One of the first things people notice when they step into the interior of the vehicle is the material of your car seats. Nothing will wow a friend or family member more about your vehicle than getting to sit on supple leather seats that are luxuriously conditioned. That new car smell we all know and love is usually emitted from the leather seats specifically.
For the last decade, car manufacturers have opted to use a deeply hued, untreated aniline leather as the material of choice in their luxury cars and option packages in their vehicles. This material is luxuriously soft and visually stunning in the interior of a car, however, the material is not without its flaws.
Leather is an expensive add-on to a vehicle and can look really bad if not maintained properly. For this reason, you must be dedicated to cleaning and conditioning your leather seats on a semi-frequent basis. Another tradeoff for putting this material in the interior of your vehicle is that the leather is porous and can be very difficult to maintain especially if not sealed. In recent years, these leathers are stained and sealed making them much more accessible to clean and care for.
However, while it is arguably easier to care for leather car seats, there are still right and very wrong and damaging methods you can use. In addition, some methods are more appropriate for certain soil levels than others.
In this guide, we’ll give you several methods for cleaning and conditioning the leather seats in your car and provide the information that allows you to decide which of these techniques is most appropriate for you, your car, and your situation.
Leather Cleaning Do’s
- Do vacuum the leather thoroughly before beginning to clean the leather.
- Do spot test your cleaning products and methods on a small less visible area ensuring it is safe to continue throughout the interior of your vehicle.
- Do work in small sections to ensure you are only picking up dirt and not dye that the leather seat may be colored with.
- Do dry the leather after each cleaning section making sure to keep the leather from getting over-saturated with water.
- Do use soft cleaning applicators like sponges, soft-bristled brushes, and microfiber drying cloths to ensure you are not causing micro-scratches to the car’s leather.
- Do use a natural and non-toxic leather cleaner if you are in the market to buy a cleaner. Remember the leather is porous and will absorb whatever cleaner you use. The cleanser should be safe not only for the leather but for the people sitting on the leather as well.
- Do make a habit of frequently cleansing the leather of your vehicle about once a month to prevent build-up. Use a natural home cleaner from our DIY section.
- Do clean monthly and condition 2x per year.
- Do start slow and build up to aggressive cleaning measures as needed. Always spot test first before jumping in with both feet.
Car Leather Cleaning Don’ts
- Don’t use cleaners or sealants that contain wax or petroleum as the build-up over time will dull the look of your leather and can be very difficult if not impossible in some areas to remove.
- Don’t spray anything directly onto your leather seats as it will be absorbed by the porous material. Instead spray whatever cleaner you are using directly onto a sponge, soft-bristled brush or microfiber cloth.
- Don’t use bleach or ammonia-based cleaners as they can be highly damaging to leather.
- Don’t allow your seat to become so wet that it is saturated with cleaning products. Your leather should never be allowed to dry on its own, and should instead have the cleanser massaged into it until thoroughly absorbed.
- Don’t play guessing games about the type of leather seats you have! If you are unsure, check your user manual for that information or call the car manufacturer.
- Don’t use a low-quality cleaning product because it is cheaper. Price and quality don’t always correlate but do your research when purchasing a cleaner. Make sure your product is natural and safe.
- Don’t soak the cleaning tool in the cleaning product. Too much product on a microfiber cloth can be damaging to the leather and even soak in to breed mold and mildew down the line. When in doubt useless!
- Don’t use any sort of rough cleaning tool and avoid hard-bristled brushes. If possible use a soft-bristled toothbrush or a specially formatted auto detailing brush made for leather seats.
How Do I Clean Perforated Leather Seats
An important thing to note before detailing the leather seats of your vehicle is if the seats are perforated. Perforation just means having small holes. You’ve likely seen a vehicle with perforated leather seats. It can simply be used as a design feature, but typically it is heated leather seats that have perforation. These holes allow airflow during the heating process.
So how do you clean seats that have holes in them? While it’s true you don’t want to let lots of liquid get on or sit on leather seats in general, you especially do not want this to happen with perforated seats. The solution is simple: use less solution! Throughout this guide, we’ll talk about how you should never directly apply a cleaning product to your seats and instead apply it to a cleaning cloth or sponge of choice.
