Best Way To Clean Car Seats – The Definitive Guide

Interior cleaning can be one of the most underwhelming parts of car detailing for most, but I genuinely love it.

Once you are in and actually driving, it’s all you can see of the fruits of your labour. Today I’m going to tell you the best way to clean car seats.

There is plenty to cover, lets get started.

The Type Of Fabric Your Seat Are Made Of Matters

Not all vehicles are equipped with plush leather upholstery. Most of the time, cloth seats are the standard fare in the base and mid-trim models. This often holds true in older cars.

Since the cloth seats are constantly exposed to air and friction, they can get severely dirty without you even knowing it, especially on black or darker coloured cloth seats.

But if your vehicle comes with beige, cream, white, or light-coloured cloth seats, deep-seated dirt will be more visible to the naked eye. The same goes true for smudges and stains.

I’m here to discuss the best way to clean car seats and more specifically, cloth car seats.

I’ve already written an article on the best way to clean leather car seats, so it that’s what you’re looking for then go head on over.

What Tools Do You Need?

There area 5 methods to clean car seats and upholstery:

  • Hot Water Extraction (Often incorrectly termed steam cleaning) – Best for heavily soiled or stained seats
  • Vapor steam Cleaning – Best light soiling and for smelly or moldy fabrics.
  • Cleaner solution and Cloth
  • Cleaner solution and wet vacuum

What do the pros use?

Professional cleaning and detailing services are costly for the average car owner, but the professionals use special cleaning tools like Hot Water Extraction and Steam Cleaners to quickly lift off the dirt from cloth, fabric, and carpeting within your car.

Whilst these commercial machines are out of reach for consumers, the good news is there are consumer versions of the professional equipment that you can buy for reasonable cost!

It is not absolutely essential to have these but it helps. There are a few work arounds and hacks that still give great results so you can still clean your cloth automotive seats without spending a ton of cash on equipment so don’t fret.

However, these tools will significantly reduce the cleaning time and improve the result, especially when working with a larger vehicle such as a van or SUV.

There are a few hacks to get the kinds of results the professionals do and I’m going to tell you all the secrets today.

But first, let’s talk about assessing the condition of the cloth seats.

How to inspect the condition of your car seats

The first important step is to determine the following factors:

  • The general condition of the seats.
    • If the seats are older, harsh cleaning methods and strong cleaning products are not recommended. It might cause irreversible damage to the finish and texture of the seats.
  • How dirty are the seats?
  • Are they heavily stained?
  • Are the seats generally pristine
    • Do they only require mild cleaning?

For all intents and purposes, cloth seats are remarkably easier to clean than leather seats. This is due to the fact that cloth seats won’t require dedicated and expensive cleaning products.

Cloth is the typical seat fabric material installed on 80% of normal road driven cars.

How to Clean Cloth Seats with Cleaning Machines

If you have access to an hot water extractor or a vapor steam cleaner, you can use both to remove dirt, stains, and grime on cloth seats, roof linings, door panels, and even the floor carpets.

Hot water extraction is by far the fastest and easiest way to clean cloth seats so I highly recommend this option. It’s just simply amazing how much dirt and grime you can remove with one.

Hot water extractors used to be exclusive to car professional car detailers, but you can now buy one of my favorite detailing tools ever – the Bissell Spot clean Pro which we have reviewed on prepmycar.com.

BISSELL SpotClean Pro
  • Remove stains like a pro: This professional-style spot cleaner uses water, formula and powerful suction to clean and protect soft surfaces
  • Clean anywhere, anytime: spray, scrub and lift spots and stains from carpets, rugs, upholstery, stairs, auto interiors and more
  • Large, seperate clean and dirty water tanks result in greater cleaning capabilities with less trips to the sinks

If you buy this, you’ll recover the cost by using it just once in your car instead of paying a professional. What is even better is that you can use it around the house as well. If you don’t own one just get it, they are awesome.

If this is out of your budget, don’t worry, I will also discuss low-cost cleaning alternatives to restore the new look of the cloth seats in your vehicle.

