Learning how to clean cloth car seats isn’t difficult, nor is it expensive. Instead, it can be an inexpensive, simple way to bring new life back into your old car--or even to handle the routine spots and spills that come from spilled coffee, french fries, and the occasional splash of ketchup. We’re walking you through some of the best, most effective methods for learning how to clean cloth car seats. Plus, we’re providing our favorite tips and tricks for keeping the interior of your car in top-notch condition!
Cleaning Cloth Car Seats Effectively
1. All You Need is Hot Water
One of the most effective methods for dealing with stains and general dirt and crime is the cheapest--hot water! It’s surprisingly effective, as this video from Chris Notap demonstrates. Simply fill up an empty spray bottle with hot water and a few drops of dish soap.
Spray on your cloth car seats liberally and then soak up everything--dirt and water--with your shop vac. You can repeat this process several times for heavily soiled seats, but you’ll be surprised at how simple and effective it is. Chris demonstrates on his car seat, where he’s spilled ketchup and coke on his seat (darn that takeout!). Fortunately, after just a few sprays and passes with his shop vac, you can’t tell that he’s ever eaten in his vehicle!
Pro tip: work in sections. This will help you make sure you clean your seats evenly and don’t miss anything.
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2. Interior Shampoo, a Sponge, and a Cloth
Mark from AutoglymUK on YouTube demonstrates another fairly simple way to clean dirty, stained car seats. He demonstrates on what we’d all agree is a very dirty car seat! He starts by vacuuming the seat to remove any debris. Then, he uses an interior shampoo, designed for cloth car seats, to spray down the seat liberally (Mark also works in sections).
Next, Mark uses a large damp car sponge to scrub the seat. As he points out, “you can be a lot firmer with car seats than you think.” The scrubbing loosens the dirt and pulls in out into the foam; your next step will be to remove the foam (along with the dirt) from the car seat. Now you’ll use a microfiber cloth and a bucket of water--wipe away the foam and then keep rinsing and reusing your cloth until the foam is gone and the seat is clean!
Mark’s finished product is quite impressive--what was admittedly a nasty, light-colored cloth seat becomes a much more attractive seat again!
Pro tip: plan to clean the entire seat, not just a section or a single stain, as doing so will result in a patchy-looking seat.
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3. A Surprising Cleaning Tool: a BBQ Grill Scrubber
Scott is an auto detailer who runs a business in Dallas, Texas, and in this YouTube video, he lets one of his best secrets of the trade out of the bag! Scott has grabbed a seat from a twenty-year-old Pontiac out of a junkyard. It’s disgusting, without a doubt!
Scott starts with a brief vacuum to remove debris from the seat, and then he recommends using a laundry prewash stain remover. He feels that using a product like this is great for vehicle upholstery and it’s better than using an extractor that creates tons of water and takes forever to dry.
Scott also prefers to not use a bristled brush since it creates so much resistance and is always “fighting you” while you clean. Instead, he points to a genius hack that he created years ago: using a BBQ grill scrubber. It’s like a very stiff sponge or scrubber that’s normally used to clean BBQ grills. It’s not hard enough to damage upholstery, but it is firm enough to lift the dirt out of the weave without hurting your arm after a few moments.
Scott raves about its ability to “bite into stains” and recommends running it over the stains in several different directions, pausing to wipe away the lifted prewash with a cloth as he goes.
Like most other detailers and car cleaning experts, Scott cleans the seat in sections. By the time he’s finished, it’s incredible how much better the chair looks! We especially love this method because it doesn’t require a shop vac, and an extractor, or any other kind of equipment--just a little prewash and an inexpensive scrubber!
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4. Using a Carpet Cleaning Machine and Carpet Shampoo
If you’d like to invest in a cleaner specifically designed for upholstery, you can go with something like what James Stauffer from Stauffer Garage uses in this video. He picked up a Hoover carpet cleaning machine and while they’re fairly inexpensive, there are other ways to save:
Here’s how a carpet cleaner like this works: the handle has a trigger mechanism. When you depress it, it shoots water and cleaner (which you’ve already added to the tank) onto the upholstery. The strong suction then almost immediately vacuums up the cleaner and water you’ve left behind.
Before starting with a carpet cleaner, however, you’ll need to vacuum off debris. James recommends checking out your shop vac or vacuum nozzle carefully for sharp bits that will snag upholstery. If you find some, you can use an Exacto knife to shave those parts away.
Another vacuuming tip from James is this: be careful about the lines you make on the upholstery when you vacuum. If you’re not aware of them, you might accidentally think they’re dirt later on!
After you’ve vacuumed, you can use your carpet cleaner! Work in sections and make as many passes as you need to. Probably the most satisfying thing about using a carpet cleaner is emptying the tank afterward and seeing how much dirt has been removed from your seat.
Pro tip: before beginning, make sure it’s a sunny day. If you’re using any kind of extractor or heavily saturating the carpet, you’ll need the sun’s help to dry off the seats.
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5. Can Coffee Come Out of Your Upholstery?
If you’ve ever spilled coffee on your car upholstery, you know the trouble it can be to get it out. This video compares four different ways to do just that. In it, Stauffer spills coffee inside his minivan for demonstration.
Here are the three methods he utilizes:
The first two methods were marginally effective and, as Stauffer points out, would work fine in a pinch. Resolve, however, was notoriously foamy and difficult to wipe away, making it less effective than hot water and Dawn dish soap.
The third and fourth methods, however, without a doubt worked the best. While they do require extra machines, the combination of extraction provided by the shop vac and the carpet machine along with high-quality cleaners meant they were the best at removing stains on car upholstery.
