Thus, you should avoid leather-damaging substances like acetone, alcohol and petroleum. Even abrasives like baking soda can damage leather surfaces and make them dull, so choose with care correct stain remover. When you dilute your cleaning solution you can use hot water for this, this will add more cleaning power and reduce cleaning time

4.3 Note Holes, Tears and Perforations

Before beginning cleaning, look for holes, deep tears and perforations in your leather seats. If you find any, plan on avoiding these areas as you don't want to let liquid get inside the cushioning and flatten them. Take care to use much less cleaning solution on these areas so you won't leave residue behind.

4.4 Use a Soft-Bristled Brush

Because leather damages easily, you'll want to use a soft-bristled brush to work in pre-treatments. Work in a light circular motion with your brush to help lift dirt without damaging the upholstery. Look for brushes with natural horsehair that are about one inch long. As you'll need to put much less pressure on the brush, working in the cleaning solution will take longer. Avoid using brushes that attach to a drill, as these will put too much pressure on the seats and can damage the leather.

4.5 Never Let Cleaning Products Dry on Leather

Although you don't want to let cleaning products dry on cloth upholstery either, it's doubly important not to let that happen on leather. Scrubbing the area when dry can scratch the leather, so slowly add the cleaning solution from spray bottle on your cloth and work it into the surface as needed.

cleaning leather seats with motorized brush

4.6 Buffing and Drying

Once you have cleaned the seats, apply a good leather conditioner with applicator or microfiber towel and buff your seats to achieve an attractive sheen. However, when the time comes for drying, make sure the seats are out of the sun, as the ultraviolet rays can make the leather fade.

4.7 Treating Stains on Leather Seats

Some types of stain require different pre-treatment on leather than on cloth car sets. Note that these can be difficult to remove and that you may not be entirely successful.

Grease stains removal from car seats

Grease leaves oily blotches that muddy the seat's color. Blot as much as possible using a microfiber cloth and then sprinkle cornstarch or talcum powder over the affected area to soak up the rest of the grease. Let the powder sit for a few hours or even overnight before vacuuming. Repeat as necessary.

Oil stains removal from car seats

Oil is much the same as grease, except that it seeps ore quickly into leather, especially around perforations such as stitching. When you have an oil spill, make sure to blot it up immediately. Follow the same process as with grease, but make sure to let the powder sit overnight.

Ink marks removal from car seats

Ink is difficult to remove from leather as you can't use small amount of acetone or rubbing alcohol. Use a high-quality leather conditioner on a cotton swab. Dab the swab on the ink, being careful not to spread the ink to the surrounding area. Keep repeating until you pick up as much ink as possible.

4.8 Keeping Your Leather Seats in Good Condition

Just like with cloth, you need to do several things to keep your leather looking good as well as soft and supple over time. Deep clean the seats regularly and always use a leather conditioner afterward to help protect the leather from UV rays. Park your car in the shade as much as possible, or place a car cover over it. Other ways to keep the leather looking good include:

  • Avoid wearing sharp belts or accessories
  • Placing blankets on seats for pets
  • Using protective covers on seats
Learn more about cleaning leather seats and protecting from stains in our detailed guide.

5. Cleaning of Child Car Seats

The small size of chill car seats make them most prone to getting extremely dirty. Kids constantly eat in them, plus there's always the possibility of spit-up and vomit decorating the surface. Keeping a pack of wet wipes in your car will help remove the worst of such occurrences immediately after they happen. Follow these tips when it comes time to deep clean a child's car seat.

child seat cleaning
child car seat cleaning with steam

5.1 Remove the Padding From the Seat

Most child seats comes with removable padding that you can place in a washing machine. Before cleaning, always check the manufacturer's recommendations to see what types of detergents and products you can use on the padding, along with cycles and whether you can use a clothes dryer or must let the padding air dry. Spot rest and clean the padding in much the same way you would for the seats inside your vehicle, using a steamer if you want to disinfect the surface thoroughly.

If you or family members used to eat inside the car, you can get insects inside car cabin, discover this guide how to get rif of roaches and bugs.

5.2 Clean the Buckles, Harness and Frame

Here is where using a steam cleaning machine can really help. Although you may be tempted to use bleach, don't do it as the residue can irritate baby's skin. Even natural cleaners like vinegar can irritate, so only use a mild soap or detergent. Use a cloth and water to dislodge debris from the buckles and proceed with steaming and cleaning. The frame is the easiest part to clean as it is a hard surface. Use steam or soap and water to clean the entire frame and wipe down excess moisture with a microfiber cloth.

using air blower for fast drying

5.3 Air Dry the Entire Assembly

After cleaning, place the entire assembly somewhere so it can air dry completely. For removable covers, it's a good idea to hang them up to let them air dry. Let dry for at least several hours or up to a whole day to avoid the possibility of mold or mildew. Once everything is completely dry, reassemble the seat, making sure to follow the manufacturer's directions. Pay particular attention to the straps as you don't want to compromise safety.

If you still have heavy smell of chemicals after cleaning, you can use ozone machine to neutrilise them.

Learn more about cleaning car baby seats

6. Using Natural Cleaners

Throughout this guide, we have emphasized how you should use the mildest possible cleaners for deep cleaning your car seats. Many natural commercial cleaners will do the trick but some household products also provide spectacular results, especially when it comes to spot cleaning and pre-treating stains. Among the household items that you can use to clean cloth car seats and other interior surfaces are:

  • Toothpaste
  • Lemon juice and cream of tartar
  • Nail polish remover (acetone)
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Baking soda
  • Vinegar or stain remover
  • Dish soap
  • Laundry detergent
  • Facial cleaner
  • Baby shampoo
  • Olive oil (for conditioning leather)

Dilute your solutions with water to make them weaker. Note that anything with lemon juice will have a bleaching effect, s you should only use a paste or solution containing this ingredient on light-colored upholstery. Always double-check to see what type of leather or cloth you have to rule out substances that could damage the surface. When cleaning any type of car seat, a good rule of thumb is to start with weaker, milder solutions and get more aggressive if you can't remove stains.

Remember, though, that some stains may be so deeply set that you won't be able to remove them completely. You should never scrub your seats so hard that you ruin the surface. The ultimate goal is to make your interior smell good again and look as close to new as possible.

About the Authors

Lev Tretyakov
With over 25 years in the industry, I bring extensive sales expertise in heavy equipment across diverse sectors. Pioneered the first CAD/CAM school in CIS countries. Proud owner of Miami's premier auto detailing hub, Totaal Steam Detailing, hailed as the finest in Miami-Dade by Google.
Sergey "Serg" Paskevich
Panama-based detailing pro, proud owner of Car Care Performance Detailing studio in Panama-City. Specializing in Paint Correction, Ceramic Coating, and comprehensive Car Detailing services

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