With perforated seats, it is encouraged that you be very sparing with how much product you apply to your cleaning tool. Be sure to keep the cloth at most slightly damp.
Steps To Cleaning Leather Car Seats
- BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING ELSE vacuum your car seats! You can use a hand vac, shop vac, or your house vacuum, just make sure you get all of the crumbs and loose dirt.
- Formulate your cleaner. You can use a store-bought leather cleaner or make your own using one of our DIY recipes listed below.
- Apply the cleanser to your soft-bristled brush, sponge or microfiber cloth.
- Test a small area. You never want to just apply a leather cleaner to your seat without testing it first in a small area in an unnoticeable spot to see how it will react with your leather.
- Begin cleaning using small circular motions, stopping to ensure you are only picking up dirt and not any leather stain that your upholstery may have been dyed with. (it is helpful to use a white cleaning tool so you can see what you are picking up!)
- As you clean, stop every minute or so to wipe down the parts you have finished cleaning with a microfiber cloth. This is to prevent the cleanser from soaking into the seats. You do not want the leather to be stained by excess liquid or mold or mildew to form in the cushion if the cleanser makes it that far.
- Repeat on all car seats!
Leather Cleaning Methods
Here is a compilation of some of the best tricks of the auto detailing trade to help you quickly, easily, and safely cleanse the leather seats in your car.
The Magic Eraser Method
When it’s time to rid your leather seats of dirt and grime, look no further than the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. If you’ve used this product around your home, you’ll know that it really does work like magic even on leather couches and seats! This method is one of the safest and most effective cleaning processes for cleaning leather seats. The Magic Eraser will easily remove dirt and grime from your car seats.
You can expect this process to take you about 20 minutes per seat. This is a method for the dirtiest car seats.
What You’ll Need:
- 2-3 Mr. Clean Magic Erasers
- A bucket of water preferably a bucket with a dirt trap
- A spray bottle filled with 5 parts water and one part spray 9 (spray 9 protects, cleans deodorizes, sanitize all in one shot)
- QP On 3.0 or other high end ceramic coating
Step 1: Allow your magic erasers to soak in the bucket of water for around 10 minutes until they are nice and soft in texture.
Step 2: Before you begin you’ll want to test a small area of the leather seat. Whenever you clean anything in your car or home you should always test the product you are using on a small less noticeable area before jumping in and doing the entire surface.
Step 3: Using small circular motions pick a spot on your leather seat and begin cleaning. Every minute or so, stop to re-wet the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser using the spray bottle moved with water before moving onto a new spot. The dirt and grime should come up easily.
Step 4: Every few minutes check to see what is coming out of the seats of the vehicle, it will usually be dirt. If you are continuing to get dirt out of the seat you will want to repeat the cleaning process in that area until the magic eraser is no longer picking up dirt.
Step 5: Wipe the surface dry every few minutes using a microfiber cloth. Try not to allow the leather to get overly saturated with water.
Step 6: Repeat this process until the entirety of the seat has been completed. Then you will put the magic eraser you’ve been using back into the bucket of water to soak, grab your alternate magic eraser and repeat the process on the remaining seats in your vehicle.
Here is a great video of the Magic Eraser Method done by a professional auto detailer!
Products Used In This Method
- Bucket with dirt catcher: This is the ideal bucket for washing and detailing your car because it has an incredible feature. A dirt catcher, which is simply a grate at the bottom of the bucket, allows dirt and other particles to sink to the bottom where your sponge won’t pick them up. This prevents you from spreading the dirt that you have already removed from your car.
- An industrial spray bottle: It doesn’t need to be fancy. A simple industrial spray bottle that you have around the house is perfect for the Magic Eraser Method. Any spray bottle that allows you to increase and decrease the flow of liquid per spray will work. Look for one that has an adjustable nozzle on its head.
- Spray Nine Cleanser: In this method, we use one part cleanser to five parts water which we apply to our sponge (not directly to the seat). This cleanser is an all in one cleaner, deodorizer, protector, and sanitizer.
- Mr. Clean Magic Erasers: the product is the key to the success of this method. Heck, we put it in the name! These little guys pack a powerful cleaning punch in a small package. They are great in the kitchen, bathroom, and really anywhere tough to remove messes are made. You can buy them at large retailers and grocery stores in the cleaning section or you can buy them online here.
