1. Home
  2. DIY Car Detailing Blog
  3. Car Interior Cleaning

How to Get Stains Out of Car Seats - Free Mega Guide

In today’s modern world, our car is our temple. We spend hours in our cars commuting every day. We eat, drink, think, work, sleep and do...well adult activities…in our cars almost as frequently as we do at home.

The seats of our cars are the unsung hero of our daily life and endure an abuse the paint could never imagine. Yet, when it comes to car care, the body and exterior gets all the attention, while the car’s interior would be blessed if it were properly vacuumed and wiped.

In this article, we’re putting it all right. We’re deep cleaning the seats of our cars and we’re taking you along for the journey.

Let’s get started!

DIY CERAMIC COATING - 1yr of Protection
The Two-Step Interior Kit That Works

★★★★★ "I have a 2020 Cadillac XT6 with pearl white exterior and light oyster color interior your new interior kit is fantastic it is easy to work and the results are incredible. This product is just like all your other products I purchased from you to keep my car looking better than new.." - Lillian M.

SHOP NOW

How To Clean Cloth Interior

Cloth seats come standard in most economy cars and daily drivers, so we’ll start with them first. They accumulate more stains and dirt compared to leather or vinyl upholstery, which makes them harder to clean. On the other hand, they are usually more durable and age better than leather and vinyl, which require specific maintenance.

The fabric of your seats can be soiled by virtually everything you drop or smear onto the surface - dirt, food, candy, beverages, coffee, make up. Even spilling bottled water on the seat can result in a nasty outlined stain. DIY mechanics can accidentally get grease or blood over the interior. Pet owners and parents with young children are already well aware of the full range of muck and stains their babies leave behind - dirty feet, smeared food, bodily fluids, all the good stuff.

Okay, enough talking, let’s get to it.

What Products to Use?

Here’s your shopping list:

  • Intra Clean + Intra Shield Bundle by Torque Detail
  • A dedicated stain removing product or make a DIY one. See below!
  • Microfiber cloth and spare towels
  • Spray bottle
  • Soft bristle brush, carpet brush
  • Vacuum - A wet/dry vacuum will help you pull out the cleaning solution and most of the moisture and improve the drying times - especially in the winter.

Additionally, if there are tough stains on the seats, you’re going to need some household products - carbonated water, hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, white vinegar, dish or laundry detergent. We’ll explain how to mix up some homemade stain removal solutions.

How to Make a Killer DIY Stain Remover

While, it’s most ideal to go out and buy a dedicated stain removing product, there’s nothing wrong about giving your own DIY stain remover a shot!

Measurements don’t matter too much for the above recipe except for the white vinegar (1 cup is a good amount) and the dish soap (only use a few drops).

Vacuum The Car

Start with general clean up of the vehicle. Pick up the trash, remove household items and tidy up the glove box.

Remove the floor matts and thoroughly vacuum the interior. Get one of the flat attachments so you can poke into the crevices between and around the seats. Move the seats front and back and also lay them flat to get into all the spaces.

Vacuum the upholstery itself! A stronger machine should be able to pull a significant amount of dust and debris that has lodged in the fabric.

Start Scrubbing

If you purchased a special car upholstery cleaner, all you need to do is spray it onto the fabric and scrubb it in with a soft bristle brush or a terry cloth towel.

Depending on the fabric you’re working with, you might be able to use a harder and larger carpet brush to get the job done quicker and easier. However, acknowledge that some materials are softer and could be damaged, so test it first before going full tilt. In any case, don’t use a lot of pressure - focus on the rubbing not the pressing.

Agitate the product for a couple of minutes, then wipe it off with a damp towel and wipe again with a dry clean microfiber towel to pick up the moisture. If you have a wet / dry vacuum, you can skip the wiping and vacuum the solution out.

We recommend trying Torque Detail’s Interior Cleaning Kit. It contains our own Intra Clean upholstery cleaner good for leather, vinyl, cloth and all other interior materials. Also included is our Intra Shield ceramic conditioner, which protects all interior surfaces from UV degradation and stains, keeps them fresh and easier to clean the next time around.

If you don’t have time to run to the store, you can mix yourself a homemade fabric cleaner - just add a few squirts of laundry detergent or dish detergent to a gallon of hot water (not boiling, you don’t want to scald yourself).

