Written by Lisa Truesdale. Reviewed by cleaning expert Sean Busch.

Remember when your car was brand new, and everything was shiny and clean, inside and out? It can be that way again if you keep up with regular cleaning of your interior to remove dust, dirt, and stains that can accumulate. In today’s post, our Puracy cleaning experts share their most effective steps for cleaning and maintaining your car’s upholstery.

How to Clean Cloth Car Seats

The following steps are for cloth/fabric car seats that are due for a good general cleaning but don’t have any visible stains.

(NOTE: Before you use any type of cleaner on your car seats, test an inconspicuous area first.)

Vacuum fabric car upholstery before cleaning

Step 1: Using your vacuum cleaner’s hose attachment, vacuum up as much dust and debris as possible. If your vacuum has an upholstery tool attachment, use that. Then use the crevice tool to reach down into the crevices (like between the seats) and along any seams.

Our resident cleaning expert, Puracy Co-Founder Sean Busch, first recommends brushing areas with a detailing brush or new paintbrush to dislodge dirt, then vacuuming up as much grime as you can. In this picture, one hand brushes and the other hand operates the vacuum nozzle behind it to extract any loose dirt.

Step 2: Treat any stains

Step 3: In a large bucket, mix Puracy Natural Carpet & Upholstery Shampoo with warm water. Because it’s ultra-concentrated, you’ll need only 1 ounce of cleaner for every 100 ounces of water. (One gallon of water equals 128 ounces, so if you have a 3-gallon bucket and you fill it 2/3 with water, you’ll need about 2-1/2 ounces of cleaner.)

Step 4: Dampen a clean microfiber cloth in the solution and wring it out completely. Rub the damp rag in across the entire seat surface, re-wetting the cloth as necessary. Agitate the cloth gently in any areas that need extra cleaning. Use a cross-hatch cleaning motion -- first, rub the entire seat going front to back, then do it again going side to side. 

Step 5: To remove any remaining cleaner from the surface, wet a separate clean microfiber cloth with plain warm water and rub it across the entire seat surface. Keep a bucket of fresh water handy, and make sure to rinse and wring the cloth often throughout this process.

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Step 6: Allow the seats to air dry completely before driving your car. Park in the sun if possible, but make sure to leave the windows cracked, otherwise moisture will not escape from your vehicle and you’ll promote mold growth. A portable household fan is another good option, as it will keep fresh air cycling through the vehicle, speeding up the drying process.

If you need to drive the car before it has time to dry, then you can use a blowdryer to help it along, but don’t use a blowdryer if you treated any type of stain. You’ll need to first verify whether the stain was fully removed before drying. 

Expert Tip from Sean Busch: “When it comes to cleaning car seats, I prefer to map out my day. First, I’ll check the forecast to ensure I select a day that has the most sun and the lowest relative humidity. From there, I start in the morning. It is cooler, which is important because you will probably work up a sweat. Also, it allows your car to sit out in the sun all day to dry. If you do it in the evening, then you are drying during the darkest, wettest time of the day. Choosing a warm, sunny day and starting in the morning will give you optimal results.”

What to Know Before Cleaning Leather Car Seats

Most modern leather is coated leather, which means it’s coated in vinyl or polyurethane to help protect it and make it last longer. If you’re unsure what type of leather your car seats have, check your owner’s manual or ask the dealer where you purchased the car.

Or try this quick trick: Put a few small drops of plain water on the surface. If the water absorbs into the surface, as it would with a towel, then your leather is NOT coated. Check with your dealer for cleaning tips.

But if the water beads up, your leather car seats are coated, and they can be cleaned in the same way you clean your coated leather furniture inside the house. You’ll find a general cleaning technique below. We also recommend checking out our related article, “How to Clean Coated Leather”, for more information.

Step-by-Step Method for Cleaning Coated Leather Car Seats

(NOTE: Before you use any type of cleaner on your car seats, test an inconspicuous area first.) 

Step 1: Put on a pair of cleaning gloves. Although this step might initially not seem necessary, there are various reasons to use them. First, what if you are cleaning up milk that spilled yesterday? That means it is spoiled and full of bacteria. Second, gloves add a second layer of protection on your hands. They serve like another layer of skin. Many areas on the lower part of seats (tracks, mechanics of the seat, etc...) also contain sharp metal that can cut you. For all of these reasons, we recommend wearing gloves when cleaning your car seats.

Step 2: Brush your seats with a detailing brush or new paintbrush to dislodge dirt, then use your vacuum cleaner’s hose attachment to vacuum up all dust and debris (or use your vacuum’s upholstery tool attachment if it comes with one). Then use the crevice tool to vacuum up all crevices (like between the seat and the back) and along any seams.

Clean leather upholstery with a microfiber cloth

Step 3: Spray a clean microfiber cloth with several sprays of cleaner -- you’ll need about one spray for every two-by-two foot surface area you are attempting to clean. Never spray the cleaner directly onto the leather. Wipe the cleaner onto the seats with a circular motion -- be gentle, never rough. If your seats have perforated sections, try to avoid getting excess cleaner into the holes.

There are a number of gentle formulas you can use to spruce up coated leather. Choose one of the following:

Step 4: To remove any remaining cleaner from the surface, wet a separate clean microfiber cloth with plain water, wring it out, and rub it across the entire seat surface in overlapping passes.

Step 5: To remove any remaining moisture, use a separate clean microfiber cloth to dry the entire seat surface. (This step might not be necessary if you use a damp (versus wet) towel in step #3.)

Expert Tip: You can also use the same process outlined above to clean vinyl and leatherette seats, both of which are becoming much more common in today’s vehicles.

How to Help Your Car Seats Stay Clean

General, routine maintenance is the best way to keep your car looking like new. Here are some other tips for maintaining your car’s interior:

  • Frequent car care is easy car care. Even if you’re not doing a full cleaning regimen, vacuum your car seats regularly. This will keep dirt and grime from getting trapped in the fibers, and it will allow you to go longer stretches of time between each deep cleaning.
  • If something does get spilled on the seats, always clean it up as soon as possible.
  • Always use closed cups/mugs when drinking beverages in the car.
  • As a last resort, don’t allow eating or drinking in your car. It’s a tough rule to enforce, especially when you have kids, but sometimes it’s the only way to keep the seats clean. If you’re willing to break the no-eating rule for long road trips, cover the seats with waterproof pads.
  • If you are dirty or sweaty, put a towel on your seat before you hop in. It is much easier to clean a towel than it is to clean your car’s upholstery. 
  • Keep a clean microfiber towel in every vehicle. You can use it for everything from spills to wiping your windshield haze to cleaning your sunglasses and navigation screen.

Having a clean car feels so good, doesn’t it? Depending on how often you use your vehicle and how dirty it gets, you’ll want to follow these general cleaning steps a few times per year to keep your car looking great.