How to Clean Car Seats

A gloved hand shampooing a carseat.

My wife and I have a toddler. He is a 30-inch-tall ball of intensity, noise, and unbelievable mess. At least he’s adorable, which makes all that other stuff remotely tolerable. I don’t drive anymore, but my wife still does, and her car has no less than six seats, including one for a toddler. Her car was brand new in 2006, and it stayed that way until the toddler came along. It now looks like a s’more exploded in her back seat.

I used to work in a garage where my job was cleaning cars both inside and out. I learned a lot about detailing interiors, cleaning upholstery, and cleaning cars. I’ve also owned numerous vehicles, each with different types of seats (cloth, leather, and vinyl), and I had to clean those suckers constantly, mostly because my friends were messy and rude. So I’m a veritable expert in cleaning car seats. If you’d like to share my wisdom, read on.

Steps to Cleaning Car Seats

  1. Hello Kitty Seat CoversProtecting your car seats through prevention methods.There are always the simple rules of keeping your shoes off the seats, not eating or drinking in the car, and don’t haul roadkill anywhere but in the trunk. However, let’s be realistic: some things are just impossible to resist, especially when the roadkill is two-for-one. Short of banning things from your car, seat covers would be the next step. You can get them at just about any store that has a general automotive section, and save yourself the time, energy, and resources it takes to clean car seats. Of course, if you don’t feel like cleaning the seats yourself, there are places who will detail your car’s interiors for a fee.
  2. Microfiber clothGetting started cleaning your car seats. Start off the process by emptying the car of its contents. Remove children’s car seats and any novelty seat trappings, such as extra lumbar support. Throw out any trash, and vacuum up crumbs and small debris. Keep any coins as a finder’s fee. Take a microfiber cloth and wipe down the seats. If you have cloth car seats, a lint roller will work much better. This will help pick up any difficult to reach crumbs, as well.
  3. view of the inside of the car from the driver's side doorHow to clean cloth car seats. If there are any stains, check out the article on How to Clean Upholstery. General car seat cleaning starts with liberally sprinkling baking soda all over your car seats. Let it sit for at least two hours, though you will get better results if you can leave it overnight. As it does in a refrigerator, the baking soda will soak up any lingering aromas. Using the hose attachment, vacuum up all the baking soda, and hit the rest of the car seat from top to bottom.
  4. older car with vinyl seatsHow to clean vinyl car seats. Fortunately, this is probably the easiest type to clean. Spray the car seats down with your favorite all purpose glass cleaner. While you’re at it, go ahead and get the interior windows, too. Taking a clean, soft cloth, wipe down your vinyl seats in their entirety. Allow them dry completely before driving off into the sunset.
  5. front seats drink holderHow to clean leather car seats. For detailed instructions, check out How to Clean Leather. The highlights are here. Gather together some very mild hand soap, warm water, and a soft, cotton cloth. Mix some hand soap with the warm water, and apply to a hidden spot on the leather. Rinse it off by dipping a fresh cloth into clean water and wiping off the soapy area. This is to make sure that the soap will not damage the leather. You should never let leather air-dry, so be sure to wipe it down with a towel. If everything checks out, use the mixture to wipe down the seats, rinse with the cloth and warm water, and towel it dry.
  6. Child SeatsHow to clean a child’s car seat. First off, if you have a baby seat made before the year 2000, DO NOT USE IT. It is a little known fact that baby seats have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years; the manual that came with it will specify its expiration date. Anything beyond that date can be dangerous to your child if an accident should happen. Most car seats made after 2000 have a removable, cloth seat cover. Prior to removing the seat cover, vacuum it thoroughly using the hose attachment. Remove the cover, and wash it on a gentle cycle in your clothes washer. Be sure to use a mild, unscented detergent, like you would on baby clothes. Air-dry the car seat cover out of the sun to avoid shrinking. While the cover is being washed and dried, take the baby seat out of the car and literally shake it out over your garbage. Vacuum it once more, and then go over it with a baby wipe. By the time the cloth cover is done drying, the base should be ready for the seat cover to be put back on.

Cleaning Car Seats Can Be Expensive

The seats in vehicles have a lifespan, believe it or not, and the clock starts ticking the moment you drive the car off the lot. Treat them well because replacing a seat in your car can cost anywhere from $1,000–$5,000, which is the difference between a Hyundai Accent and an imported Italian sports car. Cleaning your car seats regularly will only increase their lifespan. And how can that be a bad thing?

Natural Products for Cleaning Car Seats

Lint RollerLint roller. I don’t have a specific brand to recommend, but you can find these at any major retailer or pet store. They are typically inexpensive, yet simple and elegant in design. I have a white cat and a lot of black clothes, so I have several of these about the house just in case. They’re also inexpensive.

Seventh Generation Glass CleanerSeventh Generation Glass and Surface Cleaner. This is perfect for cleaning vinyl seats. It’s all natural, and safe to use on vinyl, glass, and other such things. Its mild formula is exactly what you want to use for this project. You can find bottles of it at Amazon.

Bottle Seventh Generation DetergentSeventh Generation Laundry Detergent. Tried and tested by yours truly. As it is unscented, it comes with a low risk of allergens. This stuff is the detergent to beat this year in my own personal Laundry Detergent of the Year pageant. Of course, it’s running unopposed.

About the Author

Adam Gottfried