With great leather interiors, comes great responsibility. Unless you’re a fan of the dry and patchy cracked look, your leather upholstery is going to demand a lot more attention than your bog-standard fabric upholstery. Why does it need maintenance though? Well, here comes your biology lesson. Whilst your own skin produces oils to keep it soft and hydrated when the animal hide is transformed into the leather (avert your eyes, vegans…), it can’t produce its own natural oils anymore. To keep it supple and smooth, we need to clean and hydrate it ourselves. To keep the car upholstery as plush as it would be fresh from the showroom, you need to get into a regular cleaning and conditioning habit. But cleaning leather car seats isn’t as taxing as you might think. Your car is probably one of your most prized possessions, so learning how to properly care for the car interior can keep it looking like that new car that first won you over. We even got our good friend Ryan McElroy from Performance Alloys to give us some top cleaning tips for your leather seats! When it comes to keeping our cars in tip-top condition, Ryan is our go-to guy for car maintenance and car care advice. If you’re not after a guide on caring for leather car seats, we’ve written other guides to how to clean car seats, including how to clean cloth car seats and how to clean vinyl car seats. So, when you’ve got a couple of hours to spare on a Sunday afternoon to learn how to wash your car inside and out properly, get this task ticked off your car maintenance checklist, and thank us later.
What do I need when cleaning leather car seats?
Cleaning the inside of our cars isn’t usually as high on the agenda as taking care of the outside. The whole world can see your grubby windows and muddy alloys, but the remains of your McDonald’s drive-thru adventure can be fairly well hidden from public view. To clean the outside of our cars, we just need a sponge, a hose, and a bucket of soapy water. Easy. But for some reason, the car interior seems like a much bigger job. What do you actually need to get those leather car seats looking squeaky clean though?
You don’t need a ton of equipment when cleaning leather car seats, so that’s one less excuse you can use to get out of regular cleaning. In your leather cleaning toolbox, you should have:
- A vacuum cleaner (and optional air compressor).
- A set of microfibre cloths — these should be soft cloth, not rough and ragged.
- A brush with soft bristles, or toothbrush for smaller areas (avoid stiff bristles at all costs).
- Spray bottles (depending on your cleaning products).
You should have a few of these things lying around, but you can get these items at most decent DIY or automotive shops, or online (thank you Amazon Prime next day delivery!).
What products can I use to clean leather seats?
You’ve got a few options for your leather care cleaning agent. The cleaning process is split into two stages, so you’ll need two main products: car leather cleaner and leather conditioner.
Shop Bought Leather Cleaner
If you’d prefer to use manufactured products, you should make sure that they are specifically formulated for cleaning leather car seats. When it comes to picking out a car leather cleaner, avoid generic, multi-surface soap products. These will dry out your leather upholstery, leaving it prone to damage. Steer clear of wax, silicone, or oil-based products too, as these can be very greasy. You want something that isn’t harsh or oily but is strong enough to improve discolouration, and lift the build up of grime and gunk off of the leather surfaces. You can find 2-in-1 leather wipes that do a great job, but we like to take the long route, putting some real TLC into our leather care. Hide from Auto Finesse is one of our favourite products and it’s a specially formulated car leather cleaner. It’s glycerine based and has a great light foaming action to draw dirt and debris out of the tiny pores and grain on leather seats. When it comes to conditioner, go for a water-based conditioner with a neutral pH. Sourcing a high-quality leather conditioner without weird chemicals or plastics in it will make your job so much easier and will give your car’s leather an amazing finish. The job of the leather conditioner is to replenish all of the natural oils in the leather, not stuff it up with scummy silicone. If you use a cheap and nasty product, you may as well not have bothered cleaning the leather car seats at all.
If you fancy making use of household items you already have lying around, then you can whip up your own solution using laundry detergent or dish soap. Grab yourself a spray bottle and fill it with warm (not boiling) water and add half to one whole teaspoon of laundry detergent. Shake it up and you’re good to go.
It might seem a bit weird, but vinegar is a genuine cleaning wonder. For cleaning bathrooms, kitchens, windows, and mirrors, it’s a great antibacterial cleaner and it’s cheap as chips (and goes nicely with chips too). But it does stink, so maybe save it for a not-so-hot day. To use vinegar as your cleaning solution, just fill up a spray bottle about three-quarters full with vinegar and then top up the rest with warm water. It’s so simple and easy, so definitely worth a shot if you don’t want to shell out on mainstream leather cleaning products!
