How to clean and protect your car’s upholstery

You wouldn’t go days without washing your clothes or months without cleaning your sheets, but many don’t clean their car’s upholstery unless a coffee cup takes a tumble. In a survey conducted by, 320 out of 1,000 U.S. drivers said they rarely sanitize or clean their car’s interior.

Letting your car go months without a cleaning might not sound that bad until you learn how dirty car interiors can be. In fact, a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that steering wheels are four times dirtier than a toilet seat.

Your wellbeing can be affected by the cleanliness of your car. Driving around in a cluttered, food-caked, dusty interior does not promote confidence. It might even cause you anxiety when a friend or coworker catches a glimpse through your window.

Also, refreshing your car’s interior extends the life and value of your vehicle. Clean, well-maintained cars sell for considerably more than those allowed to accumulate grime and dirt.

You might not be planning to sell your car anytime soon — or at all. Still, with money and health top of mind, this might be the perfect time to make interior car care a habit.


Ready to start cleaning?

Before you clean your car’s interior, you first have to choose the right cleanser for your upholstery. What might bring your cloth upholstery back to life could damage leather  — and vice versa.


Prep Step: Vacuum

Before cleaning cloth or leather, it’s important to vacuum up the crumbs, sand, and any mystery materials that have made their way into crevices and between cloth fibers. Be careful not to scratch leather upholstery.

Our favorite powerhouse vacuum made for the job is the ThisWorks portable car vacuum. It’s lightweight, has a HEPA filter, and even plugs into your vehicle’s 12-volt outlet for easy charging. Keep it in your car for easy, on-the-go cleaning.

Once you’ve cleared any debris, it’s time to deep clean.


Leather Interiors: 4 Steps to Clean and Condition

Leather seating is luxurious and practical. Its buttery softness is paired with rugged durability. If taken care of, it can continue to remain soft and flexible as it ages. But if neglected, it can stiffen and crack. Here’s how to preserve your leather upholstery.


Step #1: Apply leather cleaner

Spray your leather cleaner of choice onto asoft horse-hair brush​. We recommend using Chemical Guys Leather Cleaner​. Removing dirt and grime not only freshens the look and feel of your interior, but also primes the leather to soak up any conditioner you use after clean-up. Pro tip: Always weargloves​ to protect your skin when working with cleansers.


Step #2: Create a lather

Using the brush, gently scrub the leather to activate suds. This will create a rich lather.


Step #3: Wipe off dirt and excess suds

Using a white or lightly coloredmicrofiber towel, clean off dirt and any extra cleaner. The lighter the microfiber, the easier it is to see how much dirt you’ve pulled out of the leather. This is especially helpful when cleaning dark upholstery.


Step #4: Protect with leather conditioner

Applying a layer of leather conditioner​ ​adds a barrier between it and any future dirt or spills. It also acts like sunscreen, guarding against sun damage. Apply the leather conditioner with anapplicator pad​ or microfiber cloth, being careful to spread it evenly over the surface. Let it dry naturally or wipe with a clean cloth.

You can use this same easy process to clean and reinvigorate any leather surface in your car, including door panels or steering wheel.


Cloth Upholstery: 5 Steps to clean and protect

Cloth interiors are cozy, don’t stick to your skin in hot climates, and are the favored choice for those avoiding animal products. However, they can absorb more dirt than leather. But if you follow these steps, your car can look new again — no matter its age.


Step #1: Spray seats and microfiber towel with cleaner

One thing to keep in mind when using cloth cleansers: some must be diluted before use. That’s why we prefer ​Chemical Guys’ Lightning Fast Carpet and Upholstery Stain Extractor​. It can be sprayed full-strength onto your seats and microfiber cloth.


Step #2: Rub cleaner into fabric

Using your microfiber cloth, work the cleaner into the upholstery. It will begin to lather.


Step #3: Soak any tough, deep-set stains

Give a heavy spray of cleanser to any resistant, set-in stains, and work into a lather using a ​brush. To get out particularly stubborn dirt, consider using a handheld drill with a brush attachment​. Drill brushes make quick work of stains and require less elbow grease.


Step #4: Wipe off dirt and excess cleaner

If any stains remain after wiping the upholstery with a microfiber cloth, you can repeat steps 1–3. Or, you can opt for a deeper clean by finishing off the process with a ​steamer​. If you choose to steam-finish your upholstery, make sure you have the time to let it dry properly. Another option is using the professional detailer’s chosen weapon against soiled cloth upholstery: the ​carpet cleaner​. Though highly effective, they also require ample dry time.


Step #5: Apply fabric guard

When you’re satisfied with your car interior’s new level of cleanliness, it’s time to protect your upholstery from future spills and everyday dirt. We like Chemical Guys’ Fabric Guard Interior Protector Shield because it repels water and stains while blocking harmful UV rays. And it’s safe to use around other automotive finishes like chrome, glass, rubber, and vinyl.

It’s a good idea to schedule upholstery cleaning into your household cleaning rotation. If you don’t have time to deep-clean your car often, routine vacuuming and the use of ​interior wipes​ and ​leather conditioning wipescan go a long way toward the health of your upholstery.

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