Cleaning Auto Upholstery

How to restore auto seats and mats to like-new condition

Article updated October 2011

Bringing your car's tired looking and soiled upholstery back to life is pretty simple. All it takes is some elbow grease and a good cleaning product. Whether car seat fabric or woven floor mats, they can be returned to their original color.

Agitation is the key. Get dirt and discoloration loose and all will become cleaner. Or so we'd like to have you believe. Is there a stain or two in the interior of your car? Do the seats, carpet and other fabrics have that obviously used look? Treating them with a carpet and upholstery cleaner and a little patience will bring a strong pulse back to that interior.

Over the life span of the synthetic and natural fibers used to make the interior of your car comfortable, they're exposed to every sort of discoloration that enters the vehicle, whether via dirty people, soiled clothes, muddy shoes, spilled coffee or a dropped French fry. If you've never cleaned the seats in your car, for instance, a few minutes with an interior cleaning liquid on just one spot will open your eyes to the amount of mire within. Forgotten what color you ordered when you bought the car?


When you're looking for a bottle of interior and upholstery cleaner, remember that most car care outfits will have a proprietary formula. Pay a visit to the web sites for companies like Eagle One, Mothers Polish, Griot's Garage and Meguiar's. You'll find details about what they offer to bring your beige carpets back from brown. There are usually a few interesting tidbits on what else you can make pretty with a good auto interior cleaner, too, as the less corrosive formulas are great for pre-washing denim, indoor and outdoor furniture, home carpets, rugs and other assorted high-traffic cloth and weaves.


While you're out shopping, be sure to buy a vehicle-interior cleaner that's pH balanced and environmentally safe. As always, some cleaners are going to use a more aggressive suspension agent than others. Let the warnings on the bottle be your guide: is there potential to bother your eyes if you're splashed, or will it harm pets and small children on contact? The chemicals used in most fabric cleaners are a bit volatile and somewhat nasty if you're exposed to them for long periods, so the usual well-ventilated workspace is not a bad idea, either.


The thing you should do when cleaning the fabrics in your car is to vacuum thoroughly. The less dirt in the material before you begin cleaning, the better. That way the cleaner can spend its chemical energies acting upon the grime and attached ugliness your usual cleaning regimen wouldn't release.


When applying the cleaner, the standard "spray the area where you're working, only" rule applies. Keep the area of attention to a minimum, so you can concentrate on removing the dirt from one spot. Some fabrics absorb more liquid than others: typically, seat cloth and velour will not look wet after you spray the cleaner on them. Don't over-apply. Flip side, carpeting is usually prepped to be moisture resistant, so a little extra cleaner on tough stains is OK.


Working-in the cleaner is best done one of two ways: cotton terry-cloth towel or soft bristle-brush (either soft plastic or coarse animal hair, like horse or boar). We like to start with the towel. Rub the areas with cleaner applied in an energetic fashion, always keeping in mind that too much oomph could damage the material. If you chose to use a towel, it's likely you'll see the dirt in the towel, so rotate it to keep a clean side to the subject at hand.


As you pull dirt and moisture from the area being treated, don't be afraid to tap the spot with a little more cleanser should it still look less than clean, but do not apply too much. Keep a clean towel handy to soak up the excess interior cleaner as you work. As you finish, allow the treated spot to dry, then chase the entire interior with the vacuum to remove any freshly loosened dirt. If you decide that repeat applications are necessary, don't be afraid to choose the brush over the towel.

The mere use of a vehicle essentially implicates its becoming dirty. The fabrics in the interior are as subject to this progressive pollution as the exterior, but usually do not receive the regular cleanings that paint and glass do. This means a long-term buildup of grime and environmental deposits. The best way to remove deep-set dirt is to deep clean—so find a good interior cleaner and bend an elbow. Your browns will have never looked so beige, and your car's interior will look new again.

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