You can apply it to the seats with a sponge, a towel or the brush itself, just make sure to use as little liquid as possible unless you have a wet vacuum machine. Otherwise, drying the seats will be a challenge. Alternatively, pour the solution in a spray bottle and spray on the surface before rubbing it in.

Homemade Solutions For Removing Tough Stains

The following recipes are not a surefire solution to kill all stains all the time, but extensive DIY experience suggests they can often do the trick for next to zero cost. If the first one you try doesn’t work, try another one

Club Soda

Club soda is just carbonated water. Cold water itself can only dilute a stain, not break down the ingredients. Some opinions suggest that the fizzing action disturbs the stain and helps loosen it from the surface. If we’re talking about a spill of some sort (coffee, wine...hopefully not while driving...), pouring club soda on it before it has time to dry is your best shot. Don’t scrub the stain, instead blott it with paper towels to lift it out. Repeat until you no longer see an effect.

Baking Soda

Baking soda or sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO₃) is a type of salt that has somewhat high pH of around 8.5. Do you know what else has a high pH? Degreasers. Yes, bases and alkaline products (those with pH above 7) cut through food, beverage, and grease stains by breaking down the fats, oils and proteins to make them soluble to water.

On top of that, baking soda is a mild abrasive. It can get in between the fibers of the fabric and agitate the stain from the inside. Last but not least, baking soda is a natural deodorizer. It absorbs bad smells, rather than masking them away like air fresheners do.

Mix a tablespoon of baking soda into a cup of warm water. Apply on the spot with a damp cloth or a spray bottle and leave it there for a few minutes. Then scrub with a brush or the cloth you used to apply it. Finally, wipe away with a dry towel.

White Vinegar

White vinegar usually consists of 5% acetic acid and water. It has a pH of 2.4 making it an effective natural acid. Like any other acid, white vinegar is effective at dissolving dirt and minerals, killing bacteria, germs, mould and mildew, but you need to use higher concentrations and leave it soaking for up to 30 minutes to get any disinfection benefit. Use 1:1 with water, or more concentrated if you need to, and scrub the fabrics thoroughly.

Just remember to NOT use it on exposed aluminum or other metal trim pieces. The acid will react and corrode the surface, leaving nasty stains that have to be polished out.

DIY CERAMIC COATING - 1yr of Protection
The Two-Step Interior Kit That Works

★★★★★ "I have a 2020 Cadillac XT6 with pearl white exterior and light oyster color interior your new interior kit is fantastic it is easy to work and the results are incredible. This product is just like all your other products I purchased from you to keep my car looking better than new.." - Lillian M.

SHOP NOW

White Vinegar + Dish Soap + Water

As we’ve mentioned earlier, a cup of vinegar, clean water and a tablespoon or so of dish soap. This recipe is sworn to by many DIY bloggers as an effective solution for pretty much any stain on cloth car upholstery. Vinegar acts as the acid and dish soaps usually contain a healthy amount of degreasers, while the water is used as a carrier. The solution attacks all types of stains and leaves the interior freshly clean, albeit with a temporary odor of vinegar. Club soda is sometimes used instead of pure water.

WARNING: Different cleaning products and homemade recipes might react unexpectedly to some fabrics. Whichever solution you choose to use, test it in an inconspicuous place to ensure it doesn’t pull out the dye, damage the fabric or the stitching.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is a bleaching agent that is very effective at oxidizing colored stains like coffee stains, blood and grape juice. It’s available at most department stores and pharmacies and usually comes in 3% solution.

Mix 1:2 with water and apply small amounts to the stain. Leave it to fizz and dab off with a clean towel. Repeat several times until you see the stain lifting and fading.

WARNING: Only use hydrogen peroxide when all else has failed. The bleach can release the dye in the fabric and cause the seat to discolor and fade. This is especially noticeable on dark colored fabrics. Use with extreme caution and always test at a concealed location.

Steam Cleaning and Hot Water Extraction

It’s likely your detailer will use better, more efficient ways of cleaning your fabric car seats than vinegar, water and a scrub brush.

Most detailing shops will resort to a steam cleaner or a hot water extractor.  

