Cleaning Leather Seats Is Actually Really Simple

It’s not complicated, I swear.

byKevin Williams|
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Leather seats are probably the hallmark option that can make even the cheapest car feel expensive. I, for one, love leather seats to the point that they were the main reason I intentionally sought out and purchased a loaded Chevrolet Sonic LTZ back in 2016.

The leather seats made it a prime ridesharing car, and not just because they look nice. They didn’t hold smells and they were super easy to clean, which is a huge factor when you're shuttling random people around. How easy to clean? I’ll show you.

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The Basics

Estimated Time Needed: About an hour

Skill Level: Beginner

Vehicle Component: Seats

Leather Cleaning Safety

Wiping down leather seats is a pretty low risk activity. However, some cleansers and protectants can contain chemicals that aren’t good for you if it remains on skin for too long or is ingested. It might not be a bad idea to wear some gloves.

Everything You’ll Need To Clean Leather Seats

There’s no need for a big detail shop with expensive equipment for this job. Cleaning leather seats can be done in most driveways, apartment complex parking lots, or even any city parking. You’ll need the following:

Tool List

Product List

Here’s How To Clean Leather Seats

Let’s get to it.

Step One: Remove Loose Dirt

Vacuum up and brush away all crumbs and hard solids. There should be little to no crumbs or other debris on the seat material. The goal is to get a nice, clear surface to apply cleanser and protectant. Sometimes crumbs might jam themselves in seat crevices and folds, so you could try using compressed air to blow all that junk away. 

Step Two: Test the Leather Cleaner

Tony Markovich

Follow the instructions for your leather cleaner of choice. Many applications are sprayed on, then wiped away. Be careful, though, because not all leather is created equal. Some alternative leather seats, like MB-Tex from Mercedes-Benz or vegan leather, are essentially plastic or polyvinyl chloride. Those materials don’t always play nice with cleansers that are meant for traditional cow hides and vice versa. Be sure to check the ingredient list, as sprays with bleach or ammonia could remove the dye or pigment that gives the leather seats their color. 

If you’re unsure, test the cleaner out in an inconspicuous place before spraying it all willy-nilly on every leather surface. When in doubt, check the owner's manual. Some vehicle brands have specific recommendations on how to maintain and clean leather upholstery. 

Step Three: Apply the Cleaner

Tony Markovich

After the leather cleaner has been selected, apply with a microfiber towel or soft brush, and then wipe away with a clean microfiber towel. Be sure not to leave the seats wet for too long or spray too much product onto perforated seats, as that could soak and/or damage the leather and encourage mold and mildew growth. We prefer to put the product onto the towel or brush rather than directly on the leather for better control. Moldy seats aren’t cute, y’all.

It's also a good idea to focus on one area at a time rather than trying to hit everything at once. Start with a section, clean that area, then repeat in small increments until everything is clean.

If there are deep stains, this process might need to be repeated a few times until the stains are lifted and removed. If the stain refuses to come out, it might be time for a trip to the automotive upholsterer who may patch, repair, or re-dye a portion of the fabric. 

Step Four (Optional): Protect the Leather

Tony Markovich

I know that I’ll probably take some flack for this, but I’m partial to the grease look that some protectants offer. I like shiny leather. It harks back to the days of being an eight-year-old kid sliding across the back seat of my mom’s best friend’s Cadillac Fleetwood. 

After cleaning the leather, it’s a pretty good practice to spray it down with some sort of protectant to make it look nice and shield it from future spills and stains. Yet again, like the cleanser, be mindful of which protectants work best for which materials. If unsure, test on a small area before applying to the entire surface.

Honestly, that’s about it. Cleaning leather seats is a pretty simple process. With just a few steps, you too can have some clean leather seats. 

FAQs About Leather Cleaning

We want to try to answer any questions you have before you start the job. We’ve selected common points of confusion from our experience, as well as commonly asked questions from popular search results. We answered those questions below.

Q: Can I use household cleaners to clean my leather seats?

A: I’d recommend against it. Unless you’re absolutely sure the solvents are safe for leather, household cleaners could be astringent for the soft car leather. Many household cleaners contain bleach or ammonia, both of which are not good for car leather.

Q: Will leather cleaner restore leather seats?

A. Leather cleaner can clean leather seats, meaning it will remove dirt, debris, and grime. Clean leather upholstery lasts longer than dirty leather upholstery, but it unfortunately can’t reverse wear or cracking. If a leather seat is too worn, it’ll need to be repaired. Conditioning the leather after cleaning it could also help, but not always.

Q: How do I know if my leather seats are real leather?

A: That’s tricky. In the past, real leather was fairly soft, slightly grainy, and flexible in ways that synthetic leather wasn’t. These days, modern synthetic leathers are often nearly impossible to distinguish from animal-sourced leather. Consult your owners manual or vehicle build sheet (Monroney sticker). Typically, synthetic leathers are called leatherette, vegan leather, or a specialized name like MB-Tex. 

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Cleaning & Detailing