Time Needed: 5-10 Minutes per Stain, Difficulty: Beginner, Cost: $20-$200
It starts with a coffee stain. Maybe you aren’t even at fault, maybe your buddy accidentally dropped a little when hitching a ride with you. And because you’ve got a busy schedule, and the stain isn’t all that bad, you decided to live with it…for now. A couple of weeks go by, and you spill that big gulp on the seat. You were relaxed about the first, so why get up in arms about it? Next thing you know, it doesn’t matter what spills on the seat because it’s a blotchy, multicolored mess anyway. It’s a vicious cycle.
The day will come when you stand back and realize you’ve got a pigsty on your hands. Don’t let that happen to you. Stains may be intimidating, but most are easy to sort out. Besides, you’ve got Car Bibles to help tackle those stains in those cloth seats in the first place.
The Safety Brief
We’re tackling seat stains. It’s not like you run the risk of coming in contact with the cooling fan blades or a red-hot header. That doesn’t mean you want to ignore the fact that something can go wrong because chances are that this is the one time that it will. Safety glasses and gloves aren’t going to hurt anything, but they will keep harsh chemicals off the soft stuff.
Also, this might not be entirely safety-related, but knee pads aren’t a bad idea now either. Cleaning seats will have you kneeling on unforgiving surfaces. Those little rocks, screws, and even the pavement itself aren’t exactly compadres with your joints. Protect them now so you can continue to enjoy them later in life.
The Tools & Parts You Need
Let’s get two things out of the way. I’m not going to go through the process of using steam cleaners or extractors, and we’re talking specifically about removing stains from cloth upholstery, not leather or other materials. Professional equipment like steam cleaners can be well out of the price range of the average car owner, and different materials will need different approaches to cleaning stains.
That said, you don’t need a whole lot to lift the stains out of your car seats. In fact, you can use some materials from around the house, such as dish soap or laundry detergent, rather than a dedicated upholstery cleaner if the budget is tight. Isopropyl alcohol or degreaser will be necessary for more serious grease or ink stains, too.
You will want to invest in some upholstery-safe brushes, break out the car vacuum, and a spray bottle with warm water can work wonders while you’re working. Speaking of vacuum power, a good interior vacuum is never a bad investment, but the car wash is happy to collect quarters if that’s out of the question.
In some cases, you may also need the necessary tools to remove the seats from the car and either a garden hose or pressure washer. However, that’s for really extreme situations when the seat is in need of serious attention, and we’ll expand more on that in the next section.
As always, microfiber towels are also welcome to this project. However, anything you use is likely to be ruined by the stain you’re lifting from the seats, so it’s not a bad idea to use paper towels instead.
- Upholstery cleaner
- Shop Vac
- Microfiber towels
- Upholstery degreaser
- Upholstery brushes
- Spray bottle
- Isopropyl alcohol
The Task: How To Remove Stains From Your Car Seats
Let’s get after it.
1. Assess the situation.
Not all stains are the same, and not all require the same cleaning products. For example, stains from coffee and soft drinks can usually be addressed with regular upholstery cleaner, while isopropyl alcohol is best for ink, and degreaser is necessary for grease and oil stains. If you can determine what you need before you start buying a product, you can save yourself a little money.
Furthermore, you will want to decide if you need to remove the seats ahead of time. That way, you can set aside the right amount of time and gather the necessary tools and materials to make that happen—modern car seats can be quite a pain to remove thanks to intricate electronics, heaters, coolers, and air bladders.
2. Give a quick cleanup to prepare.
Don’t go in guns blazing just yet. Take the time to vacuum the seat to remove any traces of hair, dirt, or anything else that might be sitting on the surface. For one, anything on the surface can interfere with the cleaning product’s ability to work correctly. Secondly, you run the risk of grinding any debris or dirt into the seat as you scrub, which can ultimately create a bigger mess to deal with.
3. Remove the seat if necessary.
It’s not always necessary to remove the seat, but it can be the best course of action if the seat is heavily stained. Doing so will allow you to reach the parts of the seat that are inaccessible, and use a garden hose or pressure washer, which may be necessary to wash away any heavy deposits. Of course, you will want to give the seat a wash before scrubbing if this is the route you take.
Your seat may be equipped with electrical connectors to power airbags or controls. In that case, you’ll want to be sure to remove the negative cable from the battery before making disconnections to avoid shorts.