- Microfiber Cloths: These little towels are a must-have for any sort of auto detailing, around the house, or even if you just have a dog that slobbers a lot (speaking from experience here). Microfiber cloths are notoriously absorbent and can hold up to 7x their weight in liquid. They are also soft and safe to use on surfaces that may scratch easily. You can typically buy microfiber cloths at big retailers like Target and Walmart either in the cleaning or automotive section. Alternatively, you can find excellent prices for microfiber cloths online.
- QP ON 3.0: This is the sealant used in this method though you can use other products such as oppyseal, sealant, QPD, or a quick spray wax. The point is that you need to seal the leather seats using some form of a product. This particular product is a higher-end one sought after by car detailers. It is on the more expensive end so feel free to replace it using one of our alternatives if this doesn’t fit into your price range.
Leather Seat Cleaners To Use
No need to buy a leather cleaner from the store, no need to even leave your house. With these recipes you are sure to pick one where you can find the ingredients in your cupboard. Let’s take a look at these effective leather cleaners that you can make at home with the supplies you already have on deck.
Vinegar and Water
Vinegar is one of my favorite household cleansers to use. It is natural and puts the hurt in the dirt! Here is what you’ll need:
- A spray bottle
- White distilled vinegar
- A SOFT sponge or brush for cleaning
- A microfiber cloth for drying or other soft absorbent cloth
First off, if you are wondering if you really need a spray bottle for this the answer is 100% yes. As we’ve discussed you do not want to over saturate the leather with liquid and a spray bottle is a great way to control how wet your cleaning tool gets. Now that we have our spray bottle ready to go we’ll mix two parts vinegar and one part water. Put the solution in a spray bottle and apply directly to a sponge or microfiber cloth and gently wipe down the leather. Wipe off any excess cleaner using a microfiber cloth and allow it to dry.
Cleaners To Buy
If you are uninterested in making your own cleaner at home there are endless options you can purchase both in store and online to help you in your goal of renewing your leather seats. Here are some of the best things on the market to use:
This is an all purpose cleanser that you may already have lying around your house. I know many of you reading this will likely be HIGHLY sceptical of this cleaning product which isn’t even marketed to clean leather. This is understandable, but trust me when I tell you to give this a shot and let that skepticism melt away. This is a natural and non toxic formula which works great on grease and oil stains.
I like to dilute this cleanser with two parts water to one parts cleaner, but if you’re still feeling uneasy about using this on your seats, feel free to dilute and test away until you feel comfortable.
DIY Stain Removers
These made at home cleansers are meant to remove stains only! Please do not apply them to the entirety of your seat. If you are looking to remove pen ink, oil stains or really any stain, look no further than these DIY leather stain removers!
You want to use a non gel toothpaste ONLY for this method. Do not use any form of thick cleanser if you have seats with holes where this could get trapped you will be hard pressed to remove any toothpaste that finds itself in small crevices. Be careful with this one. What you’ll need:
- A soft bristled toothbrush
- A microfiber cloth
First you will want to test your cleanser in a small area to ensure it achieves your desired results before applying to a large and noticeable area. Once tested, apply to the areas of your seat that need cleaning.
Note: this method works best for small areas and stains and is not a good option for any form of textured seats. Not ideal for cleaning an entire seat or sets of seats.
Lemon Juice And Cream Of Tartar
This is a method that is appropriate only with very light colored seats and isn’t something I would use on a spot bigger than a few inches. Also not good for any sort of texture or leather seats with small holes across them. What you’ll need:
- Lemon Juice
- Cream Of Tartar
- A soft bristled toothbrush
- A microfiber cloth
Mix equal parts lemon juice and cream of tartar until a thick paste forms. First test the paste on a small area and allow it to sit for 30 minutes to ensure this will not stain your leather. Once you’ve determined this solution is safe to use on your car’s leather, dip the toothbrush into the paste and apply liberally to the surface of your leather seat that needs cleaning and stain removal. Allow the mixture to sit for 45 minutes then remove using the microfiber cloth.
