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How To Clean Car Seats

Hello, I’ve left tons of hair and drool over your upholstery. What you gonna do about it, boss?

In my post last week, I discussed the advantages and the disadvantages of the different seat upholstery materials.  In that post, I mentioned the ease of cleaning as a factor that might be the deciding one for you

Now, it’s super-easy to clean car seats if you have vinyl, which is about the only good thing about vinyl. Wipe it down with a damp cloth and there you go. If you have a classic that is cursed with vinyl seats and you’ve done the sensible thing and put aftermarket covers on them, it’s still simple. Take the covers off the seats, toss them into the washing machine on the gentle cycle, dry them on the old Hills Hoist and pop them back on. Simple.

It’s not so simple if you haven’t got car seat covers that come off for washing quite so easily.  You’re going to have to get in there and clean it yourself.  Tackling this job is going to be different depending on whether you chose the leather or the cloth.

OK, let’s start with the cloth seats.  If you decided against leather on the grounds that you have messy children or dogs that would wreck leather, you’re definitely going to have to get the grub out of the upholstery from time to time. Banning really messy food or sticky drinks in the back seat might help keep the muck to a minimum but accidents happen and everybody has the odd icecream in the car now and again. Plus there’s always that small child who needs the loo while you’re stuck in the middle of heavy traffic with no way to pull over… In short, mess will happen!

Here’s how to clean cloth car seats front and back.

  1. Get out the vacuum cleaner and go all over the seats, the back and the headrest, plus any armrests. You may as well give the footwell a good going-over and the cupholders too, while you’re at it. This gets off dog hair, human hair, dirt particles and other loose grit.
  2. Hire one of those carpet shampooing machines and make sure that you get the upholstery head. Follow the instructions and leave the seats to dry out before you sit on them again… which could be a problem if you need to drive back to where you hired the upholstery cleaning machine from before your time runs out.
  3. If you don’t hire one of those machines but want to give it a go yourself, you still have to allow for plenty of drying time, during which you can’t sit on the seats. It’s also a good idea to leave the windows open for better evaporation and air circulation.  Also avoid the temptation to use lots of water – use only just enough. What you’ll need plenty of is elbow grease.
  4. Sprinkle the seats all over with baking soda. Be generous. Use one of those kitchen shaker things or a reclaimed talcum powder container.  Baking soda absorbs smells, so if your car interior is particularly stinky, then leave the baking soda on overnight.  If you want to spot-treat just one stain or area, you can do this, but you might be left with a conspicuously clean patch.
  5. Get a spray bottle of the spritzer or plant mister type and spray the baking soda. Don’t overdo it – you should spray on just enough to make the baking soda pasty.
  6. Grab a toothbrush (if you’re feeling masochistic) or a larger scrubbing brush that isn’t too stiff or scratchy. Now get busy scrubbing the fabric.
  7. Once you’re done scrubbing, get an old towel and blot up as much moisture as possible.
  8. Get your spritzer bottle and fill with a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and warm water. You can add some essential oils if you feel like it or if you want a nice smell.  Detergent like you use for handwashing dishes can go in, but no more than a couple of drops.  Now spray this all over the baking soda – again, not excessively.  The vinegar will react with the baking soda and it will fizz up.
  9. Blot again with another old towel – or possibly several. This will absorb the moisture plus the grime loosened by the baking soda, the vinegar and the elbow grease. Once you think you’ve blotted it all, do it again just to make sure.
  10. Open the doors and windows and leave the car interior to dry out. If you can leave the car in the garage with the windows open overnight, all the better.

Admittedly, this process is going to be easier if you have a small city hatch rather than a van or MPV. With larger vehicles, just spot-treat any obvious bits of awfulness (e.g. the place where the dog threw up) and keep up the regular vacuuming.  If you really want a perfect interior, then use the hire machines.

Now for leather seats.  With leather, you have to be really careful with moisture (which will leave leather tough and hard after it dries) and with scratching.  You can start with vacuuming but be very careful to use a proper head with a nice soft brush.

The trick for cleaning leather is that you will wipe rather than scrub.  The good news is that this will work.  Baby wipes and damp cloths will work but be sure to have a towel handy to dry the leather off immediately.  There are truckloads of recipes for cleaning leather, most of which use some combination of soap and water, or detergent and water plus a nice soft cloth.  The alternative is vinegar, which has the added bonus of killing mould and bacteria.  Actually, a rag moistened in water or vinegar followed by drying could be all you need. Just be careful not to let the water/vinegar soak into the leather – you need only enough moisture to loosen the dirt.

However, you might want to add a bit of sheen to the leather and something to help it stay supple – kind of like a moisturiser for the cow skin (or goat skin) covering the seats.  If you’re a horsey type, you probably already have access to saddle soap – and what works for the leather of a saddle or bridle will work for leather seats.    However, the rest of us needn’t despair.  You can buy some overpriced fancy specialist product for cleaning leather seats. Or you can look for a cheaper option in your pantry: mix up some oil and vinegar, just like you would for a salad.  A lot of recipes out there call for olive oil but the secret is that any sort of oil will do the job.  Again, essential oils can be added if you fancy but these are optional.  If you want to add them, my advice is to use lavender (for calming) or eucalyptus (for mental alertness).

Shake the mixture up in a spritzer bottle (and you’ll need to shake before every spray) then spray sparingly on the seats, treating one part at a time.  Again, don’t use too much.  Buff the leather well with a nice old towel or a nasty old T-shirt that’s seen better days – the vinegar and the oil will loosen grime, and any leftover oil will soak into the leather and give it a nice natural shine that helps keep the leather supple. If you’ve got any of the mixture left over, then you can actually use it in a salad – unless you’ve added essential oils, in which case, use it in the bath or as a body oil.

But what about Alcantara, that synthetic suede from the motor racing world?  How do you clean that?  OK, it’s a beast to clean because the suede-like finish shows marks so easily.  However, it is stain-resistant, so the dirt will at least be surface dirt.

To clean Alcantara, you will probably need a proper cleaning product. Stay away from steam cleaning machines and from products designed for leather.   If you can’t get hold of the products made by Alcantara for their product, then you can make do with a lightly moistened sponge or a soft cloth – and make sure that the cloth in question is white just in case the colour bleeds from the rag to the upholstery.  Car detailers have been known to use old-school shaving brushes.  Run the cloth over the upholstery, taking great care not to (a) crush the soft little floofy finish down or (b) use too much moisture.  You’ll need to do it several times, and it’s best to work in a circular motion to avoid leaving streaks in the suede-like finish.  Leave to dry overnight, then get a very soft brush (that old-school shaving brush) or a dry sponge or a dry terrycloth face flannel and gently fluff up the finish again.  Imagine that you’re stroking a kitten and you’ll get the action about right.

 

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