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Ultimate Guide to Upholstery Cleaning and Care

The drive through window is ubiquitous in today’s modern life. Everyone has used them, and unfortunately, everyone has the horror that goes with spilling that cup of coffee or dropping a greasy, ketchup covered food that was handed to you through your car window. The result is inevitable:

The beautiful cloth upholstery is soiled or stained, now what do you do?

Well, first you grab every napkin given to you with your order and soak up as much as you can. I have even resorted to using the bag (come on, admit it, you have too!). But the damage is done and no napkin is going to fix it. You sigh as the realization sets in that a deep cleaning of your car’s cloth upholstered seat is needed the next time you have some free time.

Cleaning Automotive Cloth Upholstery

As soon as you have a chance, you forego that nap in your new hammock and tackle that stained car upholstery. And you ask:

What is the correct way to remove stains and clean heavily soiled areas from car fabric?

Easy, right? Nope. One of the issues that will jump out at you as you researched this topic is surprising, if not confusing:

Most guides on cleaning cloth car upholstery are over simplified and provide little to no useful information.

To this we say, no more!

Let’s forge into the dark unknown and take a look at how to properly clean and care for you car’s cloth seats and upholstery.

Before we get into cleaning specific stains there are general cleaning procedures to discuss and we can start with the routine cleaning of interior cloth surfaces.

Related Posts: Cleaning & Maintaining Alcantara & Suede Interiors & Guide to Leather Cleaning and Care

Routine Cleaning

To keep your seats, door panels, and carpets clean, an old fashioned vacuuming is hard to beat. And regular cleaning does keep your interior in showroom quality, while prolonging its life.

But some suggestions before you turn the vacuum on:

  • Vacuum once a month.
  • Do the seats and door panels first, then the carpet.
  • Wipe any attachment to make sure there is nothing on the attachment head that will stain your fabrics. (Especially if you are using a multi-purpose shopvac.).
  • Make sure the crevice tool and upholstery nozzle have no burrs that will snag your fabric.

A once a month vacuuming sounds like a lot to some people, but it is needed and you will be surprised at the amount of dirt you pick up. But think about it, we use our cars everyday and all that getting in drags dirt in; there is no escaping it.

Use the crevice tool to get into those cracks and crevices and the upholstery brush on seats and door panels.

And one more thing, do the door panels and seats first. So many do the carpet first, but when they vacuum the other surfaces, they get the carpet dirty again. The order matters! You should also remove and wash the car mats, then vacuum your carpets. I have an entire article about cleaning and caring for the carpets in your car.

If you find burrs or rough spots on the plastic upholstery nozzle or brush head, sand them off with two or three thousand grit sandpaper.

Cleaning Stains and Ground in Dirt

If you own you car long enough, at some point you will face a problem that vacuuming alone will not solve. For example, the arm rest that slowly shows a darkened area where you like to rest your elbow or that milk shake spilled while turning out of the fast food joint.

We are now faced with some choices:

  • Steam clean
  • Employ a commercial cleaner
  • Use a homemade or household cleaner

As with anything, the details are important, but can be confusing. So let’s see if we can help and address each of these topics separately.


Vacuum thoroughly prior to using any foaming cleaners or detergents.

Loose dirt and debris can be ground into your fabric by the deep cleaning if you skip this step.

Steam Cleaning Cloth Upholstery

Steam provides heat and water to release and disperse the soil and/or stain. Simply follow your machine’s instructions, turn the machine on, and make a few passes with steam head/wand.

But this presents an issue.

Steam can wet the foam under your seat or panels.

You do not want to soak the foam as it will take a long, long time to dry out. But there a couple of things you can do to minimize how wet you get the upholstery:

  • Use a steam head that disperses the steam (i.e. has multiple holes)
  • Wrap a microfiber cloth around the steam head to absorb liquid water
  • Use the steam sparing (don’t keep the trigger engaged the whole time you are cleaning)
  • Let the upholstery dry completely before use

After you steam clean, you may want to wipe with a dry microfiber cloth or vacuum to dry the area as much as possible. Then, you can also roll down the windows and let the car sit in the sun to speed drying process. Wet fabric damages and stains easily.

There was one time that I even saw air movers used to blow fresh air through the car interior. Do what works for you, but it must be dry before using again.

Cleaning Upholstery with a Hot Water Extractor

A hot water extractor is another tool that can be used for deep cleaning upholstery. Like the steam cleaners you need to be careful not to overwet the seat.

I suggest only using high quality extractors to ensure you have enough suction to remove as much water as possible. This will reduce the risk of overwetting and mold and mildew growth in your fabric.

When using a hot water extractor, consult the manufacturers recommendations for use.

Commercial Upholstery Cleaners

If you don’t want to risk over wetting your upholstery with steam, or don’t have a steam cleaner, you can use a store bought cleaner instead. There are various types, for example:

Related Article: Best Automotive Upholstery Cleaners

Please note, many detailers like to use their favorite all purpose cleaner (APC), but that should be avoided on interior upholstery in most scenarios. These cleaners are typically strong alkaline based, and they can harm many types of fabric and cloth. So the cost for a dedicated fabric cleaner is a small price compared to fading, discoloring, or damaging your car’s fabrics.

The use of an upholstery cleaner use may vary a bit, so read the label and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. But the general procedure is:

  1. Clean/vacuum all loose dirt and debris.
  2. Work in small areas
  3. Apply your cleaner to a cloth or brush
  4. If you spray the fabric, do not wet, dampen only
  5. Scrub with a quality upholstery brush, detailing brush, or microfiber cloth
  6. Wipe away foam and dirt with damp microfiber cloth
  7. Repeat 2-6 as often as necessary
  8. Wipe with clean, dry microfiber cloth or vacuum
  9. Let fabric dry completely

Working in small areas may seem like an unnecessary statement. But in reality, it is one of the most important. Working in small, controlled areas allows you to:

  • Minimize the time the product sits on the fabric, reducing the chance of wetting the foam underneath or letting the cleaner dry
  • Isolate a stain

What does isolate a stain mean? Well, to say it another way, don’t push all that released gunk from a stain over a larger area to make the stain fainter, but larger. Our goal is to lift and remove that stain, not spread it around.

