How to Clean Car Upholstery:
The Simplified Approach
Carpeting, Fabric, Cloth, Velour, Vinyl
Like many areas of car care and auto detailing, how to clean car
upholstery is an area filled with so many different opinions and
strategies that many people like yourself feel overwhelmed at the very
So day after day goes by and the only attention your car's upholstery ever gets in the best of circumstances is a quick vacuum job. But vacuuming your car's upholstery is only going to go so far in removing dirt that will accumulate within your car's interior.
Eventually you will need to find some form of upholstery cleaner, get personal with the interior of your car, and do some scrubbing!
Start With the Basics and Move Forward
Looking into the interior of any car will quickly reveal the endless materials, fabrics, and surfaces that make up any car interior.Upon first glance, the idea of cleaning the upholstery within your car is an overwhelming proposition for most people.
Despite your immediate fears and anxiety, cleaning the inside of your car is far easier and simpler than your family, friends, and the neighborhood know-it-all has lead you to believe. The industry itself would have you believe you need about 10 different cleaners. One specialized cleaner after another.
The many materials found within your cars interior
First Things First...
Unless your car is excessively dirty, (like junk yard dirty. The kind of filth where you feel the need to soak in a bath of bleach after a short ride) most of you can start by throwing out all the many ideas and opinions that are spinning around in your head:
- No hot water carpet extractors needed here.
- No high-pressure water systems needed.
- No complicated methods or overly specialized cleaning solutions.
Next, with the attempt to simplify things by breaking them down to smaller, doable tasks, I will limit this page to the cleaning and shampooing of upholstery which will include the basic materials in most cars:
- Cloth/velour fabric
- Vinyl and rubber
- Plastic lined interiors; usually work trucks only.
Laying Down the Rules:
How to Clean Car Upholstery
Fabric, Carpeting, Velour, Cloth, Vinyl
Allow me to explain: With any topic of life there are basic rules to
understand and follow. I believe that it is best to first learn the
rules, then you can learn to break the rules; and to every rule there
are exceptions to the rules.
- Not all carpeting or upholstery is created equal; the tighter the weave, the more difficult it will be to clean. Some materials used on seating surfaces will never come completely clean if they are a very tight weave and have become excessively dirty.
- I tight weave means there is little, to no nap. (nap is a term that defines the amount of fibers that stick up above the material. Like carpeting that has individual fibers that stick up and can be sifted through with your fingers and can be brushed to create patterns.)
- Carpeting or upholstery with no nap, or a closed loop weave like Berber carpeting, is very difficult to clean. Some entry-level (cheaply priced and cheaply made) cars have what is more like felt as carpeting than traditional carpeting; this type of "carpeting" is very difficult to not only vacuum, but shampoo. Due to the lack of separate fibers that stick up individually (like traditional carpeting), debris and dirt will embed and get stuck within these fibers making it difficult to remove.
- The best way to describe this in a simplified manner is like trying to clean your dirty hand in the open position, with all your fingers representing individual fibers (nap), versus having your hand held in a fist with your fingers tightly closed and the dirt stuck in-between your fingers.
- No upholstery shampoo or cleaner has the ability to clean every form of dirt and numerous factors will determine your overall results; eg. how long has the dirt been allowed to remain there, what is the composition of dirt, what type of fabric/cloth are you cleaning, the cleaners you have chosen.
- I merely inform and show you what I use professionally to get professional grade results.
- I always, always use a fabric protector after every shampooing/cleaning I do when it comes to cloth or fabrics of every kind.
If you break down the various materials in this particular van from above (Chevy Astro Van), you can see how to clean car upholstery could get confusing, over-whelming, or complicated for many people.
- Seating made using both cloth and vinyl.
- Rubber floor mats.
- Carpet fibers.
- Plastic threshold plates/steps.
