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How to Clean Cloth Car Seats in 5 Easy Steps

Before you throw the kitchen seat at your cloth seats, today I want to break down how to properly clean them the right way as someone in the detailing community.

Simply put: it’s best to clean your seats in phases if they are really dirty.

For example, clean the entire seat before working to remove stains. You don’t need to apply products intended to treat stains to the entire seat unless necessary. Cleaning deep set-in stains can be tedious; if you just need to freshen things up (normal maintenance), you can do that in a couple of steps.

Caution!

Beware of home remedies found online, published by people without experience. Oftentimes harmful products like nail polish are recommended which can damage the fabric.

A few items you may need

  • Multiple medium pile microfiber towels
  • Wet/dry vacuum
  • Steamer for detailing or steam gun
  • Spray on degreaser safe for cloth
  • Foaming cleaner
  • Soft bristle brush
  • Pair of gloves

Step 1: Vacuum your seats to remove debris

With your gloves on, start by using a vacuum to remove loose debris, and use the right attachments! Mainly the crevice tool. Use your hands to spread the seams open to remove debris you can’t see. Before you apply any kind of cleaner, remove as much loose debris as possible.

Step 2: Remove organic stains with a foaming cleaner and brush

Since dirt is the most common culprit to dirty cloth seats, I like to apply a foaming cleaner designed for cloth using a soft-bristled brush. A brush will help dislodge trapped dirt and debris, and bring it to the surface; be sure you use a soft brush to avoid damaging the cloth.

You can also use a multipurpose cleaner like Simple Green, diluted with water…or a dedicated upholstery cleaner. Many products work well, but don’t use anything harsh at this stage.

Caution!

Avoid products with bleach or oils when cleaning cloth seats. Always check to make sure any product you apply is safe for cloth. If removing paint or gum, it’s safer to try to scrape these off if possible instead of permanently staining your seats with solvents/oil-based products.

Once you apply foam or a cloth cleaner with a brush, use a regular microfiber towel to lift the dirt off of the seat. The pile in microfiber is designed to lift dirt off of just about any surface, so use several of them if needed.

Microfiber Towels for Detailing

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microfiber towels for detailing

It amazes me the dirt these things can pick up!

Step 3: Deep clean seats using a steamer wet/dry vac

After step one, a wet/dry vac is a great way to deep clean your cloth seats and remove excess product. It’s best to work in phases and be delicate whenever using steamers or vacs. For organic stains like coffee, often warm water and steam are all you need.

I recommend starting with a wet/dry vacuum for stain removal, like this small handheld spot cleaner below (that I actually own).

I like this one for cleaning seats because it’s affordable for beginners and can be used on carpet as well.

Hoover Carpet and Upholstery Spot Cleaner

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This one has a detergent tank I usually fill with water (skip the detergent). Since there is a trigger that dispenses water, I usually pre-treat my seats with a spray-on product, and then apply water from the nozzle and suck everything up.

Step 4: Use a steamer if necessary 

The best way to deep clean cloth is with a professional streamer, but not all steamers are the same. Some entry-level portable steamers work well for dirt, but you need a more expensive streamer that can apply pressurized steam to see the best results.

I recommend a device called the Tornador if you need an affordable device that applies pressurized steam with a pH-neutral enzyme to help remove stains. It’s a popular device designed for detailing vehicles and can be used to clean carpets, seats, door jambs, seatbelts, and more.

Tornador Steam Cleaning Gun

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These devices require air compressors to create pressurized steam, so be sure to check out my post on using compressed air in detailing for recommendations and advice.

Step 5: Treat any oil-based stains

At this point, your seats should be clean overall, minus any set-in oil-based stains. To remove oil-based stains from cloth seats, apply baking soda to the stain, brush it into the cloth fibers, and let it sit overnight. You can also apply a very small amount of water to create a paste.

The baking soda can help absorb and draw out the oil. Simply vacuum up the excess baking soda, and repeat the process if needed. Degreasers can also remove oil if it is relatively fresh, so a very small amount of Dawn Dish liquid or spray-on degreaser can be effective here.

If the stains are organic, you may need to use a steamer if you haven’t already, or re-treat them. Always be delicate with cloth seats, and don’t apply too much friction or heat.

What to know about cleaning cloth car seats

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to clean cloth seats, because everyone’s situation is different. Always err on the side of caution, and skip using products like Goo Gone or Goof Off. These products can leave behind oil spots on some cloth seats (from experience!)

Start with your basic cloth upholstery cleaner for maintenance cleaning, and move on to degreasers and spot removers if needed.

Never throw the kitchen sink at a stain, like vinegar plus bleach, plus Goo Gone, plus an adhesive remover…you get the picture. Always take your time and apply products safe for cloth.

Hope it helps! Check out these 17 pro tips for cleaning your interior to see better results this car wash season.

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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