How-To Clean Car Upholstery: Clean Car Seats

Mercedes Benz Car Upholstery

When I first got my car, I was only driving short distances too and from work, with the occasional weekend drive.

I made a conscious effort to cut the amount of food being eaten in my car and never allowed any pets to come for a drive.

Because of this I never had to do much more than dust the dashboard of my car.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m now effectively living out of my car 5 days a week.

It’s a complete nightmare to keep on top of. Most of the time I can’t be bothered to make a couple of short trips to clean out the trash.

Life & Children can get on top of you very quickly.

It’s easy to let all that dirt accumulate in your car, but it’s also very easy to clean it out and have a fresh interior. All you need is a little bit of free time, courage and energy to tackle the job.

What is considered upholstery in a car?

Traditional upholstery refers to the fabric on chairs, seats, sofas, and sometimes even bed frames. When it comes to cars, it’s the exact same.

Upholstery in a car normally refers to the seats, headliner, carpet, and sometimes even the door cards and dashboard.

If the part or panel is covered in vinyl, leather, cloth, or fabric of some sort, it’s classed as upholstery.

Cleaning car upholstery is only a fraction of what’s necessary to professionally clean a car interior.

Everything you need to know about cleaning car upholstery

The first thing you want to do when cleaning any area of your car is to assess the dirt and think about how you’re going to tackle it.

It’s easy to watch all the “dirtiest interior detail” videos on youtube and think that you need endless amounts of equipment that will set you back hundreds of dollars before you even start.

I’d probably avoid those videos as much as possible. You may see the lack of professional equipment you have as a reason to put off washing the car.

If you’ve not let the dirt completely spiral out of control, you can achieve great results without any special equipment.


It’s important to know what equipment and tools are required for the job. You wouldn’t bake a cake without knowing the ingredients, would you?

Having the optimal equipment for the job will make your life a lot easier and can often lead to better results.

If you want to achieve the best results and/or increase efficiency, the equipment and products listed below are vital.


Vacmaster Wet & Dry Vacuum

This is the only piece of equipment on the list that you NEED to have.

Everyone that has a car or house, should also have a vacuum. It’s a fundamental piece of cleaning equipment and it can be used absolutely anywhere.

It’s a necessity because you will need to hoover up all the loose dirt before cleaning the car upholstery.

If you don’t, you will end up pushing dirt around in circles, and the interior of your car will never look clean.

Personally, I have a very bulky household vacuum. It makes cleaning the car a very unpleasant experience. I’m constantly worried about it falling over and hitting my car.

I’ve been in the market for an upgrade and I’ve found that you can get handheld vacuums for under $50.

I’m also considering a lightweight Wet & Dry Vacmaster for under $100.

Steam Cleaner

When it comes to detailing, there are many uses for a steam cleaner.

If you’re looking for a tool that can quickly and efficiently clean your car seats, door jambs, dashboard, door panels, cup holders and windows, it’s worth investing in one of these.

That said, if you’re on a strict budget or don’t think you’ll get much use out of a steam cleaner, it’s completely optional.

Not owning one of these will not prevent you from achieving a clean interior. It will, however, make the process longer and more effort.

If you’re interested in adding one to your detailing arsenal, they are available at many different price points.

Make sure to do your research before choosing one.


Most of the tools listed below are required to clean car seats.

Most people that are reading this article will already have these things. If you don’t, they’re relatively cheap and you will be able to get them delivered to your door the next day using amazon.

Spray Bottles

Uineko Plastic Spray Bottles

When it comes to detailing, you always want to have some chemical resistant spray bottles.

Some products come “pre-diluted” and “Ready To Use” though most upholstery cleaners and interior detailers are concentrates. Spray bottles are very important if you want to dilute the product and use it correctly.

You can pick these up in your local bargain store for a couple of dollars. It’s hard to get good quality ones though.

I personally use the unieko ones above.


Fabric car seats attract and cling onto dust, dirt and other types of grime. Because of this, it’s important to use brushes when cleaning them.

Using brushes will allow you to agitate any stubborn dirt that is embedded in the seat that the vacuum did not manage to remove.

Just be aware of the hardness of each brush you are using or if you are working on a seat with tears.

A lot of car seats are tougher than you may think but you definitely don’t want to be creating holes or making them any bigger.

Crack & Crevice Brush

OXO Good Grips Deep Clean Brush Set

The detailing world has a tendency of taking simple tools, finding a use for them and then rebranding/renaming them.

You will find many “crack & crevice” brushes for sale on popular detailing sites. These are effectively glorified toothbrushes (which have always been useful for cleaning).

