How To Clean Car Seats

Let’s get that moldy cheeseburger cheese out from the seat cushion, okay?

2020 Toyota Supra interior.
Jonathon Klein

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So you’ve hopped into your car only to find that something, somewhere, stinks to high heaven. After a little investigative nose work, you’ve discovered part of last week’s Taco Bell Nachos BellGrande fell between the seat and console when you hit a bump. Well, it seems like a great time to clean your car seats!

Cleaning your car’s interior, as well as regularly maintaining its luster, will not just make your everyday life that much better, it will also contribute to your car’s overall value when you decide to sell it—no used car buyer wants to find someone else’s toenails. And with a little elbow grease, a vacuum cleaner, and a bucket of soapy water, your car’s seats can go from trash-pit to palatial palace in just a few hours. 

If you’re unsure of how to get started, look no further than The Drive’s guide to how to clean your car seats below! 

Got your vacuum and trash can?

2020 Hyundai Veloster N interior.
Jonathon Klein

2020 Hyundai Veloster N interior.

Car Seat Cleaning Basics

Estimated Time Needed: Two to four hours

Skill Level: Beginner

Vehicle System: Interior

Car Seat Cleaning Safety

Working on your car can be messy. It can also be dangerous. Here’s what you’ll need to ensure you keep your jeans, shirt, and skin spotless, and your bones intact.

Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You still don’t need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)

You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking that’s also well-ventilated. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t gonna pay off your impound fees.

2019 McLaren 720S interior.
Jonathon Klein

2019 McLaren 720S interior.

Everything You’ll Need To Clean Your Car Seats

We’re not psychic, nor are we snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s what you’ll need to get the job done. 

Tool List

  • Paper towels
  • 2 microfiber towels
  • A bucket for soap and water to clean easier accessed surfaces
  • A vacuum
  • A floor mat, carpet scrub brush

Parts List

Rear leather seats of an SUV.
Depositphotos

Rear seats of an SUV.

Here’s How To Clean Your Car Seats

Let’s do this! 

Cleaning the Car Seats

  1. Vacuum out the car, including in between the seat base and seat back and any of the crevices on the seat.
  2. With a wet scrub brush or towel, use soap and water to gently scrub the seats.
  3. Use leather/cloth cleaners to clean the seats, wiping away the excess as you go with the paper towels.
  4. Using the microfiber towel, dry the seats. 
  5. If you have leather seats, you can apply leather conditioner to keep them looking pristine. Click here to read The Drive’s guide on How To Restore Leather Seats.
  6. Let air dry for an hour with the windows down and doors open. 
A child's car seat.
Jonathon Klein

A child's car seat.

Cleaning Your Child’s Car Seat

We know a number of you likely also have children who are confined to child car seats. And as such, food, debris, and, well, other things will become ingrained in your child’s car seat. With that in mind, The Drive also came up with a How-To guide for cleaning those car seats.

  1. Remove the child's car seat from the car.
  2. Vacuum out the car seat, removing any leftover food or debris as best as possible.
  3. Wet a small towel with soap and water.
  4. Scrub the child car seat until clean, removing the padding as needed to get to the cracks and crevices of the car seat.
  5. Set the cleaned car seat aside to dry.
  6. Using the microfiber towel, dry the car seat.

Reupholstering Your Car Seats

If your seats are too far gone to be saved by a mere cleaning, consult The Drive’s How To Reupholster Car Seats or you can check out this brief explainer.

  1. Purchase replacement seat upholstery (either through a dealer, manufacturer, or aftermarket)
  2. Using the appropriate socket wrench, detach the car seat base from the floor.
  3. If there are any electrical components connected (e.g., power-seat controls), detach the connectors.
  4. Remove the seat and set it on a work table or bench.
  5. Remove the headrest by pushing in the small detent at its base.
  6. Unzip the upholstery from the seat backing (gives access to the seat base)
  7. Unscrew the seat base from the seat frame, but do not remove it.
  8. Carefully detach the side clips holding the seat base to the cushion.
  9. Lifting upward, remove the upholstery while carefully detaching the inner clips using the small pry bar. 
  10. Repeat steps 7 and 8 for the seat backing. 
  11. Place the new seat base upholstery on the base cushion and stretch to connect the first clip at the rear.
  12. Working back to front, connect the clips to the cushion, ensuring it remains taut throughout.
  13. Reattach seat base to seat frame.
  14. Repeat steps 10 and 11 for the seat backing.
  15. Once seat backing upholstery is secure and taught, zip up the backing. 
  16. Reinstall the headrest.
  17. And finally, reinstall the seat.
  18. You did it, congrats!

Getting Out Smoke Smell From Your Car Seats

If you’re wondering how to get smoke smell out of your car’s seats and interior, you can consult The Drive’s How to Get Smoke Smell out a Car or you can check out this brief explainer.

  1. Remove the floor mats.
  2. Wet scrub brush with soap and water.
  3. Scrub removed floor mats until clean.
  4. Set cleaned floor mats aside to dry.
  5. Vaccum out your car, removing any leftover ash, cigarette butts, and paraphernalia.
  6. Use leather/cloth cleaners to clean the seats, headliner, and remaining carpet, wiping away the excess as you go with the paper towels.
  7. Using the microfiber towel, dry the seats, headliner, and remaining carpet. 
  8. Locate HVAC intake, likely positioned somewhere near the base of the windshield.
  9. Turn ignition on.
  10. Turn HVAC system off recirculate.
  11. Turn HVAC system’s fans to high and lowest temperature setting.
  12. Roll down windows if you haven’t already.
  13. Spray deodorizer through the HVAC intake at the base of the windshield.
  14. Turn ignition off.
  15. Let sit with windows down for deodorizer to settle.
Two bucket seats.
Depositphotos

Two bucket seats.

Cleaning Your Car Seats Pro Tips

Over the years, The Drive’s editors have cleaned countless interiors. Everything from our low-buck first rides to million-dollar hypercars, we’ve seen it all, including a number of moldy leftovers our kids forgot to tell us about. Here are our pro tips for cleaning your car seats.

  • As fabric ages it can become brittle, making it difficult to clean safely. You may want to use a steamer to ensure your seats remain pliable. 
  • A cup or two of white vinegar in a container placed near the center of the car and left for a number of hours or overnight can reduce a car’s smelly interior.

How Often Do You Need To Clean Your Car Seats?

The real question is how often do you eat in your car? Or how often do your kids eat in their car seats? Depending on how messy your life is, you may need to clean your car seats as often as once a week or once a month. 

How Much Does It Cost To Clean Your Car Seats?

It costs zero dollars if you clean your car seats and child seats yourself. If you have someone detail your car’s interior, then it could cost anywhere from $50 to a couple thousand dollars depending on who you enlist to do the job and the type of car you have. A classic Ferrari Daytona is going to cost more than your bog-standard Honda Odyssey. 

Life Hacks To Cleaning Your Car Seats

Since you may not have access to the right tools or friends you can bum a wrench off of, we also compiled a list of our best hacks to make your life easier and drain your pocket less.

  • If your seats are too far gone, you can visit your local pick-and-pull junkyard. You’ll often find well-maintained seats, and with a little sweat and a few tools, you can ensure your interior gets a few more years of use.
  • For child car seats, flip them over and shake vigorously. That’s it. 

Featured Car Seat Cleaning Products

Chemical Guys InnerClean

CarGuys Super Cleaner

Meguiars Whole Air Refresher

Got a question? Got a pro tip? Send us a note: guidesandgear@thedrive.com