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6. Pro Methods Vs. Hand Detailing Methods
for Cleaning Your Upholstery
Larry Kosilla is one of the top experts on car detailing, and in this video, he breaks down some important strategies for learning how to clean cloth car seats. Plus, he compares the different methods. Now, since he’s pulling out some expensive machines, we’ll tell you right away that Larry himself doesn’t recommend the machines over doing it by hand.
He often prefers to do it by hand! Doing it by hand may take a little longer, but it’s not inferior to using machines. That’s good news for most of us, who aren’t interested in spending hundreds over even thousands on machines just for upholstery cleaning.
When it comes to using machines like extractors, Larry has one big tip: you have to pay attention to the water. For him, it’s all about managing the water. Any seat has loads of cushioning underneath the upholstery and using too much water can cause the cushioning to fill up with liquid.
At that point, it’s extremely difficult to dry. Plus, it’s likely to cause additional staining. In short, keep the water to a minimum.
Another important tip from Larry is to use microfiber towels, not terry towels. Terry soaks up water very well, but microfiber is much better at picking up dirt and debris from cloth.
Now, there are two main ways to clean upholstery by hand. The first is to use warm water in a bucket. Larry points out that most people use dish detergent, but he recommends using laundry detergent instead of dish detergent, simply because laundry detergent is designed for cloth and dish detergent is not.
For this method, simply soak your scrub brush in the water and then shake off most of the water. Then, scrub the carpet. Larry cautions that you do not want to saturate the upholstery, as this can cause stains to spread. If possible, use a shop vac as you scrub to soak up water. He also explains that this method might be too aggressive for older or more sensitive upholsteries. Finally, use a microfiber cloth to dry and finish cleaning.
The final hand method that Larry uses himself and highly recommends starts with a fiber/cloth car cleaner. He uses a very light mist on the seat and then uses something called a detailed brush--like a stiff, small paint brush--to agitate the surface of the material.
The goal, Larry explains, is to keep the dirt suspended so you can back in and pick up the dirt with a towel. Larry also sometimes uses a very small scrub brush for more aggressive stains. Finally, you’ll use a microfiber cloth to gently press and wipe away the dirt and cleaner that’s accumulated.
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7. Why Stop With Just the Seats?
A spot clean or a quick clean just for a stain on your seat is fine, but if you start cleaning your seats inevitably, you’re going to find that the rest of your car needs some love, too. This gentleman breaks down exactly how he details the interior of vehicles in his Houston, Texas detailing business. He uses one of his client’s vehicles to demonstrate--an extremely dirty vehicle with an exciting before and after!
First, he starts by manually picking up large pieces of trash so that his vacuum doesn’t have to work. He removes the mats and gets the steamer started. Then, he starts using his steamer. He relies heavily on the nozzle and upholstery attachments, even using the steam nozzle to break up stains.
He also uses a polisher with a brush attachment instead of manually scrubbing stains with a brush. He alternates between steaming, spraying, polishing till the stains are removed. He starts with the mats (using a foldable bench, so he doesn’t have to squat to the floor) and then uses the nozzle attachment on his team machine to get the dashboard.
A brush, microfiber cloth, and all-purpose spray are also crucial during this step--and throughout the rest of the car.
Pro tip: do you love detailing and think you have a knack for it? Earn money or start a business detailing cars for other people!
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Beyond Cleaning: Tips for Keeping Your Car’s Interior in Tip Top Condition
So, you’ve done the work, and you’ve got a beautifully cleaned car. Congrats! Now, let’s keep it that way. Here are some of our favorite tips and tricks for helping you keep your car organized and clean, saving you time, money, and energy in the long run.
1. Invest in Floor Mats
If you don’t have mats on the floors for every passenger and in the back trunk, you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity. Mats save your vehicle’s upholstery, but they also help to collect dust. If you’ve got fiber mats, consider upgrading to high-quality plastic mats that will even collect liquid. These only need to be washed or steamed, saving you from having to detail out your entire vehicle interior.
2. Create New Habits
The easiest way to keep from having to spend all day detailing your vehicle is to make small changes to your routine. Every time you leave your vehicle, for example, take your trash with you--and teach your kids to do the same!
Keep a handheld vacuum in your vehicle and hand it to your kids in the backseat--kids love to use this little machines and involving them in cleaning up their messes is a genius parent move.
3. Keep Things Organized
Dirt starts to accumulate when things get messy; use organizers to help you keep things in their place. A backseat organizer can help keep your kids’ sippy cups, crayons, coloring books, and toys corralled, while you can use small car trash bags in the front to help keep your trash organized. A trunk organizer can be hugely helpful, as well.
Another genius hack we love is to place small silicone muffin cups (normally used for baking) in your cup holders--it’s much easier to wash them than it is to clean your cup holders!
4. Help Your Pets
If your a pet parent, consider getting waterproof seat covers designed specifically for your pet. These are great at saving your upholstery from your pet’s nails, but they also keep the hair off the carpet so clean up is a breeze!
If you’ve got kids in carseats, you can do something similar--use car covers specifically designed to be used under car seats. These protect your seats from the weight of the car seat and the inevitable sippy cup spills and crush goldfish!
5. Store Cleaning Tools in Your Vehicle
You probably spend a ton of time stuck at lights or waiting in line at Starbucks--why not take advantage of it? Store things like detail brushes, pet hair brushes, and a Swiffer in your car so that while you’re sitting, you can get a few things cleaned up. Just don’t forget to keep an eye out on the car in front of you!
Learning how to clean cloth car seats can extend the life of your vehicle and make it something you love driving. Now, you have all the information you need to get started. Happy cleaning!