And that brings up another point, when wiping off an area, don’t grind the dirt down into the fabric, lift and remove the lather and dirt.

Just like when steam cleaning, do not use the car until the fabric drys. If you do, it risks damage and staining of the beautiful interior that you just sacrificed your free time to get clean and beautiful.

A quick word on the scrub brush, there are specialized upholstery brushes, such as the Adam’s Cockpit Brush or TriNova Upholstery Brush, that you can buy and you should consider using them. The scrub brush needs to have the correct stiffness to scrub and clean, but not damage cloth. And size does matter. A couple of brushes may be needed, one for the larger open areas, one for small tight spaces. And if you are real detail oriented, more than two brushes may be needed. For example, a small detailing brush is also handy. The right brushes are inexpensive and make the job easier, and gentler, on your fabric.

Homemade or Household Upholstery Cleaners

Some people prefer to try cleaners they already have around the house, or make their own cleaning solution. Some common choices are:

  • Dish soap
  • Laundry detergent
  • Vinegar

A couple of points regarding homemade cleaners:

  • You are on your own. No label to read, no manufacturer to consult with.
  • Do a test with any cleaner you have not used before.

Do some research. For example, all dish soaps are not the same (e.g. Dawn is preferred by a number of people), use distilled, white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide can harm some fabrics, etc. There are DIY sites out there that cover cleaning car seats and upholstery with home remedies.

But again, use caution since fabrics vary, as does the process to dye the fabrics. A cleaner that works great in one car, may leach the color in another.

Do a test spot in an out of view place prior to cleaning that whole seat only to find the cleaner you made is too strong and fades the color. A few extra minutes to check that your homemade cleaner is not too strong or aggressive on your fabric is far easier, and cheaper, than replacing your upholstery, or (gulp!) buying car seat covers.

Localized Spot Stain Upholstery Cleaning

There are times when you need to focus on a specific spot or stain, and general cleaning products may not do the trick. For those times you may need to employ a cleaning agent that is better suited to remove the stain. By better suited, I mean that we want to match a cleaner, designed with a specific chemistry, to the specific stain we are trying to clean. For example:

Blood, egg, excrement, urine, or any protein based substance: Speed is your best friend. Success is more likely if you immediately clean a blood stain for example. Also, use COLD water; avoid warm or hot water because these substances clot and coagulate with heat, binding them to the fabric. Also, there are commercial spot remover products for these protein based stains, such as Meguiar’s D11601 Pro Protein Stain Remover.

Liquors, alcoholic beverages, wine, beer, coke, tea, and other tannin based substances: first try lukewarm water, and if the stain persists, treat with lemon juice followed by lukewarm water. Some prefer a vinegar and water solution instead of lemon juice. Of course you could always use a specialized commercial tannin stain remover such as Meguiar’s D10601 Fiber Rinse and Tannin Stain Remover.

Vinegar, hair gel, tomato sauce, coffee, and other acid based stains: an acid based cleaner with lukewarm water works well on these stains. For the acid you can apply a little lemon juice or a vinegar/water solution and rinse with warm water. Or if you would like, use a commercially available citrus (acidic) based spot remover, such as Chemical Guys’ Foaming Citrus Fabric Clean.

Vomit: An alkaline cleaner works well (do a test spot first since alkaline cleaners can discolor upholstery fabrics) and you can use baking soda sprinkled over the wet spot (after you first remove all the loose vomit. Yuk!). Let it sit 15 to 30 minutes, then scrape and remove the baking soda. (Some people have reported they used club soda, which is alkaline, instead of baking soda with success.) Next, clean with an all purpose cleaner (most of these products are alkaline) or a spot remover designed to remove vomit.

If you’re a professional detailer or just don’t want to bother buying individual cleaners for different types of stains you can purchase a spotting kit such as the Renown Spotting Kit. These are chemical kits that contain different pH levels of cleaner ranging from alkaline to acid to clean most types of stains you’ll run into when cleaning carpets and upholstery. It’s a great investment in time and money savings in the long run.

Cloth Upholstery Protection

Once you’ve perfectly cleaned your upholstery (or before you even get it dirty in the case of a new car) it’s a good idea to apply a fabric guard such as Fabric Guard Upholstery Protector Water and Stain Repellent.

These products will increase the amount of time it takes for a stain to set in. They give your fabric hydrophobic properties so that you have the opportunity to wipe up most liquids before they soak in.

To Summarize

A successful cleaning session with your car’s fabric upholstery is possible. But as with most things in life, the details are important. So to summarize:

  • Clean/vacuum all loose dirt and debris, both on a routine basis and before using a deep cleaning product or steamer
  • Choose the upholstery cleaner with care and do a test panel if this is the first time you are using the product on your fabric.
  • Work in small areas
  • Apply your cleaner to a cloth or brush
  • If you spray the fabric, do not wet, dampen only
  • Avoid wetting the foam underneath the fabric
  • Scrub with upholstery brush, detail brush or microfiber cloth
  • Wipe away foam and dirt with damp microfiber cloth
  • Repeat as often as necessary remove stains, but do not wet fabric
  • Wipe with clean, dry microfiber cloth or vacuum to remove as much water as possible
  • Let fabric dry completely before use
  • Treat with a fabric guard to prevent future stains
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