Coconut oil is praised for the beneficial effects it can have on your skin and hair, so no wonder it’s magic on leather! After you’ve cleaned your interior appropriately, coconut oil (or even olive oil) can be used as a gentle conditioner for the leather. Just apply gradually in small quantities and rub in with a dry cloth. As always, test first on a small, discrete or hidden area to ensure it doesn’t cause any damage to your leather.
Hailed as a natural stain remover, baking soda is a popular choice when it comes to getting rid of tricky stains. You can either mix up a paste with a few drops of water, or sprinkle over and allow the stain to absorb before wiping away. However, it’s important to remember that baking soda can be harsh on more fragile materials. If you’re worried about ruining a significant section of your seating, it might be best to stick with leather cleaning products. Before you take a deep dive into cleaning, it’s worthwhile checking out the car care section of your car manual to see if it highlights anything to use or avoid when it comes to cleaning leather car seats. If everything looks good, you can get cracking with this process:
Assess and remove loose dirt
First up is giving your car’s interior a good look over. You’re on the hunt for any damage to the car interior, including holes, tears or frays. You also want to check if there’s any perforated areas — if you get liquid stuck inside these areas, it’ll damage the inner foam and your seats will soon be done for. Once you’ve taken stock of any blemishes, you can go hoover-happy. Trapped surface dirt can be very abrasive and it’ll strip the colour off of the hide and scratch your material, so it’s got to go. You want to start off by getting rid of any crumbs that have lodged themselves in the seat crevices. Getting rid of all of this surface dirt will make tackling the seats with car leather cleaner much easier later on. Whip out your hoover and get vacuuming. Suck up all the surface dirt, and if you’ve got an air compressor, you can use this to blow stubborn dirt particles out of those irritatingly hard-to-reach areas.
Apply leather cleaner and work it in
Now it’s time to arm yourself with your commercial leather cleaner/laundry detergent mix/vinegar cleaning agent and get ready for some deep cleaning. Start by applying your cleaning product to a small area of your car seat, especially if it’s the first time you’ve used that particular product. Doing a spot test like this will flag up any issues before you go ahead and destroy all of your leather upholstery. If your seats don’t fizz up and begin to melt on contact with your cleaning agent, then take it as a green light to keep going. Apply your car leather cleaner to sections of the seats at a time, rather than spraying everything down at once. Proper deep cleaning like this requires patience and care — you’ve paid good money for this car so you want to look after it! Leave the cleaner to sit for a few minutes. Then grab your soft bristle cleaning brush and massage it in. Don’t frantically scrub at it or you’ll damage the upholstery. Your cleaner will foam up and dirt will be pulled out of the leather. Use a clean cloth to wipe away the suds. If you’ve used a little too much product on your seats, just spray or splash it with a tiny bit of water and wipe it off with your cloth. If you have perforated surfaces, don’t spray the cleaner directly onto the seat or you’ll be in danger of saturating it. Instead, spray your cleaner onto your brush directly, and then use this brush to rub the surfaces. Wipe over with a damp cloth, then again with a dry cloth. You don’t want to leave any residue at the end — it’ll become sticky or will smell weird.
Protect your leather with leather conditioner
Now you’ve got nice, clean and shiny seats. Job done. Almost. Your last step is to apply a protective coating to your leather car seats with some deep conditioning. Just like you’d wax your car to protect that expensive shiny paintwork, conditioning the leather gives it temporary shielding from heat and abrasion. If you’ve got coloured leather, you can find conditioning products with colouring compounds to lock in the rich shades. To properly condition the seats, massage the conditioner in with your microfibre cloth in circular motions. Leave it for around 5 to 10 minutes — this allows it to cure, soaking into the leather. With a fresh microfibre towel, buff it up, wiping away excess conditioner. As much as you might want to hop inside and take the car for a spin with your lovely clean seats, it’s important that you leave it for at least an hour to set. It’s a good idea to park your car in the shade or in your garage to give it a good chance to soak in, rather than the heat of the sun absorbing it all.
You should have lovely clean leather car seats now, as snazzy as those in the car showroom. A little bit of elbow grease and a calendar reminder alert go a long way in your quest to clean your leather car seats to perfection. Once this job is done and dried, sit back and enjoy that squeaky clean, soft and smooth leather interior! Now you’re on a roll, why not familiarise yourself with some other cleaning and maintenance tasks? We’ve gathered some top car maintenance tips from auto experts, and here are some excellent car maintenance apps that will keep you right! Okay, so you spent the extra money on those plush leather seats, but now you have cracker crumbs and half a kid’s meal all over them. So, now you’re probably wondering, how am I going to clean that without damaging the seats? Or, what can I use to clean up this mess? While we don’t have magic wands to help you clean your seats, we do have the steps and tips that can get your seats cleaned up in no time.