People look at all these materials and think that each material is going to require its own special form of upholstery cleaner (and the manufacturers are more than happy to sell you a separate product for each form of material), when in fact a quality all-purpose cleaner does exist and can clean virtually everything in your car's interior.
So the reality is that learning how to clean car upholstery is much more simple and straight-forward than you have probably thought.
How to Clean Car Upholstery Made Simple
How to clean car upholstery actually has some good news in that it can be a much more simple process than many people believe or have come to accept.
- All-purpose cleaners exist that can replace many of the dedicated cleaners filling the shelves of your personal garage, or the shelves of the retail store all screaming at you to purchase. For example: dedicated car leather cleaners, general upholstery shampoos, carpet shampoos, etc.
- Using the "right" all-purpose cleaner along with some strategic tools will not only provide better results, but make the various upholstery cleaning jobs that much easier.
What You Will Need:
The following products and tools will take you far in your "How to clean car upholstery" efforts. Use the secure links to arm yourself with all the necessary cleaners and tools:
General Car Upholstery Cleaner
Meguiar's D10101 Detailer All Purpose Cleaner Gallon
- A "must have" for any professional or non-professional detailer, car owner, car enthusiast.
- Concentrate so it can be custom blended to suit your needs. (this is a huge advantage! Dilute this concentrate with regular tap water to the exact strength you need. The traditional dilution ratios are on the label)
- Will replace the ten different dedicated cleaners filling the shelves of your garage. (will replace your dedicated car leather cleaner, multi-surface cleaner, upholstery shampoo, interior cleaner, etc., etc.)
- One of the actual cleaners I use professionally.
- I also use one other cleaner that is actually labeled as a Super Degreaser that I use on excessively dirty interiors. (See just below or see how I use it to perform Heavy duty leather cleaning. )
Heavy Duty Car Upholstery Cleaner
Meguiar's D10801 Super Degreaser - 1 Gallon
- Another "must have" for any professional or non-professional detailer or car owner.
- Concentrate formulation; can be custom blended.
- One of only (2) car upholstery cleaners I use professionally for all my car upholstery cleaning needs. (This and the APC from just above. If you are a driveway detailer, car owner, or enthusiast, you will also get professional level results from one of the smaller car upholstery cleaners below)
- Labeled as a Super Degreaser which would suggest for engines only; not the case. I use it on excessively dirty areas of any car whether this be in the interior or exterior. (just like most cleaners; it is an alkaline based cleaner. It is just "stronger" than most traditional all purpose cleaners. And since life can get pretty messy at times, you will often need a stronger level of cleaning power.)
- Ironically, all my auto upholstery cleaners are not labeled as dedicated upholstery shampoos. (the industry wants you to buy 10 different dedicated cleaners when in reality, you can reduce it down to a couple effective cleaners for all your upholstery cleaning needs.)
Car Upholstery Cleaning:
Driveway Detailers, Car Owners, Enthusiasts
I am going to lay out some car upholstery cleaner alternatives that I have both tested and recommend. There are a couple reasons one of the upholstery cleaners below might be a better fit for you and your world:
- You really can't see yourself buying an entire gallon of a concentrate.
- Shipping costs for any liquids gets pricey quickly. These ready to use, or smaller versions will save you shipping costs.
3D Upholstery and Carpet Shampoo
Upholstery & Carpet Shampoo 16 oz
- Another excellent car upholstery cleaner.
- From shampooing to all-purpose cleaning of your car's interior.
- This is a concentrate and will take you a long way, but will not cost what the large, gallon sized Meguiar's product from above will.
- Professional grade results.
- Smaller container will save on any shipping costs using link above.
- Between the Meguiar's APC and this shampoo from 3D, they are my top two picks for a car upholstery cleaner.
- No sticky residue; no rinsing necessary.
Ready to Use (RTU) Car Upholstery Cleaners
As I mentioned above, you might realize that you will need limited amounts of upholstery cleaners and the ready to use versions will be a better fit for you. It also allows you to "test" a particular product without over-committing to bigger sizes.
