Cleaning Leather Car Seats
Fact vs. Fiction

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Cleaning leather car seats is one of the most commonly asked questions as a professional auto detailer. Due to misleading advertising and an over-abundance of bad information, most people are frozen with anxiety when it comes to what proper care and cleaning of car leather really includes.

Professional experience has also shown that most people want to skip the basics of proper car leather cleaning, and jump straight into leather conditioning and protecting. Many people also maintain the false opinion that they can magically transform bad leather into good leather, if they simply apply enough of the "right" car leather conditioner.

Pictured: This shot above is taken during the car leather cleaning process of this Lexus RX. You can see the before and after difference possible when using the right leather cleaner along with the right techniques.

"Darren, those are dramatic results, how come I find myself constantly frustrated by any leather cleaner I have ever used?"

  • Because you are using the wrong leather cleaners.
  • Your techniques are ineffective.
  • You are operating under outdated and bad information.

Understanding the Nature of the Beast

cleaning leather car seats ferrari

Life rewards those that can produce results. Good intentions and wishful thinking will get you very little towards the results you seek. Unfortunately much of the information that dominate the world of car leather cleaners and conditioners is outdated at best, and completely wrong at worst!

For this reason it is important to not only start with the basic understanding of what I refer to as the nature of the beast, and the beast in this case is your dirty car leather, but to build upon that beginning foundation of information to become an educated and informed consumer and car owner.

It is important to understand that the car leather of today is not the car leathers of yesterday. I suggest you start at my car leather care page and build a solid foundation of insight into the world of modern day car leathers. This link will open up a new window so that you may return here and work your way towards the next critical step of cleaning leather car seats based on real world experience.

Why Most of You are Frustrated with the Results of Your Car Leather

I can bet why most of you are here and it involves either one or both of the following:

  • You have car leather and it is dirty.
  • You have tried other leather cleaners and are disappointed with the results.

cleaning leather car seats porsche

Occasionally I get someone here who has just purchased a new car; this could be brand new, or just a used car that is new to them, and it has leather seating or leather car upholstery.

Regardless of your exact situation, we need to lay out the specifics of frustration that you have either experienced first hand, or will if you follow the advice of mainstream opinion.

Dedicated Car Leather Cleaners Are, and Will Be Ineffective

While I would like to lay the entire blame of this problem on the industry itself, you as a consumer have a big part of the responsibility; it may not be under this topic of cleaning leather car seats, but you are likely guilty somewhere in your past:

"As people we fail to read simple instructions and product labeling. We think we know what we are doing and immediately start doing it. Unfortunately what we start doing is based on misguided opinion and strategy."

Because of this simple reality, along with a society that is driven by a bunch of ambulance chasing attorney's, the industry has to formulate car leather cleaners that have been dumbed-down to the point of being completely ineffective on anything but the cleanest of dirt.

Yes, that sounds like an oxymoron, but unless you car has anything more than the slightest of dirt, virtually any "off-the-shelf" car leather cleaners will FAIL!

You Are Using Ineffective Cleaning Techniques and Tools

Once again, due to the ignorance that dominates the area of proper care and cleaning of car leather upholstery, you are likely also using cleaning methods that are overly mild and prove ineffective at cleaning leather that has actually gotten truly dirty; like the picture from the Lexus at the very beginning of this page.

That leather was filthy, yet underneath all that dirt and filth remains leather in prime condition. Unfortunately, most people would lack the skills or experience on how to remove that heavy layer of dirt to reveal the soft, excellent leather that lies below all that dirt.

"As people, we have been lead to believe that car leather is some exotic material that is ever so delicate and fragile, and unless special cleaners and cleaning methods are used, your leather will be ruined."

Not so. And for this reason I strongly suggest once again you learn about the nature of the beast we are dealing with at my car leather care page first.

The leather car upholstery of today's modern cars are made much different than the leather upholstery found in cars of old. The good news is that not only is the leather much more durable and resistant to daily wear and tear, but much more aggressive cleaners and cleaning methods can be used if you find your leather has become excessively dirty.

New Car Leather Cleaning:
Mild car leather cleaning

As the title suggests, the following recommendations are for mild levels of dirty car leather or for use on brand new cars in which you have decided you are going to keep your car leather clean from the beginning.

Lexol Leather Kit

  • Well known industry leader in car leather care.
  • Suitable choice if you are cleaning and conditioning new car leather that has not been allowed to become excessively dirty.
  • Kit comes complete for all your leather and vinyl care.

Meguiar's Leather Cleaner/Conditioner

  • Another well known industry leader in car care.
  • Suitable for any new car leather if you stay on-top of your leather cleaning and conditioning.
  • All-in-one cleaner and conditioner.
  • Either product is from a trusted manufacturer.
  • Either kit will perform great results when cleaning leather car seats that are either brand new or not excessively dirty.
  • Follow product directions.
  • Even though I am not a huge fan of leather conditioners as a rule, as I think the most critical part is simply keeping your car leather upholstery clean, these kits both have conditioners in them and you will most likely appreciate the added luster and feel when applied. Just remember to always clean first before any new applications of conditioners.
  • Obviously the Meguiar's product is an all-in-one cleaner and conditioner which many people find appealing.

Car Leather Cleaning Brushes

Now that you have discovered some products for cleaning leather car seats, now you must find appropriate and effective car leather scrub brushes.