In fact, a weed spray bottle and a wet vacuum can achieve the same results.

Cleaning seats with an Hot Water Extraction

What is Hot Water Extraction And How Does It Work?

Hot Water Extractors are like two machines in one:

  • First, it sprays a mixture of detergents and hot water onto the surface which dissolves and loosens impregnated dirt.
  • It then sucks back up the water solution back out using the vacuum nozzle.

This combination of loosening and removal can make even the worst seats return to life. A few passes can make seats feel like brand new again and shift even years of built up grime and stains.

Hot Water Extraction can give you simply phenomenal results

How To Clean Seats And Upholstery With A Hot Water Extractor

Step 1: Remove seat covers and put in the washing machine

If the cloth seats are protected by seat covers, remove the covers from the seats. Most seat covers are machine washable. Simply throw the covers in the machine and allow to dry.

Step 2: Remove floor matting

Remove the floor matting and set aside.

Step 3: Vacuum all the dirt like your life depends on it

Grab a vacuum cleaner and proceed to suck out any traces of loose dirt and debris on the seats.

Try hard to remove all loose dirt. Any remaining dirt after this step will be dissolved by fluid in the later steps. This can be a problem on light colored fabrics. Use agitation with a brush if you need to.

After vacuuming the seats, it is also a good idea to vacuum the carpets as well. However, make sure to do this only after vacuuming the seats. This will help avoid contaminating the seats with dirt from the floor.

Step 4: Plan your attack and only do small sections

Start on the front seats, and only clean one section of the seat at a time. Plan to complete at least the worst seats first incase you run out of fluid.

Step 5: Choose a brush or microfiber towel for scrubbing deep stains

You will probably need to do some scrubbing of the fabric and you need to select an appropriate tool which depends on the level of soiling and the condition of the fabric.

Check the seats for signs of deep-seated dirt, stains, and friction wear. If the seats are still in mint condition, you can safely remove grime using an interior brush.

If the cloth seats are showing signs of wear and tear (such as in older or commercial vehicles), it is better to use a soft microfiber towel instead of stiff brushes that might cause more damage to the fabric.

Step 6: Spray till wet then agitate the area with a soft bristled brush

Prep the front seats with some interior cleaner or even just warm water with fabric detergent. The agitate the area with a soft bristled brush.

Step 7: Vacuum up all moisture

Next, stop applying water and let the extractor do the work. Suck out any traces of moisture on the seats using the same top-down or left-right motion.

Step 8: Repeat for heavily soiled areas

If there are hard-to-remove stains, apply more hot water and agitate the soiled area and then dry using the vacuum nozzle.

Step 9: Air the car out

The vacuum will not remove all the water so the seats will feel wet. If you need to drive the car grab a towel to sit on.

Leave the windows open for a while and step back and admire your work. The great thing about extractors is the hot water will also kill traces of bacteria and moulds in the seats.


Extractors can be overkill for most cloth-based car seats. Only used if well soiled and apply common sense in terms of how much water to use. Ideally, less is more as if they get soaked it can take ages to dry and cause dampness.

Cleaning Seats With A Steam Cleaner

What are Vapor Steam Cleaners And How Do They Work?

Vapor steam cleaners generate superheated steam in a pressured container. We then release this steam into the fabric which loosens stains, kills any bugs and removes smells.

We to follow up we then dab up any dirty water and moisture with microfiber towels.

Vapor steam cleaning is amazing for removing smells and freshening the interior.

How To Cleaning Seats With A Steam Cleaner

Step 1: Apply Steam

Steam cleaners will also remove stains and dirt while killing moulds and bacteria. The process will start by applying steam on the cloth surface. Focus on areas that are severely discoloured, stained, or dirty. Run the steam nozzle over the surface of the cloth seats like you would using a normal vacuum cleaner.

You may find that you need to wrap the end of the steam cleaner in the microfiber towel to avoid too much steam being in contact with the seat. I’d recommend that you start with this and then can remove once you are comfortable.

