Besides the engine, transmission, and tyres, the seats in your car are probably where the most visible wear will occur. If you’re not careful about keeping things clean, it can quickly make your otherwise new car look tired, old, dirty, even unsanitary.
Other passengers, especially younger ones, are also very prone to getting your pristine seats caked in all sorts of crud - from soda/milk/Vitagen spills to crayons etchings, to sticky food and crumbs. In the world of DIY driveway detailing, staying on top of a clean set of seats are probably the most difficult thing to do.
Even if you car is a garage queen that doesn’t see the level of abuse found in some MPVs and family runabouts, it doesn’t convey positive things about you if all the sweat, grime and dye transfer is just sitting there for the world to see.
Over the years, automakers have used a wide variety of materials to fashion seats, but modern day cars have learned from mistakes of the past. Nowadays, the most common options are just between ‘fabric’ and ‘leather’.
Rule of Two
Fabric is pretty self explanatory, though from there we have a whole universe of different types of fabric. Because it’s the most absorbent and most porous material type you could use on seats, they are also the most difficult to maintain and properly clean should some something happen.
Leather kind of finds itself in the opposite situation, being much less porous even on its own. However, leather used for automotive purposes are treated with a clear protective vinyl-like layer, making it even more difficult to cause any lasting damage.
Apart from feeling and smelling more luxurious, this is the main reason why leather (or its synthetic substitues) is more sought after for in-car seat upholstery. Most accidental spills or crumbs or stains or smears of dirt don’t really impact it since that sits on the top layer of ‘clear coat’.
This is also why many owners of high end cars opt to have an additional protective layer of ceramic, developed and sold by the same companies that make ceramic coatings for exterior paint, which bonds and cures onto that vinyl-like layer. It's protection over protection, making it less susceptible to damage, easier to clean, and will make the condition of the underlying leather far more long lasting.
For most of us, having a ceramic coating applied onto our leather seats is beyond overkill. Thankfully, most leather seats will only need to be minimally maintained with a light soap or all-purpose cleaner, only occasionally requiring scrubbing or agitation of any kind.
The same gentle soaps you already use around the house can also be used for cleaning leather car seats, which probably account for about 90% of the maintenance/upkeep process. Be wary of these miracle leather conditioners/tonics you see being sold for high prices, promising restorative or rejuvenating effects. Spoiler alert, they're just a fancy cleaner you just overpaid for.
Most of them consist mostly of very light detergents that might even be less effective than your existing household products. Often they are also formulated to give off a rich leathery scent just to make you feel good about using it, but at least some also leave some kind of protection behind much like a layer of wax would for your paint.
Fabric Of Misery
Fabric seats are often much harder to clean since dirt and foreign liquids can so easily seep (and dry/harden) into the fibres themselves, which is why you’ll need to act fast if something does happen to dirty it up.
Depending on the situation, most fabric seats can still be cleaned to a near-new state relatively easily (though not as easily as leather seats). The bulk of a liquid spill (from soda, for example) can be swiftly pushed off the seat before it has had a chance to be absorbed by the porous fibres.
After that, it’s a matter of the products and technique you bring into battle that will determine whether the stain will be removed or remain (semi) permanent. Here’s what you’ll need, generally:
- No matter the stain or contamination source, it’s very important to not let anything seep in too deeply into those fibres since cleaning agents can only remedy the situation if it’s shallow enough. For the do-it-yourselfer, a firm bristle brush, such as one used for shoe polishing, is an essential tool.
- Common sense says the firmer the better since you want something to effectively dislodge the contaminant, but only up to a certain point as something too harsh could damage the seats - use your best judgement to decide based on your car and situation.
- Most prominent car care brands do have dedicated fabric cleaners that are bundled with a brush, so feel free to pick any of these up to remove some of the guesswork. Alternatively, a household all-purpose cleaner will do just fine as long as it’s relatively gentle. If you can find it, a foaming-type cleaner works best as it will make the ‘extraction’ process much easier. Products made for cleaning carpets will also work well for fabric car seats.
- Secondarily, prepare a few microfibre towels as you’ll definitely need them later. You’ll want to get the surface of the seat slightly damp before applying the cleaner, so soak one of those microfibres in clean water to lightly wipe down the area being treated.
- After applying some cleaner (foam or liquid), let the product dwell for a few seconds to let it break down the contaminant before lightly agitating it with the firm bristle brush. This agitation will churn the cleaner and lift the dirt/stain out from the embedded fibres and onto the seat surface, usually causing the resulting foam or liquid lather to change colour.
- From there, it’s just a process of using those extra microfibre towels to absorb (extract) the dirty liquid/ foam off. You’ll most likely not get everything out after one pass, so you’d need to repeat the process to completely finish the job and get that seat area back to a like-new state, so you can enjoy your lovely cars interior design.
When To Call For Help
Of course, the steps outlined above apply to rather ideal situations where the stain/ dirt/ contamination was not too serious and attended to quickly, which isn’t always the case in the real world.
If your car’s fabric seats are the victim of deep stains that have been left to harden and set, you might need to seek the services of a professional who will employ more industrial-level methods such as steam cleaning, strong active cleaning agents, and powerful vacuum extractors to get the job done.
The same thing goes for leather seats where scratches or stains are more severe or have permanently scarred the seat or penetrated past the protective vinyl-like top coat to damage the underlying hide. In this case, seek the help of a professional upholsterer or leather seat restoration expert.