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How to Clean Leather Car Seats Like a Pro

If you’ve stumbled on any other articles on how to clean leather seats, you might be instructed to throw the kitchen sink at the problem. Stuff like baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice…some recommendations will damage your seats or make them smell weird, often written by people without detailing experience. And yes, leather wipes have their place, but they’ll never be able to truly clean and restore leather.

But today you’re in the right place, because there is a proper way to clean your car’s leather seats like a pro.

In this post, I’ll show you exactly what to do and what you’ll need to clean your leather seats. Many of these tricks I’ve picked up from being in the detailing community and learning from other pro detailers over the years.

Step 1: Vacuum the seats and assess the situation

Always start by vacuuming or at least wiping down your seats to remove debris. It helps to have a portable car vac with a crevice tool for cleaning out seams. From there, assess the situation. Do your leather seats have rips or tears to be delicate around? What about stains?

For dirt, food, or crumbs (the normal stuff), you won’t need anything other than a simple leather cleaner.

Quick Tip

Pull the seams apart with one hand when vacuuming crumbs, since crumbs often hide out of plain sight. You can also use a microfiber towel in this stage since the pile is designed to lift small particles.

Step 2: Select the right leather cleaner and brush for the job

If your seats just are really filthy, a normal leather cleaner will work 9 times out of 10. If you have set-in stains, you should treat those after you’ve cleaned the rest of the seat per normal.

I recommend you apply your leather cleaner to a soft detailing brush and then on the seats. For perforated leather, you don’t want cleaner oozing into the pores if you can help it.

It helps to have a few handheld detailing brushes to clean leather (and other interior areas) if you don’t have any; before you begin, grab a set of disposable gloves to protect your hands…you’ll be glad you did.

11-Piece Detailing Brush Set

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Detailing brush set

I like having a bunch of detailing brushes just for the interior, like:

  • Regular bristled detailing brushes – Great to use the majority of the time
  • Short bristled brushes – When I need to agitate a small spot or area
  • Handheld brushes: Good for big SUVs or seats where you have a lot of surface area to cover

For trapped dirt or sticky substances, the shorter the bristles the better.

smaller detailing brush
I sometimes use a small detailing brush around headrests because it’s more comfortable

Even a soft-bristled toothbrush or nylon brush can help if you have sticky residue that longer bristles can’t tackle.

For basic cleaning, use a spray-on or leather cleaning gel

No matter how clean or dirty, start with your favorite spray-on leather cleaner or leather cleaning gel.  I’d stick to a product made for leather; some all-purpose cleaners and degreasers tend to try out leather over time and are only needed in very specific situations (like if you’re dealing with grease, for example).

Meguiar’s makes a good leather cleaning spray in their Gold Class line of products if you want a good all-in-one cleaner and conditioner.

Meguiar’s Leather Cleaning Spray

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I typically stay away from cheap leather cleaners that contain beeswax or other additives because many often make the surface look greasy. 

using a brush on leather seats
Using a brush in leather will help bring embedded dirt to the surface.

My go-to product for leather cleaning is Lexol; it foams up nicely, and I like the way it smells. Lexol makes an accompanying product for conditioning and protecting your leather I’ll typically apply it every couple of months to keep my leather looking nice.

Lexol Leather Care Cleaning Kit

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Lexol leather cleaning kit

Step 3: Proceed to stain removal (if necessary)

Removing set-in stains from leather seats

For tough stains that won’t come out, repeat step one with a shorter bristle brush. If that doesn’t work (I don’t recommend it often) but you can try a bug and tar sponge. Be sure to use plenty of foam and lubrication and graze the sponge only over the affected area without applying any pressure.

If you can remove a stain using light agitation and repeating the process, it’s much better than using stronger chemicals.

Caution!

Don’t use alcohol, acetone, or paint thinner to clean leather. These products can and will discolor leather, and some may even eat through the stitching.

When to use steam to clean leather

There are times when seats are so stained and filthy it makes sense to resort to steam. While it probably isn’t something you want to invest in, many detailers use what’s called a steam gun to clean heavily soiled leather seats, doors, and other areas.

If you decide your seats are a bit too dirty to tackle, chances are other areas like carpet are filthy too. In this case, just call a local detailer familiar with deep cleaning and steam.

Removing paint from leather

If you have any type of paint that won’t come off after normal cleaning, a product called Citrol 266 diluted to 10 to 20 parts water to 1 part solution can be effective. This product can be hard to find in liquid form and falls in the commercial cleaning category. If you’re a detailer, I’d pick up this product in liquid form so you can dilute it in a spray bottle to use for other paint removal jobs.

In aerosol form, you may want to spray some in a plastic cup diluted with water, and dip a microfiber towel in. Modern leather in cars typically has a light plastic urethane added for protection, and these coatings respond differently to more aggressive cleaners. Citrol is a pretty common solution to use for paint removal but I always err on the side of caution.

Citrol 266 Cleaner and Degreaser

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Quick Tip

When removing stains with a commercial cleaner, test in an inconspicuous area first if possible. Discoloration shouldn’t be a problem with Citrol, but you want to use as little product as possible. For spots, only use stronger cleaners if there are no other options.

Ready to clean the rest of your interior?

If you’re moving on to carpet, glass, or anything else…check out these 17 detailing tips used by detailers. There are a few odd tips on this list that may just come in handy the next time you decide to give your car a full detail!

Baxter Overman is the founder of Carwash Country and has been been cleaning up dirty vehicles for nearly 20 years. Since 2017, he's helped thousands of beginners see better results by learning the fundamentals of washing and detailing. He's on a mission to make the car wash process more fun...and way easier.

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