Hot water extractors used to be the norm a couple of decades ago. They combine all your manual actions into one. A water and cleaning product are mixed in a container. The extractor pumps this solution to a nozzle in the handle which is also equipped with a brush so you can scrub the fabric as you go. Finally, the extractor has a vacuum that pulls the cleaning solution and all the dissolved dirt and junk out of the seat.

The result is a clean, fresh smelling interior, albeit somewhat damp, but not any wetter than cleaning by hand with a bucket and brush.

Hot water extractors are very efficient and depending on the cleaning product you add will easily remove all stubborn stains within a couple of passes.

In recent years, however, steam cleaners rose in popularity, mainly because they reduce drying times and don’t require any cleaning product to do the work.

Steam cleaners have a boiler that heats up pure water and turns it into high pressure hot steam, which is ejected from the head. The steam breaks down all dirt, oils, grease and stains, kills bacteria, mold and mildew and leaves the fabrics clean and refreshed. In addition, it can be used to clean pretty much any surface that’s not hyper-sensitive to heat.

Both of these methods are usually superior to hand-cleaning and get the job done faster.

Some detailers use both machines in combination. Since hot steam expands, it brings dirt and grime to the surface, which makes it easier for the extractor to clean it up in the following pass.

It’s always amazing to see the gross black water that comes out of extractors after fully cleaning a car interior.

Protecting Cloth Interior

If you’ve spent a few hours cleaning your interior, you’re probably wondering whether there’s no product to protect the fabric and make it more resistant to stains and dirt.

Seat covers are a great idea if you have pets or kids or just know your seats will get messy. These don’t have to be the $10 one-size-fits-all kit available at most auto stores. Custom car seat covers are available for any model in any fabric and material. The benefit is when they get dirty, you can simply remove them and wash them, while still having your car available to drive immediately.

Another idea is to use a fabric protector or sealant. There is a whole range of products on the market today that will help your seats stay cleaner and be easier to clean next time.

They all work similarly, infusing the fabric with a hydrophobic solution, which dries clear and repels water and makes it harder for stains to set into the fabric. Fabric protectors are not invincible, of course, but significantly reduce the staining and time and effort required to clean the upholstery.

How To Clean Leather and Vinyl Seats

Bring neglected leather back to life
Restore Leather To Factory New

★★★★★ "Have always used Lexol in past with good results but Torque product much better and works on all interior pieces ..have a 93 Corvette and seats are in good condition but now really nice look..can't attach pic but take my word.
.actually you can't go wrong with any of Torque Products" - Gary G.

SHOP NOW

Most premium and luxury vehicles come with either a vinyl (usually marketed as faux leather) or leather interior. Typically cow hide is used to make car leather seats, but ultra luxury models may come with bespoke materials.

Trucks, vans and other commercial vehicles mostly use vinyl instead of leather. While not as comfortable, vinyl is much more durable and lasting and quite a bit cheaper than leather is.

Vinyl and leather don’t stain as easily as cloth does, but it still accumulates a layer of grime that absorbs into the pores and covers the top surface like a coating of muck. It might not look that bad, but when you start cleaning it, you’ll notice how the leather becomes brighter and restores its original color.

Thankfully, it’s not that difficult to clean, so let’s get started.

What Products to Use?

  • Leather or vinyl cleaner - These cost a few extra dollars, but are the safest possible cleaning solution that’s formulated specifically for these materials.
  • All purpose cleaner - As you’ll find in the sections below, APC can be an effective cleaner for most leather and vinyl surface.
  • Mild pH neutral soap - Can be used in place of a leather cleaner or APC
  • Microfiber cloth and towels
  • Spray bottle
  • Horse hair soft bristle brush
  • Nylon brush
  • Vacuum (with brush attachment)

Vacuum The Seats

This step is the same regardless if you’ve got a cloth or leather upholstery. We covered it above, so just repeat the steps.

Start Scrubbing

Okay, there are a few words we need to share about leather interiors.

The industry will make you believe that car leather seats are made from this super delicate material that will disintegrate if you touch it with a brush or use dish soap to clean it.

This is of course not true.

For one, oftentimes you’re not looking at real leather, but a vinyl material. It looks and feels similar (not quite the same), but it’s much stronger and durable. Then, even if the seats are upholstered in real leather, it’s always coated with a synthetic sealant to reduce the absorbency of the leather, protect it from cracking and drying and also protect it from abrasion.

