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How to Clean a Car Seat: Tips for Leather, Cloth and More

how to clean a car seat

Most people worry about how to clean a car seat after some dark, smelly liquid has already left its mark.

Exhibit A: The last time I cleaned the beige seats in my Toyota Corolla, it was after I gave a friend a ride home, and he gave me a back seat covered in oil marks from his bicycle chain (I’m not bitter, I swear).

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Had I known my fast response and a little elbow grease would have the seats looking like new, I might not have freaked out when I got home.

Of course, the results can differ when you pit different seats versus different foes. Here is some advice on how to clean car seats, including tips on how to clean cloth car seats, how to clean leather car seats and how to clean a child safety seat.

how to clean a car seat

How to clean a car seat: cloth

It’s not just spills that soil car seats. They get dirty each time someone gets in or out of the car, as dirt and other contaminants transfer from clothing to the cloth.

To restore them to their former glory, start by vacuuming the seats. This will suck up grime that would otherwise get mashed into the seats and probably make them dirtier.

Here are the supplies you’ll need:

  • Car seat detergent
  • Interior cleaning brush or scrub pad
  • Microfiber towel
  • Wet/dry vacuum

Some people use stain removers like Shout or carpet cleaner in place of dedicated car seat soap. In fact, I used a bottle of carpet cleaner with a built-in brush to remove the oil stains on the back seat of my Corolla and it worked pretty well. But if you decide to go with an unconventional soap, test it on a small, less visible area first to make sure it doesn’t stain.

One of the most important things to understand about how to clean seats is to make sure you don’t use too much soap. You are cleaning the upholstery. You do not want the soap to seep into the padding underneath. That’s why it’s best to work in small areas and apply the soap as you go.

Isolate the area you want to clean and apply soap. Use the brush to agitate the dirt (but don’t be so rough that you damage the fibers). Then wipe the dirt away with your microfiber towel. Suck up what’s left with the vacuum. This should speed up the drying process, too. You could also park the car in the sun, open the windows and/or stick a couple of fans inside it to help the seats dry faster.

How to clean a car seat: leather 

Like cloth seats, begin by vacuuming as much dirt as you can from the surface of the seat and its crevices. (You can use a can of compressed air to dislodge dirt in the hard to vacuum areas if you want).

There are lots of different products out there for cleaning leather seats. Some are “one-step” cleaners. Others either clean the seats or help preserve the natural oils and flexibility of the leather. Do your research and pick what you want.

Some products will need to sit on the leather and others need to be cleaned up right away. So always read and follow the instructions closely.

If your seats are perforated because they have heating/air conditioning capabilities, apply your cleaning product to the brush, not directly to the seat. You can also turn the heat/air conditioning on to help the seats dry faster.

How to clean car a seat: vinyl 

Vinyl upholstery is easy to please. It can be cleaned with a rag dampened with a mild detergent solution. A product like ArmorAll, which many people use to wipe their dashboard clean, works well. There are many dedicated vinyl care products on the market, and some offer cool benefits like preservatives and UV protection.

how to clean a car seat

How to clean a child’s car seat

The golden rule of cleaning a child’s car seat is to follow what’s in the manual, says Karen Blackburn, a AAA Northeast car seat expert. The manual will tell you what kind of detergents to use (usually something mild) and how to get the cover off, she said.

Most car seats must be uninstalled to be cleaned properly.

As you remove the fabric, pay attention to how it comes off, Blackburn said. You’ll have to put it on the same way, but in reverse order. (Take pictures of each step, if it helps).

Wash the fabric based on the instructions in the manual. Most manufacturers do not recommend putting the fabric in the dryer, Karen said. Parts could melt or shrink, making it impossible to put on again.

Shake the dirt off the seat and clean it with either a damp rag or some baby wipes.

Pay special attention to the harness straps as you put the fabric back on the car seat. Make sure the straps are not twisted through any of the belt paths.

Again, it is very important to follow the instructions in the owner’s manual. If you lost or can’t find your owner’s manual, check the manufacturer’s website – almost all have copies and cleaning instructions online.

Those who are unfamiliar with how to install a car seat can have their seat inspected for free by a nationally certified technician. Click here to find events in your area.

Do you have suggestions for how to clean car seats? Share your best tips and tricks in the comments section.

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