What You Need
Using the right tools and materials can help you maintain your leather seats and keep them looking sleek and plush for years to come. And the best part is you don’t need to shell out loads of money for premium tools and top-of-the-line materials. You can find many of these items at your local auto retail shop or favorite online retailer. Here are some tools and products you can consider to help clean your car’s leather seats:
- Vacuum cleaner
- Microfiber cloth
- Leather cleaner
- Leather conditioner
- Soft-bristled brush
- Damp towels
Step by Step: Cleaning Leather Car Seats
Tackling your leather seats on your own can be kind of intimidating, especially if it’s the first time you’re attempting to clean your seats. Fear not because there are a few easy steps you can take to help you prepare your seats for the royal treatment. Here are some simple steps you can follow to clean your seats without leaving scratches or dirt behind:
1. Remove Obstacles and Large Debris
If you have a child or pet, you likely have large items such as a car or booster seat installed in your vehicle. Removing these items, as well as any trash or other large obstacles, can help you efficiently clean your seats. This can also help you see and tackle any dirt or grime, that your kids might have left behind from their afternoon snack. This also gives you the chance to clean these items before installing them in your vehicle again. Doing this can help you maintain the clean look and feel of your leather seats for longer.
2. Vacuum the Seats
Vacuuming your seats and surrounding area can help you pick up those pesky crumbs and sprinkles of dirt. If you have a brush attachment for your vacuum, you can use this to clean your seats without gouging or scratching your seats. Ensure you get between all the little cracks and crevices to pick up all the dirt you can. If there is still dirt and dust crammed into the seat’s different crevices, you can use a cloth to get them out.
3. Test Your Cleaning Solution
Before applying your leather cleaning solution to your seats, it’s a good idea to test your solution on a small hidden part of your seats. This is especially important if this is the first time you’re using a new cleaning solution, as it can prevent you from accidentally ruining or staining your leather seats. Some reactions to look out for include any fizzing or melting, which indicates that you need to stop using that cleaner immediately. When choosing a new cleaning solution, consider reviewing your owner’s manual as there might be specific cleaner recommendations from your vehicle’s manufacturer. If you’re cleaning MB-Tex material, it’s important to use a gentle cleaning solution rather than a harsh leather cleaner to prevent any damage or stains to your seating upholstery.
4. Clean Off Additional Grime
The vacuum is great for picking up any loose debris, but there might still be some grime left behind. If this is the case, you can use a microfiber towel that’s been sprayed with the cleaner to get rid of this grime. This is great for any of those sticky residues left behind from your kids’ spilled juice or melted gummy snacks, and there is a type of deep-rooted satisfaction you get when these sticky spots are gone. Once you’re done cleaning off the surface layer of dirt and grime, you’re ready to start deep cleaning your seats.
5. Apply a Cleaning Solution
Once you’ve tested a spot on your vehicle’s seats, you can apply the cleaning solution to the rest of your seats. Using a soft-bristled brush, you can work the cleaning solution to a lather. This can help break down tough stains and dirt in the upholstery and creases. When applying the cleaner, ensure you only apply enough to clean the seat versus saturating the material. It’s also a good idea to work in small sections at a time to prevent discoloration or staining from the cleaning solution. If your seats have holes, scratches, tears, or other perforations, apply the cleaning solution with caution. You might consider applying the cleaner to a microfiber towel versus directly to the seat material to prevent additional damage to your seats. When working the solution to a lather, apply gentle pressure to clean the surface. Moving the bristled brush in circular motions can help you gently remove tough stains and dirt without damage.
6. Wipe the Seat With a Damp Towel
Now that the seats are clean, you can wipe away the cleaning solution from the seats. Starting with a slightly damp towel, wipe away the excess cleaning solution from the seats. Using a damp towel helps to pick up any dirt or grime you may have missed during cleaning, which prevents the debris from making its way to your car’s floor. Now that you’re thinking about your vehicle’s floor, you might also consider looking into floor mats, so cleanup is a breeze when crumbs from your seats ultimately make their way to your floor.
7. Dry Seats With a Microfiber Towel
After completing your initial wipe down, you can follow up with a dry microfiber towel. This helps to remove any excess moisture from the seat’s surface, which can help prevent any mold or mildew from building up. Ensure you wipe the seats until they are completely dry to also help prevent the seats from wrinkling or cracking.
