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What is the Best Way to Clean Car Upholstery?

By Nychole Price
Updated May 23, 2024
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The value of your car is greatly dependent upon the condition of the seats and carpet. Cleaning car upholstery is much like cleaning your living room furniture, as they are made from similar materials. The process you use to clean up your car upholstery is determined by the material from which it is made.

Before you clean car upholstery, be sure to thoroughly vacuum the carpets and seats of the car. Grains of sand, food crumbs and other debris can damages the seats or embed in the carpet during the scrubbing process. Use a high-powered vacuum, like those available at gas stations or car wash stalls, to remove dirt that is deeply ingrained in the fabric.

Fabric seats are the most likely to become stained, and develop odors, if spills aren't immediately cleaned. In order to clean car upholstery that is made from this type of material, you will need a spray cleaner specifically for fabric, which is available at all major car part stores. Spray the seats and allow the cleaner to penetrate into the fabric. With a damp cloth, scrub the seats vigorously, then wipe with dry cloth. Keep the windows down to allow the upholstery to dry thoroughly and prevent the development of mildew.

It is relatively easy to clean car upholstery made of vinyl, as the material doesn't trap stains. Spray the seats with vinyl cleaner, available at chain auto part stores, and wipe them down with a dry cloth. Apply a UV protectant to the seats to prevent cracking in direct sunlight.

Leather car upholstery is easy to clean, but difficult to car for. It develops sun spots, cracks and tears easily. To clean the seats, wipe them down with a leather cleaner and a dry cloth. For deeply embedded dirt, use a slightly damp cloth and scrub in a circular motion. Wipe the seats dry and apply a leather conditioner to keep the material soft and pliable. Follow up with a UV protectant to prevent the seats from developing sun spots and cracks.

Cleaning the carpets in your car is much like cleaning the carpets in your house. Apply a spot remover to any stains and allow it to penetrate deeply into the fibers before scrubbing. Use a carpet cleaner with an attachment feature to scrub the entire carpeted area. If you don't have one available, scrub the carpets with a carpet cleaner and a stiff nylon brush. Allow the carpets to dry thoroughly, with the windows down, to prevent the development of mold and mildew.

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Discussion Comments
By anon289162 — On Sep 03, 2012

As the owner of a San Diego car detailing company, I thought this was really good information on automotive interior detailing. Thanks for this post.

By Georgesplane — On Aug 08, 2010

@ GiraffeEars- The smell of spoiled milk is tough to remove from car upholstery. You might want to use an enzyme remover, but before you go out and buy anything, you should try a couple of home remedies.

Make a paste of water and baking soda, and scrub it into the affected area of your upholstery. Add a little cold water and let this sit for a few hours. Vacuum, rinse, and vacuum again. If baking soda does not work, you can try using distilled white vinegar. Scrub this into the smelly area, rinse with cold water, and let dry.

When you are done scrubbing the area, be sure to leave your windows cracked while the area dries. This will prevent mildew from growing and adding to the smell. If this does not work, buy something like Tornador Super Enzyme Cleaner. This product will remove stains and odor from car upholstery and you can use it on all car interior cleaning jobs.

By GiraffeEars — On Aug 08, 2010

My niece spilled a yogurt smoothie in the back seat of my truck, and I had no clue until I noticed the horrible smell of spoiled dairy. I have washed the area with water and dish soap, but it still stinks. I live in phoenix, so when the sun heats up my truck it smells like a farm. How can I get the smell out? Someone please help!

By Alchemy — On Jul 10, 2010

I used to live in a cold climate and the floors of my truck would get dirty with road salt and dirt. To clean them I would scrub the floors with a floor brush, soap, and water. I would vacuum them really well with the vacuum at my local car wash.

After I washed the carpets, I used a carpet and upholstery cleaner to finish cleaning my truck. It had a nylon brush attachment for scrubbing into the fabric.

The product worked great and it gets all of the stains out of my carpet. The truck also smells a lot better once I have cleaned it. It's a bit of a process, but it works well.

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