Chemical Guy's Nonsense Super Cleaner
Chemical Guys SPI_993_16 Nonsense Colorless and Odorless All Surface Cleaner (16 oz)
- For the car enthusiast or driveway detailer looking for the convenience of a ready-to-use car interior cleaner.
- Safe for use on all interior materials.
- Carpeting, velour, leather, vinyl, rubber.
- No sticky residue; no rinsing necessary.
Ultima Interior Shampoo Gel
Ultima Interior Shampoo & Cleaner Gel for Interior Finishes on Auto, Truck, RV, 22 fl. oz.
- Another quality ready-to-use carpet cleaner that is suitable for use on all your interior cleaning and shampooing.
- Perfect size for the enthusiast or driveway detailer.
- Professional level results.
- No sticky residue; no rinsing necessary.
Car Upholstery Cleaning Tools
OXO Cleaning Brush
OXO Good Grips Heavy Duty Scrub Brush
- My "go-to" scrub brush for virtually any car interior cleaning.
- The winning balance between too soft and too stiff.
Mothers Interior Brush
Mothers Carpet & Upholstery Brush
- One of my favorites.
- Stiffer than the others on this page.
- Ideal for carpeting and floor mats.
- This is a very stiff brush so I reserve this for the heavy duty scrubbing and the more "durable" materials within your cars interior.
Low-Profile Scrub Brush
Nanoskin (85-639) 8.5" Whitewall/Sidwall Tire Brush, White Nylon
- Winning balance between gentle and aggressive.
- I use on anything from carpeting, velour, leather, vinyl, suede.
- Handle allows for increased leverage when using.
- Use the handle in the traditional manner, or switch it around for a more ergonomic feel with your palm on the brush head and the handle pointed up, towards your elbow.
- A must have in my opinion as a professional.
- If you have watched my YouTube videos and seen me use this, mine has black bristles instead of white; it is the same brush.
Natural Horse-hair Brush
Horsehair Detail Brush - GF-HH
- Winning combination of gentle and aggressive.
- For those tighter, harder to reach areas of the interior. (one of my favorite places to use this brush is when cleaning the carpeting/seat track between the side of the front seats and in between the center console. )
- Handle allows for greater leverage when using in tighter areas.
- The longer handle is also ideal for those tighter areas where a traditional length tooth brush or other cleaning brush will not reach.
Vinyl and Leather Interior Brush
Vinyl & Leather Scrub Brush
- Ideal for more detailed areas of cleaning.
- Winning combination of gentle and aggressive.
- Safe for use on any interior material from leather, carpeting, velour, suede, etc.
- Ideal for detailing/cleaning the tight area between the accent piping and seat cushion found on many of the car seats within many cars.
Dual Purpose Tooth-Brush Style Detail Brush
Chemical Guys ACC_S02 Dual Purpose Toothbrush Style Detailing Brush
- A detail brush I consider a must have.
- Ideal for very tight areas of cleaning.
- Stiff bristles make this a better alternative to traditional tooth-brush type detail brushes.
- Dual sized bristles make this detail brush very versatile.
Boars Hair Vent Dusting Brush
Wheel Woolies - Boars Hair A5D Detail Brush: 1" Diameter
- A must have for dusting your dash vents.
- Ideal to have two; reserve one for dry and one for getting wet with cleaning solution. ( I use one of these for the interiors when dusting the dash, controls, vents, etc. I also use one on the lug nuts when cleaning the wheels. Is able to withstand the harsher chemicals that are often required in wheel cleaning)
- Use on vents, cup holders, or any intricate parts of the cars interior.
- Boars hair is a very soft bristle.
- There are other options to dusting your gauges and vents other than these two detail brushes: a make-up brush stolen (borrowed) from your wife, daughter, girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever.
- A typical paint brush.