8. Apply a Leather Conditioner
It’s a good idea to follow up your cleaning routine with a leather conditioner. Some sources suggest cleaning them once every three months, but most seats don’t need attention that frequently. Many conditioner manufacturers often include a recommendation about how often to use their product on your seats. A leather conditioner can help improve the longevity of your seats because it can help ward off any cracks, tears, or stains. If this is the first time you’ve used the conditioner, ensure you test an inconspicuous spot on your seats before applying it to the rest of your seats. Once tested, you can apply the leather conditioner to your seats. When applying the conditioner, ensure you use small circular motions to work the conditioner into the seat. After applying the conditioner, let it sit and air dry for a minimum of one hour before going on your next adventure.
Leather Cleaning Tips
There are many tips and tricks that can help you maintain the plush look and feel of your leather seats. Here are some tips and recommendations to consider:
How to Use Leather Cleaning Products
Each store-bought product often has explanatory steps to guide you through using their product. Many products recommend first cleaning the surface with a vacuum before applying a cleaning solution. Gently working the cleaner into your seats is most effective in removing stains and dirt from your seats. Reviewing the cleaner’s specific instructions can help ensure you apply the cleaning product correctly. If you’re still unsure of how to use the leather cleaning product or don’t want to risk damaging your seats, you might consider taking your vehicle to a detailing professional. These professionals can help expertly clean and condition your leather seats with fewer chances of damaging or staining your seats. These professionals also often have access to premium tools and solutions to give your seats their best clean and shine.
How to Choose Leather Cleaning Products
When choosing a leather cleaning product, there are many things to look for in a cleaner. First, it’s important to consider the condition of your seats. Existing damage and wear can affect the cleaner’s effectiveness, so evaluating this information beforehand can ensure you choose the right cleaner. Some items to look for in a cleaner include:
- The cleaner is free from harsh chemicals, which can cause damage to your seat.
- The cleaning product is in a spray form that you can easily apply and wipe away.
- The leather cleaner is compatible with different leather colors and textures.
- The product is designed for new and old leather.
- The formula used for the product is nontoxic or has no fragrance, which can stain your seats.
Using conditioners that have petroleum or waxes can cause buildup on your plush leather seats. These finishes can also result in the dulling of the seat’s leather material. When evaluating your leather conditioner, look for natural ingredients in the ingredients list.
How to Keep Leather Clean Longer
Using a leather conditioner that has sunscreen or some form of sun protection can help fortify your vehicle’s seats against harmful UV rays. Having microfiber towels readily available in your vehicle also allows you to immediately clean up any spills, which can help prevent any stains or grime from building up. This can also prevent any material discoloration from occurring when spills happen. Regularly vacuuming your vehicle with a soft brush attachment can also help you get ahead of any dirt buildup on your seats, which can keep you from continuously doing a deep clean on your seats.
How Often to Use Leather Conditioner
There is no set recommendation about how often you should use a leather conditioner on your seats. Reflecting on how often you use your vehicle, where you park it, and who is often along for the ride can help you determine how often to use leather conditioner. If you use your vehicle often, park your vehicle in direct sunlight, or if you have a pet or children, you might use leather conditioner more often to prevent any wear and tear on your seats.
Consider Using Seat Covers
If you often have passengers or animals in your vehicle, you might consider installing seat covers over your leather seats to protect them from additional wear or tear. Seat covers are also a good idea if you’re consistently hauling stuff around in your back seats. There are so many seat covers to choose from, so it’s easy to find designs and materials that work for you. Want to find a sleek black design? Sure, there are plenty of those. Want ’90s flowers or cartoon-esque flames instead? No judgment here, because there are plenty of those available too.
Consult Your Car Dealership or Original Owner
If you’re uncertain about the previous care and treatment of your leather seats, it’s a good idea to consult the original owner or dealership in which you purchased the vehicle. This gives you the opportunity to learn if they have redyed your seats in the past, which can influence how you clean your seats. Certain cleaning solutions and leather conditioners might react to redyed seats, so learning this information beforehand can help prevent any accidental damage or staining to your seats. 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 just 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.
- Leather cleaner
- Leather conditioner
The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska
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 Dustbuster-style handheld vacuum.
If you don’t have a Dustbuster, you can also use the dust brush on your regular vacuum, since its soft bristles won’t scratch or gouge the leather. «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.» The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska
Lather on a Cleaner
Once 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,» Varela 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. The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska
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. The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska
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. The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska
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,» Varela 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.» The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska
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,» Varela says. The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska
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.
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