I use these types of brushes pretty often. Mostly to force any remaining food crumbs, rubbish or hairs out of tight crevices, or seat rails.

If you want a tool like this, use an old toothbrush or buy the OXO Good Grips (pictured above).

Boar Hair Brush

The Goat Boar’s Hair Detail Brush – Chemical Guys

You’ve probably heard of these brushes, especially if you’ve watched any detailing video on youtube.

The detailing community is big on these brushes.

They’re known for their soft touch and are mostly used on Engine bays and interior work such as dashboards, air vents, car upholstery, and crevices.

You can get sets of these brushes for a relatively low price on Amazon.

However, I paid a little more for and chose a brush from a trusted detailing brand (The Chemical Guys).

Scrub Brush

You don’t always need fancy detailing tools to get results. A general-purpose scrub brush should have a place in everybody’s car washing setup.

If you get one that’s not too harsh for car upholstery, these brushes can be great for scrubbing dirt and agitating upholstery cleaners.

Any brush that states it can be used on a carpet will be safe to use in your car, providing you don’t go crazy with the scrubbing.

You can buy one from Amazon or your local dollar store.

Drill Brush

 Soft White Drill Brush For Cars

A drill brush is, you guessed it, an attachment that you put onto a drill.

If you don’t have a drill, you should forget about this tool. Unless you’re prepared to buy a drill or borrow one from a friend or family member.

Drill brushes are amazing. I’ve achieved levels of scrubbing that I couldn’t do by hand, and they require very little effort.

They are a must-have for any professional detailer. They will help you to become more efficient, decrease manual labor and achieve better results.

Microfiber Towels

EuroW 36 Microfiber Towels 350 GSM

MF Towels can be used in almost every detailing task.

Whether you decide to saturate them in product and use them to scrub or use them to dry off car seats once you’ve finished washing them, you can never have too many microfiber towels.

If you’re in the market for some new Microfiber towels, I’d suggest reading our buyers guide.

Car Upholstery Detailing Products

When it comes to products, I like to run a minimalistic setup.

Marketers in the detailing industry will quickly lead you to believe that you need a special product for different types and colors of materials. Most of the time this is B.S.

Keeping the range of products that you use to a minimum will allow you to keep expenses low and avoid any chance of overthinking.

I like to run Meguiars All Purpose Cleaner, Detail King Hot Shot Stain Remover, and Meguiars Hyper Dressing.

Stain Remover

Detail King Hot Shot Stain Remover

Detail King Hot Shot Stain Remover

Whether you decide to use a stain remover bar, spray or liquid solution, they’re all designed to do the same thing.

Most stain removal products can be used on their own but are best used as a “pre-treatment”. This means they should be used before you wash the upholstery with shampoo or all-purpose cleaner.

There are stain removal products that are designed to work better with red stains, pet stains and so-on, but again, that’s mostly marketing.

I suggest that you do what I do. Find one that works for you and stick with it. I personally use the Detail King Hot Shot Stain Removal Spray.

Fabric Cleaner

Chemical Guys Fabric Cleaner

Chemical Guys Citrus Fabric Cleaner

Fabric cleaners will allow you to clean seats, carpets, and other car upholstery such as floor-mats and door cards.

When used correctly, these products create a lot of suds, remove stains and eliminate odor. Some products come with their own scents, though I prefer trying to achieve the “new car smell”.

If I was to use one of these products instead of an All-Purpose Cleaner, it would be the Chemical Guys Citrus Fabric Shampoo.

The Chemical Guys are well trusted in the industry and the results speak for themself.

All-Purpose Cleaner

Meguiars APC

Meguiars All-Purpose Cleaner

If you’re someone that often cleans cars, you may already have an all-purpose cleaner.

As the name suggests, this is the most flexible cleaner than you are able to get. It will clean everything and anything when used at the right dilution ratio.

This means you only actually need 1 product to clean the whole interior of your car. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fabric, leather, plastic or vinyl, APC will remove dirt from any surface.

Because of this, You will not need to spend crazy amounts of money on various cleaning products and will achieve similar results.

All-Purpose Cleaner is the ultimate product, but you will have to invest in some extra spray bottles so that you can have different strength solutions made up and ready to use.

Fabric Sealants & Protectants

Sealants and protectants are always an interesting topic of debate. A lot of people don’t believe in them, or at least think they are not very effective.

Fabric Sealants and Protectants are designed to re-hydrate fabric and provide a level of stain repellency.

These products could make cleaning your car upholstery a lot easier in the future, especially if you make a conscious effort to keep it clean.

I personally don’t use any fabric sealants so I’m not going to suggest one to you. I find that they are expensive, and don’t provide any visual benefits that a customer may notice.

