Have a vinyl seat that needs a little TLC? Unlike leather, vinyl presents unique cleaning challenges you need to know about. If you’re not used to cleaning or restoring vinyl, it’s a good idea to learn a bit about it.
Cleaning and conditioning vinyl vs leather seats
Vinyl seats tend to dry out or crack a bit faster than leather because vinyl is non-porous and can’t be conditioned and restored the way old leather can.
Quick Tip: Vinyl is typically made up of polyester fibers coated in a layer of plastic (usually either PVC or polyurethane). You can make vinyl shinier, and rejuvenate it to an extent, but over time expect flaking, puncturing, or cracking to occur.
But don’t worry…you can keep vinyl looking great for much longer if you take care of it. Here are three simple ways to soften vinyl seats.
Start by cleaning your vinyl seats if dirty
Before you attempt to apply any of these oil-based products, it’s a good idea to clean the surface of the seat to remove any dirt or grime that has probably accumulated over time. Here are a few products you can try that are effective:
- Simple Green. I like to use a product called Simple Green and a detailing brush for heavily soiled areas…including vinyl seats. I dilute Simple Green with water in a spray bottle (1 ounce per cup of water) You can check their vinyl cleaning instructions on their website here.
- Soap and water. Apply using a soft brush or a soft cotton applicator pad. If your seats are relatively clean already, this is probably your best bet. The idea is just to remove contaminants to ensure when you apply any oils, they don’t get absorbed into the vinyl.
- Bleach mixture. It’s always important to be super careful when dealing with bleach, and should only be used in extreme cases for seats that have been left outside and have obvious staining you are trying to remove. It’s best to test a small area of the seat before proceeding with a bleach mixture at a 1:1 ratio.
Once everything is clean and wiped down, make sure the vinyl surface is dry before proceeding.
Option 1: Apply mineral oil or baby oil
Mineral oil is one of the most common household products to treat vinyl. Many old-school upholstery guys swear by using baby oil to help soften up vinyl a bit, but it really depends on your personal preference and what you want to try. Both oils require cleaning before application.
Step 1 – Once free of loose dirt, use a soft cloth to apply oil to the vinyl surface. It’s best to apply any type of oil in the shade (preferably a garage) to avoid evaporation from occurring.
Step 2 – Once you have applied a thin coat of oil to the seat, remove any access oil with a separate cloth and let it dry. Repeat the process if necessary until the vinyl begins to soften.
Option 2: Oil-based soaps
To clean vinyl seats, you can also use a product called Murphy’s Oil Soap. Many car enthusiasts use it to clean and soften vehicle and boat seats, as well as other vinyl surfaces. Here’s how to apply it.
Step 1: Mix up a couple of ounces of the oil soap with distilled water in a 16-ounce spray bottle.
Step 2: Spray a section of the seat and allow the seat to absorb the oils for a minute
Step 3: Use a soft cloth to work the product into the vinyl until it begins to soften. You may also want to use a brush if your vinyl contains stains that you are looking to remove. Some have also said using a magic eraser can help remove set-in stains. If your seats are extremely dry, use a cloth and avoid scrubbing.
Option 3 – Vinyl cleaners and softeners
If you’re just looking for an easy solution, I recommend a dedicated automotive vinyl softener and cleaner. Most stores actually sell products specifically designed to help soften and restore vinyl surfaces…some better than others.
I personally love Meguiar’s products for beginners and recommend their vinyl cleaner/conditioner you can pick up on Amazon.
Simply apply with a microfiber towel, and you’re good to go.
This product comes in a 16-ounce spray bottle, and can also be used on rubber if you choose. As a cleaner and conditioner, it’s really all you need for vinyl seats with normal wear and tear.
What to avoid when cleaning vinyl seats
Avoid applying products like Son of a Gun or Armour All to the surface of vinyl in an attempt to restore it. These are mainly protectants and can leave the surface waxy or too slippery, which is why many professional detailers avoid them.
Always apply oils or vinyl cleaners as needed, and avoid abrasive compounds, detergents, or acids that can cause damage or dry out vinyl even more.
How to repair cracks in vinyl seats
Since vinyl is made of plastic, there are several ways to repair cracks in vinyl before applying any kind of conditioner. You can use a product called Coconix which is basically a compound used to repair both vinyl and leather and can be matched to the color of your seat.
You can find this product on Amazon, and is designed to match multiple vinyl colors.
Seek professional help if needed
As a last resort, find a company that specializes in vinyl cleaning and repair if you are uncomfortable or have a lot of vinyl to restore. One company called Create Colors International specializes in repairing vinyl, have a mobile app, and actually come to you.
Have another tip for softening vinyl that you want to share? Let me know in the comments. For more tips like this check out my post, 17 Interior Detailing Tips the Pros Keep a Secret.
*This post was updated on January 13, 2023 to reflect industry best practices