It doesn't matter if you have a retro ride or the latest, greatest model: A set of leather seats can give any car a luxurious edge. (Technology and trends might come and go, but leather is the material-equivalent to driving off into the sunset.)
The catch? With great style comes great responsibility. Whether you accidentally spilled your drive-thru order or are coming home from an ultra-sandy beach trip, your seats are bound to get a little messy. Sure, one tiny crumb or stain might not seem like a huge deal; however, it can seriously cramp your ride's overall appeal. And, to make matters even more complicated, you can't tidy up your leather car seats with any type of cleaner. One false move, and your leather might be ruined for good.
To help, check out this step-by-step guide to cleaning your car's leather seats.
Equipment / Tools
- Vacuum with soft brush
- Microfiber cloth
- Leather cleaner
- Leather conditioner
Vacuum Your Seats
In case you didn't get the memo, soap and water won't do those food crumbs or sprinkles of dirt any favors. Before you bust out the leather cleaner, you'll want to grab a dust buster.
"When beginning to clean a stain from your leather seat, try vacuuming the entire area first," says Alicia Sokolowski, president and co-CEO of AspenClean. "Leather offers a great surface that doesn’t allow liquids to quickly absorb into the cushions themselves; however, dust and dirt can be rubbed into the leather grain causing abrasions and damage to the surface."
Lather on a Cleaner
One your leather car seats are free of dust and debris, you'll want to make those stains and spills a thing of the past. You know you'll need a cleaner, but which one should you choose? Well, it depends. Alex Varela, general manager of Dallas Maids, prefers a store-bought cleaner.
"Even though I’m a fan of organic and DIY products, I prefer to use manufactured cleaning products for organic surfaces," he says. "Therefore, I would recommend buying a leather cleaner."
While a pre-made leather cleaner is specially designed to keep your seat in tip-top condition, it's important to use the solution in moderation.
"It’s important to test your cleaning agents in a small, hidden place," Varela says. "You never know how materials will react to one another."
After you've tested the cleaner, apply it to the car seats according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Or Opt for a DIY Alternative
That said, other cleaning experts favor a homemade alternative.
"A good DIY cleaner for leather is a simple mixture of white vinegar and water," Sokolowski says. "A citrus-based solvent can also yield good results. [Plus], moisturizing soap and some warm water can provide good results. The moisturizing aspect is to prevent the leather from drying out—it is an organic material, after all."
If you have pets, you may not want to expose them to citrus when they ride in the car, as citrus (including orange) is toxic to many pets: If you do use a citrus-based solvent, be sure to wipe it away thoroughly with a lightly damp cloth.
Wipe With a Microfiber Cloth
Once you lather your seat with a cleaner, you'll want to wipe off the formula with a damp microfiber cloth. But not too damp: An excess of water can stain your precious car seats. For good measure, you might want to dry any excess moisture with another microfiber cloth.
Apply Leather Conditioner
If you want to protect your leather car seats from any future stains and damage, add some leather conditioner. While Sokolowski says one part vinegar with two parts linseed oil or flaxseed oil will get the job done, Varela says store-bought will work wonders, too.
"A leather conditioner is also an important cleaning agent to use after your cleaning," he says. "A water-based conditioner will work just [as] nicely. Follow the same process, applying this time with a microfiber cloth. Let sit for 10 minutes and then use a different, clean microfiber towel and blot the surface to remove any excess product."
Let It Sit
According to Varela, one of the most important things about using a leather conditioner—and cleaning your precious seats in general—is letting them set. Translation? You may not want to clean your car seats right before you embark on a lengthy road trip. "You should let your car air dry for at least one hour, but three to four hours would be ideal," he says.
Tips for Cleaning Your Leather Car Seats
Though it might seem like a massive undertaking, cleaning your leather car seats is surprisingly simple. But, if you really want to make your car's interior shine, keep these expert tips in mind.
Stay Still and Scrub Down: If you want to make your leather cleaner work its magic, Varela recommends letting your cleaner sit for a few minutes, and then scrubbing with a soft bristle cleaning brush. The trick? Work your brush in a very soft, circular motion.
Use Leather Conditioner Sparingly: Sure, leather conditioner might keep your car's interior nice and supple, but you shouldn't use it every time you clean your seats. According to Varela, you'll want to use leather conditioner once a quarter.
Explore the Alternatives: What's a driver to do if a combination of leather cleaner and conditioner doesn't make their car seats shine? Don't worry: Sokolowski says there are plenty of other alternatives. Permanent marker spots could be removed with aerosol hairspray, while mold and mildew can be obliterated with equal parts warm water and rubbing alcohol. A little sprinkle of baking soda can cut through grease.
And as for those dark stains? "Red wine or fruit juice can be removed using lemon juice and cream of tartar," Sokolowski says. "Leave this on the stain for a good 10 minutes before wiping away with a damp sponge." If you use lemon juice, condition the leather after wiping the juice away.
All you need to do is get a little creative and you'll have a tidy car in no time.
"Orange." American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.