Interior Dressings are designed for use on plastic, rubber, vinyl, and leather car upholstery.

As someone that details for paid clients, I love to add that little extra gloss and protection.

There aren’t many people that go out of their way to apply a dressing to every inch of the interior. It makes the car feel brand new again and the clients love it.

Types Of Car Upholstery

Fabric upholstery is most commonly made of two materials, polyester and nylon. These fabrics are mostly used because they are cheap, durable and somewhat comfortable to sit on.

Nylon is generally a very easy material to clean.
It’s a durable material that’s also porous, this means, even though it attracts dirt, it’s mostly loose dirt that will come out with little effort.

Polyester is turned into and used as a microsuede.
Microsuede is a soft fabric that is made to imitate suede leather, providing comfort and is a little more durable than its leather counterpart.

It’s a little bit harder to clean than nylon because the fibers are closer together, it’s prone to staining and retains dirt a lot more.

That being said, a little bit of elbow grease and you can make it look brand new again.

Leather, Plastic & Vinyl are the materials that I prefer to see used in car upholstery. I think that they provide a more premium feel and they’re much easier to clean.

That being said, they are more likely to attract defects. They require a softer approach when cleaning, which is why I’ve written a separate Leather, Plastic & Vinyl cleaning guide.

In a lot of cases, all that you’ll need to clean this type of upholstery are some microfiber towels, soft detailing brushes, and some all-purpose cleaner.

Process For Cleaning Car Upholstery

  • Vacuum – The first step of any cleaning routine is to remove dust and loose dirt. This will prevent you from dragging any loose or wet dirt across the area, making it dirtier than it already was.
  • Stain Remover – If you see any obvious stains, it’s important that you tackle them before you move onto the wash stage. This will hopefully remove the stain, or at least prevent it from getting any bigger.
  • Saturate – Once you’ve removed all loose dirt and tackled the stains, it’s time to saturate the area with a cleaning product.

    For my first pass, I use All-Purpose Cleaner with a strong dilution ratio, anywhere between 1:3 & 1:5.

    Make sure that you don’t use too much product though, otherwise, it can turn into a soapy, sudsy, mess.

  • Agitate – After saturating in product, you will want to grab a brush and begin to agitate the area. Agitating the area will remove any remaining dirt that is trapped in stubborn areas that your vacuum wasn’t able to pick up.
  • Clean & Dry – Once you’ve agitated the product and removed as much dirt as you think possible, dry the area and try to remove as much product as you can. I mostly do this using a wet & dry vacuum or cheap microfiber towels.

    When the area is dry, you’ll find out how clean or dirty it still is. This is when you decide whether to clean your brushes and go again or that you’ve achieved the desired results.
  • Repeat Keep repeating the steps above until you’ve achieved the desired results.

    It’s not uncommon to have to make up to 10 passes when cleaning heavily soiled car upholstery.

    You may also have to make more passes if you’re a beginner, unfamiliar with the upholstery cleaning process.

Car Upholstery FAQ’s

While I’ve hopefully answered everything you could ever want regarding cleaning car upholstery, I’m sure you have other questions about car upholstery.

I’ve compiled a list of the most commonly asked car upholstery questions on the internet and answered them to the best of my ability.

How much does car upholstery cleaning cost?

The Price of Car Detailing will vary based on the person you are paying to do it.

Most of the time, car upholstery cleaning is included in an interior detail.

As a general rule, you should expect to pay anywhere between $100-$300 for an interior detail.
The price will vary based on location, how dirty your car is and any sealants or dressings that you require.

Admittedly a detail may be overkill.

You can probably go to your local roadside car wash or valet and get your upholstery cleaned for a fraction of the price. It won’t be to the same standard though.

It completely depends on how much time or money you are willing to spend. Do you want to do it yourself? Pay for a valet or go the whole hog and get a detail?

How much does car upholstery repair cost?

When your car upholstery has defects, it normally sticks out like a sore thumb.
I absolutely hate seeing a tear in my leather seats, the sponge sticking out of it looks horrible.

You can repair car upholstery, but It will come at a price since reupholstery is a skilled trade that not everyone can do.

A full car re-upholster could set you back $2500.

Depending on the damage, and quotes that you receive to fix it, you’ll almost always be better off replacing the damaged part.

For Example, I could go to the breakers and pay $100 for a 2nd hand car seat that may cost $2-$300 to get re-upholstered.

That being said, if you’re looking at replacing a seat or carpet in a luxury or supercar, re-upholstery will likely be cheaper.

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About the Author: JoshWilkins