Just think logically, leather can endure a decade of your butt wiggling, rotating and rubbing across the seats. Believe us, a pair of jeans with some 180 pounds (average American weight) on top becomes pretty abrasive.

Leather seats can take some good scrubbing and the majority of cleaning products available on the market. So don’t bite your nails and just get to it.

That said, we always recommend using a leather-specific cleaner if you can. These products are formulated for this purpose and are safe for any type of leather.

Torque Detail formulated its own solution Intra Clean, which can safely be used on leather, vinyl, cloth, plastic, metal, carbon fiber and all other interior surfaces and materials. You can get it in our Interior Kit, also including Intra Shield - a ceramic protectant for interior surface. Intra Shield will coat your surfaces in SiO2-infused sealant to protect them from spills, stains, greasy fingers and UV degradation.

If you don’t have a specific leather cleaner, you can use an all purpose cleaner or a pH balanced mild soap. You really want to use a pH neutral cleaner on real leather. Vinyl can take more aggressive chemicals, but it's common sense to stick to the milder ones.

WARNING: Whichever product you decide to use, even if it’s a leather specific cleaner, ALWAYS test in an inconspicuous location to see if there aren’t any unwanted reactions.

Okay, to get to the actual cleaning part:

For lightly dirty leather seats, spray some product onto a microfiber towel and rub it thoroughly in the material. You should see the dirt coming out and the leather taking a brighter cleaner tone.

For nastier seats, grab an interior brush - ideally a horse hair soft bristle brush. Spray some product into the bristles then work it into the leather. Apply more if you need to, but never spray directly into the leather. Most seats are perforated and you don’t want to soak the solution into the cushion. With horse hair, you can press as much as you like, though don’t go berserk on the seat.

For heavily soiled seats, which have sat for some years with no clean up, you can try using a harder nylon bristle brush. The method is the same, however, make sure you’re just lightly pressing on the brush. Just glide it over the material and it should be enough to scrub away the dirt.

IMPORTANT: When cleaning leather seats, always start with the least aggressive method and move up if you need to. You want to cause the minimum abrasion and wear to the material.

Will a hard brush abrade leather? Yes. That said, leather is pretty tough if you follow the above advice and don’t scrub aggressively, you shouldn’t experience any problems. Either way, once you’ve removed all the grease and grime, and begin cleaning your leather interior monthly, you shouldn’t need to use the hard brush for quite some time.

If stains persist after going through all the steps, don’t try to scrub too hard or use products like bleaches and acids. Seek professional help, before you make the problem worse.

Not every problem is easily fixed through DIY. You’d rather spend $100 to clean a stain than $500 to restore the leather seat you ruined because you don’t know when to stop.

Protect Leather and Vinyl Seats

Leather and vinyl are affected by UV rays overtime. Combine that with abrasion from daily use and aggressive cleaning, the leather will dry overtime, lose it’s flexibility and can begin to crack.

In order to prevent that from happening, you want to apply a leather conditioner every 3-4 months to keep the material fresh, restore its flexibility, shine and make it easier to maintain.

Try Torque Detail’s Leather Conditioner. It’s formulated with Vitamin E to nourish and replenish the natural proteins in leather which diminish over time. Apply the conditioner with a microfiber towel and give the seat a good wipe down.

DIY CERAMIC COATING - 1yr of Protection
The Two-Step Interior Kit That Works

★★★★★ "I have a 2020 Cadillac XT6 with pearl white exterior and light oyster color interior your new interior kit is fantastic it is easy to work and the results are incredible. This product is just like all your other products I purchased from you to keep my car looking better than new.." - Lillian M.

SHOP NOW

Conclusion

Interior cleaning. It’s not as scary you might have though, but it does require some time and effort to get right.

Certainly leather requires a more delicate touch, though you will be surprised to see how much it can take before you cause any real damage.

Fabric can take much more abuse, but it’s also more difficult to get tough stains out which have dried and sat for weeks or even months.

Either way, follow our advice and you should see near perfect results that make your interior look, feel and smell like a brand new clean car.

While you’re in there, you might as well wash your carpets. Visit our carpet cleaner guide for more information.

  • Published on May 15, 2021
Judge.me Verified Reviews Badge
6096
Verified Reviews