How to Clean Cloth Car Seats

person vacuuming a car seat

The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

Overview
  • Working Time: 2 hrs, 30 mins
  • Total Time: 5 hrs, 30 mins
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Most of us spend several hours in our cars on most days. We eat and drink in our cars. We haul kids, pets, and all their gear in our cars. As a result, the car's interior and our cloth car seats can get pretty dirty. Luckily, all but the most permanent stains, like waterproof marker ink or scorch marks, can be cleaned away. At the very least, your cloth seats will look and smell better.

Of course, you can protect the seats or hide the damage with car seat covers. Most add-on seat covers can be hand-washed or tossed in a washer.

How Often to Clean Cloth Car Seats

Ideally, cloth car seats should be vacuumed weekly (don't forget the car mats) and any fresh stains should be spot treated. A more thorough cleaning of the seats can be done seasonally or more often depending on how much activity takes place in your car.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Vacuum with a hose, crevice tool, upholstery brush
  • Spray bottle
  • Stiff-bristled scrub brush
  • Microfiber cloths
  • Sponge
  • Bucket

Materials

  • Commercial carpet and upholstery cleaner
  • Oxygen-based bleach
  • Water
  • Fabric protector (optional)

Instructions

    materials for cleaning car seats

    The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

    1. Vacuum the Seats

      Start by vacuuming the fabric when you're ready to clean your cloth car seats. This will remove dust, debris, and pet hair, and prevent you from simply pushing it deeper into the seat padding. Use the crevice tool to reach between the back and seat. Then use the upholstery brush to help lift the fibers of the fabric.

      vacuuming a cloth car seat

      The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

    2. Pre-Treat Stains

      If you see specific stains, you'll get better results by pre-treating them before doing an overall cleaning. For most food and drink, grease, and mud stains, simply use a bit of the upholstery cleaner on the stains and work it into the fabric with a scrub brush. Allow it to work for at least 15 minutes before you do an overall cleaning.

      For dye-based stains that bled or transferred color on to your seat, lightly dampen the stained area. Mix a paste of dry oxygen-based bleach and a few drops of water. Spread that over the stained area and allow it to work for at least one hour. Vacuum away the powder. Repeat as needed.

      pretreating stains on a car seat

      The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

    3. Apply the Upholstery Cleaner Solution

      Depending on the cleaner you selected, you may need to mix the cleaning solution with warm water. Follow the product label directions as to how much to use per gallon of water. A spray bottle is the best way to apply the cleaner because it lets you control the amount that goes on the fabric.

      Start at the top of the seat and lightly spray the entire seat. You do not need to super-saturate the fabric.

      spraying cleaner onto a car seat

      The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

    4. Scrub Away the Dirt

      Use a scrub brush to work in the cleaning solution after spraying it on the seat. Go over every inch of the seat starting at the top so that any dirty solution drips down. As your scrub brush becomes soiled, rinse it in a bucket of clear water and give it a shake to remove excess moisture.

      scrubbing away dirt on a car seat

      The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

    5. Wipe Away Excess Moisture

      Use an absorbent microfiber cloth to wipe away any excess moisture. This will also help lift any matted fibers.

      wiping away excess moisture

      The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

    6. Repeat All Steps if Needed

      If the upholstery still looks soiled, repeat the steps. If the upholstery is really dirty (if it was been cleaned before), you'll get better results by doing several rounds to remove layers of grime. 

      repeating the cleaning process as necessary

      The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

    7. Allow the Seats to Dry

      If possible, give the seats time to dry completely before using the car again. It usually takes two to three hours. If you need to speed up the process, aim a large fan in the car blowing toward the seats. Or park the car in the sunniest location to speed up drying time. If the seats still feel damp, place a small container of moisture-absorbing crystals (a drying agent) in the car to trap the moisture.

      letting the seats dry

      The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

    8. Add a Protective Coating

      Now that you've done the work and the seats look fresh and clean, use a spray-on fabric protector to help prevent dirt and stains from settling into the fabric. This will make cleaning much easier next time.

      spraying a protective coating on car seats

      The Spruce / Cristina Tudor

    Tips to Keep Your Cloth Car Seats Clean Longer

    • It helps to know what kind of cloth car seats you have. Nylon is the most common fabric used for car upholstery because it's durable, but it's very porous and soaks up spills. Polyester appears as microfiber or microsuede upholstery. The soft texture mimics suede leather which feels great but also makes it more difficult to clean.
    • Keep a towel tucked under your seat for those times when you eat in your car. The towel will act as a placemat to catch spills.
    • Use sealed cups when drinking beverages in your car, and check to see if the covers are on tight.
    • Detailing your car deep cleans the interior and upholstery of a car. The more you detail, the cleaner and in better shape your upholstery will stay. It's suggested to detail your car every few months depending on how soiled your car becomes throughout the year.