Note: ONLY USE THIS ON WHITE OR VERY LIGHT LEATHER. This method can produce a bleaching effect making it very effective for getting stains out of light colored leather.
My favorite household cleaner award goes to baking soda (vinegar is a close second and used together they are the best team, but not with your leather seats). Baking soda is great for leather car seats when removing grease and oil stains. What you’ll need:
- Baking soda
- A dry cloth
- A damp cloth
Sprinkle the soiled area with the baking soda and allow it to sit for several hours and overnight if you have the time. The powder will work to slowly absorb the oils from your car seat. After the powder has set, wipe it off with the dry cloth. Follow this with the damp cloth (not soaking wet just slightly damp) to remove any extra residue. Allow to dry
Note: this is a great oil and grease remover. It should only be used for this purpose.
Gentle Upholstery Brushes And Scrub Pads
As we’ve discussed throughout this article you must be very careful with choosing what you plan to clean your leather seats with. A rough scrub brush or scouring pad may be doing more damage to your leather than you realize. Opt for one of these options when you clean the leather upholstery in your vehicle.
Chemical Guys ACCS96 Premium Select Horse Hair Upholstery and Leather Brush
Wow, that’s a mouthful. Well, luckily this interior detailing brush is as tough on dirt as it is to say. Made of genuine long cut horsehair, this brush is not only durable to scrubbing but also to any chemicals it is exposed to. This is a great long term detailing brush for your leather seats.
It may be tough on dirt, but it’s extremely gentle on your seats. We’ve warned of micro-scratches caused by rough scrub brushes, these are things you don’t have to worry about with Chemical Guys Upholstery brush. The brush becomes even softer when exposed to water making it 100% safe for your seats.
Upholstery Cleaner Scrub Brush Set Cleaning Brush and Horsehair Detailing Brush for Car Interior
A brush set that is similar to the one listed above is made by a company called Better Boat. It contains one brush that is made of horsehair to clean leather and vinyl. The other brush is made of nylon and is intended for scrubbing mats out.
This set is priced at a more reasonable price and is an excellent value for the two brushes. The leather horse hair brush is completely safe to use when detailing your leather seats.
These scrub pads are an excellent option when you need to clean the leather seats in your vehicle. The pads are non scratch and won’t cause the microscratching we’ve discussed can be a symptom of using the wrong scouring pad or brush.
These scrub pads are extra long, helping you cover more space with each scrub. Best of all they are pretty low on the price point. Check them out here:
Leather Seat Conditioner
After you’ve vacuumed, removed stains from and cleaned your leather car seats, its generally a great idea to condition the seats as well. When you clean the car seat, you are stripping the leather of it’s natural oils. You want to replace them after you’ve finished cleaning.
When you replace the oils in the leather seats it’s crucial to pick the right product. You never want to make the mistake of associating price with quality, however you do tend to get what you pay for. The cheapest product on the market is generally not going to be the one made with the greatest ingredients.
You never want to use a leather conditioner that contains any form of wax. Another big ingredient to avoid is petroleum which is in a lot of cheaply made leather cleaners. Finally make sure your conditioner leaves out any silicones. These three ingredients do a world of damage to the look of your leather seats. Instead of glossy, you’ll get greasy, and eventually that grease turns into an awful dulling and dirty looking residue.
You’ll want to instead opt for a leather conditioner that is pH balanced and water-based. You should also look for a conditioner that has a sunscreen in it. Leather needs protection from the damaging rays of the sun in the same ways that our skin does. If left to the elements the leather can fade and crack over time. To keep your car looking new you have to protect any leather parts from the sun’s damage.
Just with any new product you intend to apply to your vehicle, start with a small, less noticeable area first to test the product. Once you’ve determined that the conditioner is safe to use on your leather seats apply away, starting with a less is more attitude. If you have perforated seats you’ll want to use even less.
Let It Air Out
You’ll want to let your car seats air out after you’ve washed and conditioned them. Overnight will work well but for best results give them 24 hours. The best place for this is in your garage with the windows rolled down. If you don’t have a garage, find a shady spot. It’s important to keep the leather out of direct sunlight
Finally, Buff It Out
After you have allowed the leather to dry out, be sure to buff out all of the dried product giving the seat a lovely velvety finish