Step 2: Remove Moisture with Microfiber Towels

Next, grab a dry microfiber towel and lightly rub the moist surface to remove dirt and excess moisture. If there are still traces of dirt, apply more steam. The trick is to avoid exposing the cloth seats to excessive amounts of water and moisture, which only seep deeper in the foam under the seats. Always use a clean and dry microfiber towel to remove the moisture after applying steam.

Step 3: Air Dry The Interior

Allow the seats to air dry.

By this time the cloth seats will be looking like new. Pop open the windows or leave the doors open for adequate air circulation. Only drive the vehicle if the seats are thoroughly dry.

Best Steam Cleaner For Seat And Cleaning Interiors

Steam cleaners are hand for upholstery and other parts of the interior. Grab a unit from Karcher, they are good quality and you cannot go wrong with one.

Kärcher Steam Cleaner SC 3 EasyFix, steam pressure: max. 3.5 bar, heating time: 30 s, power: 1900 W, surface power: 75 m², tank: 1 l, with descaling cartridge, floor cleaning kit and nozzles
  • Hygienic cleaning: The Kärcher Steam Cleaner SC 3 EasyFix cleans surfaces, floors, shower walls, taps and more without any chemicals – hygienically…
  • Quickly ready for use: The steam cleaner boasts a 1 l tank and heats up within half a minute. It then cleans an area of up to 75 m² at a time with…
  • Non-stop use: The steam cleaner can be refilled when in use, so there is no need to take a break for reheating. The integrated decalcification…

Manual Cleaning Methods

Extractors and steam cleaners are good and all, but what if you only have access to a vacuum cleaner? I have two methods here that will allow you to clean cloth seats with or without using a vacuum cleaner!

Method 1 – Brush And Cleaner Method

All you need is a soft interior cleaning brush and some homemade cleaning solution. Mix hot or warm water with a few small drops of dish soap in a spray bottle.

Dish soap is perfectly fine for cleaning cloth seats, but I usually prefer the traditional method of using laundry detergent. Just a pinch or two of detergent is fine in a half-litre of warm water.

Step 1: Spray the cleaning solution

Spray the cleaning solution over the cloth seats. It is always best to clean one section at a time. One or two sprays is enough. Like I previously mentioned, it is best to avoid exposing the cloth seats to excessive amounts of water and moisture.

Step 2: Work the cleaning solution on the seats

Grab a soft interior brush and work the cleaning solution on the seats. Apply more cleaning solution as required, but avoid soaking the seats. Rub the brush lightly to loosen up the dirt on the surface.

Step 3: Use a stiff bristle interior brush on stubborn stains

For stubborn stains like catsup, lipstick, and soda stains, grab a stiff bristle interior brush and rub over the stain. Do this lightly and avoid exerting too much pressure on the cloth seats, especially if working with older or tattered seats.

Step 4: Lightly rub with a dry microfiber towel

Grab a clean and dry microfiber towel and lightly rub the towel in a back and forth motion to remove excess moisture. Replace the towel with a new one before it gets soaked with the cleaning solution.

Step 5: Repeat as required

Depending on the condition of the seats, you may need to repeat the above steps once or twice to achieve a like-new finish. Again, make sure the seats are not exposed to too much liquid or absorbing too much of the cleaning solution. Simply spray, agitate, and wipe dry. Easy, right?

Colourlock cleaning brush
  • QUALITY: Made in Germany with real wood
  • GENTLE: Designed specifically to be effective yet gentle on pigmented leather surfaces
  • EFFECTIVE: Perfect for removing dirt from deep graining of pigmented leathers and to dust off deep edges and folds

Method 2 – Cleaner and Wet Vacuum method

If you have a wet/dry vacuum cleaner, this cleaning method is a God-send. If you can heat the solution before application, this process is essentially the same process as hot water extraction, and you can get the same results!

You can use the exact same cleaning solution mentioned above. Grab a spray bottle and fill it up with warm water and a pinch of laundry detergent or dish soap.