4. Apply the appropriate cleaning solution.
Apply the cleaning solution of your choice and let it sit for a few seconds. You want to read the instructions on the bottle to determine how long it needs to start working, but you can expect to let the product soak in for around 30 seconds to a minute with most degreasers and upholstery cleaners. You can apply some warm water before the upholstery cleaner as this can help loosen things up and make things a little easier.
If the seat has multiple stains, it’s best to address them one at a time rather than all at once. Keep in mind that the product can only lift the stains for so long before it settles out, and taking on too much at once can result in creating more work for yourself as additional passes may be necessary due to this factor.
A note on ink stains: Ink stains are a different animal altogether, and you’ll use isopropyl alcohol to tackle them. This product doesn’t need nearly as much time to start working, as it can begin to remove ink in around 10 seconds. On that note, you also won’t be scrubbing the stain but instead dabbing it with a clean paper towel to avoid spreading the ink around.
5. Scrub with an upholstery brush.
Once the cleaner has had enough time to loosen up the stain, you need to start scrubbing. Only use light to moderate pressure as you can damage the material if you’re too rough.
6. Remove the lather.
After scrubbing for a minute or so, you want to remove what’s pulled to the surface. Most cleaners are designed to lift the stain, suspending it in the lather produced. You want to remove that before it has the chance to settle back into the upholstery. You can use a microfiber or paper towel to wipe it away, but a vacuum may be best in severe cases.
7. Rinse and repeat until the stain is removed.
It’s great if the stain is removed after the first pass, but you shouldn’t give up if it doesn’t. Most stains will need a few passes to remove them completely. Simply apply some more cleaner and continue the process until the stains are gone. You may not need to use as much cleaner with each pass as some portion of the stain is bound to remain on the surface. Once the stain is removed, move on to the next if multiple are present.
8. Go over the entire seat with upholstery cleaner.
You’ll want to go over the entire seat with upholstery cleaner once the stains are taken care of. Otherwise, you’ll see a mismatch in colors throughout the seat as the areas you’ve worked on are cleaner than the rest. Thankfully, a single pass with an upholstery brush is usually about all it takes to even things out.
If you’ve used a degreaser, and have the seat out of the car, you should rinse it off with a garden hose to help remove any product left behind. If the seat is in the car, you can use some warm water and a towel to wipe it away.
9. Vacuum the seat again and allow it to dry.
One last pass with a vacuum is best for removing any excess in product left behind. It’ll remove as much of the moisture as possible and allow the seat to dry completely before you allow anyone to sit in the seat or move on to the next step.
10. Reinstall the seat.
Those of you who have removed the seat for cleaning are now ready to reinstall it. Be sure to torque the mounting hardware to spec and reconnect all of the electrical connectors. Wait until the seat has been reinstalled to hook the battery cables back up to avoid electrical shorts.
FAQs About Removing Stains From Car Seats
Car Bibles answers all your burning questions.
Q. What household items can you use to clean car seats?
A. Vinegar, baking soda, laundry detergent, dish soap, and isopropyl alcohol are all items you can find around the house and use to fight stains. Keep in mind that most of these work best when diluted with water, and you’ll want to research the exact mixture, if necessary, required for each.
Q. What are the hardest stains to remove from car seats?
A. Thankfully, most stains found in car seats are easy to address. However, some of the hardest to deal with that are typical to the area are blood, grease, and ink stains. Some food stains, like those left by chocolate, can also be difficult to deal with as well. If these stains are present, you’ll want to read up on the best solution for removing them, as basic upholstery cleaners may not be aggressive enough.
Q. What is the easiest stain to remove?
A. Thankfully, coffee and soda stains, which are likely what you’re dealing with, are the easiest to remove. A little bit of upholstery cleaner can usually quickly remove these from your seats. You can also use dish soap and warm water to remedy the issue in a pinch.
Learn More From This Video Tutorial About Removing Stains from Car Seats
As much pride as we take in giving you solid information to work off of, there really is only so much we can cover if we want to keep our text coherent in the amount of room we have to work with. On top of that, not everyone fares well with text-based guides. That’s why we wanted to make sure we included a video that’s easy for you to follow and runs you through the different techniques for cleaning cloth seats with both professional and consumer-grade supplies.
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