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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.

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.

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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.

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 and would only require mild cleaning?

How to inspect the condition of your car seats

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.

Professional cleaning and detailing services might be costly for the average car owner, but they have special cleaning tools to quickly lift off the dirt from cloth, fabric, and carpeting within your car.


If you have an extractor or steam cleaner, you’re in luck! Those machines will significantly reduce the cleaning time, especially when working with a larger vehicle such as a van or SUV.

But if you don’t have a specialized cleaning machine, don’t fret. You can still clean your cloth automotive seats without spending a ton of cash.

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

Step 1:

Park the vehicle in a shaded and well-lit area, preferably inside a garage.

Step 2:

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 3:

Remove the floor matting and set aside.

Step 4:

Grab a vacuum cleaner and proceed to suck out any traces of loose dirt and debris on the seats. 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 5:

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.


How to Clean Cloth Seats with Cleaning Machines

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

Like I said, machine cleaning is the fastest and easiest way to clean cloth seats. But since these machines can cost anywhere from a couple hundred to a thousand quid, I will also discuss low-cost cleaning alternatives to restore the new look of the cloth seats in your vehicle.

Cleaning seats with an extractor

Step 1:

Extractors are like two machines in one. It can blow hot water to the surface and suck out the moisture using the vacuum nozzle. Start on the front seats, and only clean one section of the seat at a time.

Step 2:

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 3:

Next, stop applying steam 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 4:

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

Step 5:

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.

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Cleaning seats with a steam cleaner


Step 1:

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:

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:

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.

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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 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:

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:

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:

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:

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?

Method 2 – Cleaner and vacuum method

If you have a wet/dry vacuum cleaner, this cleaning method is a God-send. 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 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:

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

Step 3:

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:

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 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.

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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.



Jonathan has been a car fanatic since his dad got him hooked on the Ferrari F40. Whilst he has dreams of owning one someday, he's poured his life into being the best he can be when it comes to detailing. Whilst car detailing is just a hobby, the countless hours and money invested makes him a unique addition to the detailing industry, offering unbiased opinions and methods that often go against the trends.

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