Natural Tampico Leather and Upholstery Brush

  • Without the use of some form of scrub brush, you will never clean leather car seat with acceptable results unless of course your car leather isn't really dirty to begin with.
  • Most people think car leather is a very delicate and fragile. Trust me, your car leather can be scrubbed very aggressively with either of these brushes. If in doubt, simply go easy and work your way into it.

Leather and Upholstery Scrub Brush

  • Winning combination of gentle and aggressive.
  • Safe for use on any interior material from leather, carpeting, velour, suede, etc.

The use of either of the scrub brushes above will make your cleaning leather car seats even more effective with the ability to really scrub the tiny pores and texture of many of the car leathers out there. Use it in conjunction with the car leather cleaners from above if you choose that route.

Darren's Professional Tip: I only recommend the car leather cleaners from above on mild levels of dirty leather or brand new car leather. If you have any substantial dirt on your car's leather, the Lexol will just not be aggressive enough to do the job. The added scrub brush will provide better cleaning results if used in conjunction with the Lexol/Meguiar's cleaner(s), but you are still limited in the amount of dirt this product is able to remove.

Cleaning Leather Car Seats that are Actually Dirty!

O.K., we have finally gotten to the point in which most of you will find yourselves; the dirty leather in your car has finally gotten to the point where you want to take action!

dirty car leather cleaning

Pictured Above: This shot is taken from a 10 year old Corvette in which the leather upholstery had never been if I had to point that out! As you can see, the leather is extremely dirty. With the right product and right techniques, the results can be very dramatic as can be seen!

The "Right" Leather Cleaning Product...

Or at least one of a number of cleaners not labeled and sold as a dedicated leather cleaner, but a product that will actually get you want you want...clean leather car upholstery.

  • The only product most of you will ever need to do 98% of all your car interior cleaning.
  • A far more effective product to clean leather car seats than any off-the-shelf leather cleaner!
  • Concentrate formulation so you can custom blend to suit your cleaning requirements.
  • Suitable cleaner for virtually any material you will find within your car: upholstery, carpeting, vinyl seating, leather seating, etc., etc.
  • Always read product directions for use and mix ratios.

Darren's Professional Tip: This APC (All-Purpose Cleaner) from Meguiar's is one of my favorite's as it eliminates many other "dedicated use" products. Virtually every surface on the inside of your car can be cleaned with this concentrate. And with that said, concentrate means you dilute it down to the desired strength needed in the moment. This will be a judgement call you will have to make when mixing based on material being cleaned, how dirty, etc., etc. I use distilled water whenever diluting concentrates for a little more effectiveness. Just like soft water in your house, which means you can use less shampoos, detergents, etc. due to the "cleaner", or soft water.

  • Mix to desired strength as per product labeling instructions as a starting point.
  • Use in any trigger sprayer.
  • Get one of these scrub brushes to use in conjunction with the cleaner to scrub all the dirt from any of the leather grain or texture.
  • Better to use lighter, repeat applications to break down dirt until desired results are achieved rather than trying to get everything in a single, overly saturated application.
  • Remember, depending on the material and the level of dirt and how long the material has been allowed to remain in its filth, no cleaner exists that will clean everything, every time.

Heavy Duty Car Leather Cleaning

If you have excessively dirty car leather and you really want to cut to the chase then I can also recommend an additional product from Meguiar's that has many all the same benefits of the All-Purpose cleaner from Meguiar's above, but on steroids.

  • One of my favorite products that can be used virtually anywhere in the car based on strength of dilution.
  • Most of you will probably consider a gallon size over-kill, but due to its versatility, you will not run out of areas to use as a super-duty cleaner.
  • Safe for virtually all materials in your cars upholstery; including car leather cleaning.
  • For heavy duty cleaning, I mix at a 4:1 ratio. This would be for engines, tires, wheel wells, etc.
  • To clean leather car seat, I start with a 10;1 ratio and use repeat applications as much as needed for desired results.
  • If you want to follow up with a leather conditioner, it is entirely up to you.
  • Yes, it is labeled as an engine degreaser, but is completely safe for virtually all materials in your car's long as you dilute it down.
  • For interiors, I start with a dilution ratio of 10:1. This means 1 part concentrate to 10 parts water.
  • Always, always test in hidden area.
  • Go slow at first and check results as you go. If you have old leather or excessively dirty leather, often you can clean your seating to reveal permanent damage that might lay hidden form view due to all the excessive dirt.
  • Is truly one of only (2) products I use to clean all interiors regardless of cost of car, or levels of dirt; the APC and the Super Degreaser form Meguiar's. (Yep, now my secret is truly out)

Darren's Take-Away

  • Modern day car leather is much more durable than most people realize.
  • Virtually all car leather from entry level to high-end luxury has been coated with a clear protective layer; this layer is what you are actually cleaning.
  • Virtually any "off-the-shelf" dedicated car leather cleaner will prove very ineffective on anything other than the cleanest of dirt. (There's that oxymoron again!)
  • Using more aggressive cleaners, tools, and techniques will deliver the welcomed results that have most likely eluded you up until this point.
  • Yes, a gallon might seem over-kill for most "driveway detailers", but because these products are so versatile, you will welcome the "too much of a good thing" in this case.
  • Prevention is always better than the cure. If you are the hyper-vigilant type, then the Lexol or Meguiar's leather cleaners from the start of this page will be your ticket. But for the rest of us, there are exceptional products like this APC and Super Degreaser from Meguiar's.
  • Cleaning leather car seats is not brain surgery; start easy and figure out what your particular situation requires for the results you are after!

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