Step 1: Liberally spray the cleaning solution

Liberally spray the cleaning solution over the surface of the cloth seats. Work within a single section at a time to simplify the job. The surface of the seats should be moist enough to remove dirt, but it should not be soaking wet.

Step 2: Suck out the cleaning solution with the Wet Vac

Turn on the vacuum cleaner and suck out the cleaning solution until the seats are dry to the touch.

Step 3: Second pass

Most of the dirt and grime will be removed after the first pass. But if there are stubborn stains, spray the cleaning solution directly over the stain, let it sit for a couple of seconds, and suck out the moisture using the vacuum cleaner.

Step 4: Final dry microfiber towel

Finish off by giving the seats a final wipe with a dry microfiber towel. If the seats are still a bit moist to the touch, allow the surface to air dry for a couple of minutes.

Step 5: Repeat all steps as required

Repeat the above steps until all the seats are clean.

This final method is the simplest and most cost-effective way to clean cloth seats. If you have a cleaning product designed for cloth seats, you can use it in favour of the homemade cleaning solution.

Make sure to always vacuum out the moisture or wipe the seats dry with a microfiber towel after applying liquid cleaners.

The methods listed above are also ideal for Alcantara or other similar cloth fabrics, both in your car and even around the home.

Nilfisk Multi ll 30T Wet and Dry Vacuum Cleaner – Indoor & Outdoor Cleaning – 30 Litre Capacity with 1400 W Input Power, Blue
  • Powerful Vacuum and Dust Extractor: Versatile hose and barrel vacuum with input power of 1400 watt and power take off of 1100 W
  • Large Capacity: Bagless vacuum cleaner has a capacity 18 Litre when bagless. Vacuum cleaner with bag has a capacity of 14 Litre
  • Versatile Cleaning Power: High suction power for efficient cleaning and blow function for optional cleaning

When should I clean the cloth seats in my vehicle?

It really depends on the colour of the fabric and the severity of use. If your vehicle is equipped with light-coloured seats, frequent cleaning is required to maintain the general cleanliness of the interior.

If this is the case, it is best to apply seat covers to protect the fabric from excessive dirt and wear. But for those who don’t like fiddling with bothersome seat covers, cleaning the seats at least twice a year or once every season is good practice.

The same rule applies to dark-coloured fabric seats, although this variety is easier to clean and less bothersome to maintain.

How do I protect my seats?

Protection is the main prevention when it comes to cleaning your car seats. If you can get some sort of protection to sit on the material, then it not only makes stains less likely but also easier to clean.

I’d recommend that you use some form of upholstery sealant that will keep the stains at bay. A sealant will apply nanoparticles to your fabric, which basically repels things like wine, coffee and…. hmmm, not sure why you’d be drinking wine in the car, but you get my drift.

They are pretty inexpensive as well and last for ages. My recommendation would be GTechniq’s L1 Smart Fabric. It last’s up to 3 years and his one of the best that I’ve tried to date.

Can I use household products?

Of course. I’ve had great success with carpet cleaner’s and the likes when it comes to heavy stains. As mentioned above, I’ve regularly used hot water and a vacuum, which costs nothing.

Also, bear in mind that you can use your car cleaning products in and around the house as well. I’ve used Smart Fabric on things like our sofa, trainers and even carpets in the kid’s bedroom.

Don’t forget your carpets!

Your carpets can need just as much if more cleaning that you car seats. They actually see the most dirt and if you allow it build up, can be an absolute pain to clean.

You can use exactly the same methods that I’ve pointed out in this article so far to clean your cars carpets. They are definitely worth staying on top of as well.

Best way to clean car seats

You don’t need to spend hundreds on a professional detailer to clean the cloth seats in your vehicle. In order to prevent ugly stains from ruining the look and texture of the seats, make sure to remove stains and spills immediately before it has a chance to dry.

You need to use the method that’s going to work best for the clean that you need to undertake with your car. This might be based on a stain, budget, skill or condition of the seat.

If you need any more help or advice when cleaning your car seats, drop a comment below and I will be sure to get back to you.

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