- Q-tip swabs by the way... SUCK. Unless of course you like the novelty of spending a half hour just to dust your gauges and vents. Dusting and cleaning are different. These brushes shown above can be used both wet or dry.
- Keep them dry for dusting only. Use them wet if you have actual dirt you need to get wet with cleaner in order to remove.
Steps to Cleaning for Professional Results
Use the following bullet point list for specific how to clean car upholstery steps:
- Vacuum any and all areas first! Very important, as the more dry and loose debris/dirt you can remove before getting any area wet, the better.
- Simply spray the pre-vacuumed area with cleaner, scrub with brush aggressively, mop up by hand using a micro-fiber cloth (my preferred cloth of choice).
- Light applications, repeated as often as necessary for desird results is far better and far more realistic than to think you are going to get it all in one, heavily saturated application.
- As a professional, I will have to repeat heavily soiled areas anywhere from 3-6 times based on amount of dirt and material I am cleaning.
- Despite what you have learned in regards to how to clean car upholstery, using a quality car shampoo will not make your car's upholstery or floor mats now suddenly attract dirt.
- Many manufacturers will disparage their competitors products by claiming to be free from sticky residue or cleaners that attract dirt; simply follow my lead and you will be fine.
- With that said, you need to remain realistic and understand that once your carpeting/cloth/fabric/floor mat s have been cleaned, they will still have the ability to get dirty yet again; shampooing them is not a one time only moment and I always recommend a fabric protector after every shampooing.
"Darren, you've just shown me how to clean the fabric and carpeting of my cars interior, but what about the rest of my cars materials that aren't fabric or carpeting"
Cleaning and Conditioning Plastic, Vinyl, and Leather
Within every part of the car detailing and cleaning process, the ripple effect is always at play.
Meaning this; cleaning the fabric and carpeting areas of your car is one thing, but the very next question for most people will be "How to clean the vinyl, leather, and plastic within my car.
For this reason I have added these extra links for dedicated pages for these specific questions.
Cleaning Car Leather and Vinyl
Auto Upholstery Protector
Car Interior Dressing
Additional How to Clean Car Upholstery Tips
Cleaning and shampooing the carpeting/floor mats in your car will be easier than the actual seats in your car. As a rule, most cars contain actual carpeting with individual fibers that is used to cover the floors and used as floor mats in cars. In contrast, car manufacturers use many different types of materials and textures to create the seating surfaces within cars today. These seating surfaces will prove to be much more difficult if you car has been made using these modern, tightly woven, synthetic materials. These seats may look cool, but trying to get them clean can be especially frustrating.
It is important to know that any professional detailer with any amount of experience will confirm this. Some seating materials are simply unable to be cleaned back to original condition due to the way in which they are made and the materials being used to construct these new, hip looking interiors. Seat belts are one such example and represent a problem for any professional detailer.
Below are a few examples based on the type of seating you may find in your car's interior.
Traditional Weave Car Seating Upholstery
"This shot is taken from a Honda Civic and represents what I call "typical" cloth seating in a car; not overly thick, not specifically tight woven either."
Medium Weave Car Seating Upholstery
"This picture is from a Toyota Highlander and represents what I call medium weave; tighter than the Honda from above with less nap or fibers protruding above the base material itself. Represents a harder proposition of cleaning with less individual fibers actually exposed to the cleaning process."
Tight Weave Car Seating Upholstery
"This shot is taken from the infamous Jeep Wrangler. I say infamous as any professional detailer will tell you, these types of synthetic, tight woven seats are a nightmare to clean. My professional advice is to never let them get dirty in the first place. Repeated applications will be required to produce any significant results especially on this light colored material."
How to Clean Car Upholstery Conclusion
All I can say is that much time and effort went into this page and I hope I have laid out enough information for you to get the kind of results I get in my professional world. Don't forget to pass this page along to any of your friends who might benefit from all the info on this how to clean car upholstery page.
Car Upholstery Cleaning Tips
How to Clean Car Upholstery