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 thought.

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, how to clean car 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 that how to clean car upholstery you would need about 10 different cleaners. One specialized cleaner after another.

car upholstery cleaning cloth interiorThe 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 how to clean car upholstery to include the basic materials in most cars:

  • Carpeting
  • 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.

how to clean car upholstery tips

  • 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 bottom 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:

How To Clean Car Upholstery:
Concentrate Car Upholstery Cleaners

Chemical Guys Fabric Clean

Chemical Guys CWS_103_16 Fabric Clean Carpet and Upholstery Shampoo and Odor Eliminator (16 oz)

  • Massive amounts of positive ratings.
  • One of my top picks for a car upholstery cleaner.
  • Concentrate so you only pay for the actual cleaners; more economical.
  • Dilute 20:1 (one part cleaner with 20 equal parts water)
  • Combines a super biodegradable degreaser with enzymatic odor eliminator.
  • No ammonia, bleach, or fabric damaging detergents or solvents.
  • A super versatile car upholstery cleaner safe for virtually every material in your car including car leather.
  • No sticky residue. No rinsing necessary.

3D Upholstery and Carpet Shampoo

Upholstery & Carpet Shampoo 16 oz

  • One of my professional choice in car upholstery cleaners.
  • From shampooing to all-purpose cleaning of your car's interior.
  • This is a concentrate and will take you a long way.
  • Professional grade results.
  • Smaller container will save on any shipping costs using link above.
  • No sticky residue; no rinsing necessary.

How To Clean Car Upholstery:
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.

"How to clean car upholstery is not just about finding the best car upholstery cleaner, but using the perfect tool to achieve professional results"

Rubbermaid Iron-handle Scrub Brush

Rubbermaid Commercial Products - Rubbermaid Commercial - Iron-Shaped Handle Scrub Brush, 6" Brush, Yellow Plastic Handle/Blue Bristles - Sold As 1 Each - Molded handle gives you a powerful grip. - Long-lasting blue polypropylene fill resists stains. - Durable plastic block.

  • This is my first choice in an all-purpose scrub brush I use on all fabric in the easy to reach ares of car upholstery cleaning: floor mats, leather seats, fabric seats, some headliners, trunk carpeting, etc.
  • Occasionally the cheaper tool can be the better tool.
  • A winning balance between stiff and gentle bristles. (see below for additional scrub brushes I also carry and use with me)

OXO Cleaning Brush

OXO Good Grips Heavy Duty Scrub Brush

  • Another one of my "go-to" scrub brush for virtually any car interior cleaning.
  • The winning balance between too soft and too stiff.
  • I like to have both a handle scrub brush (see just above) and a hand held scrub brush like this one. (once again; it's all about the perfect tool for the moment)
  • The hand held version is lower profile so you can scrub into areas that are a tighter area.

Mothers Interior Brush

Mothers Carpet & Upholstery Brush z,/pz.

  • 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.

Casabella Bottle Brush

Casabella Smart Scrub Bottle Brush with Replaceable Head, Lime

  • This is the exact bottle brush I use in my professional world.
  • More aggressive or stiff than the OXO brush below.
  • Since I use this on hard plastics and fabric within cars, I prefer the much stiffer version.
  • The softer OXO bottle brush below is not aggressive enough for many of the ways I like to use these bottle brushes when I am using any cleaner or on any surface. (no; I do not use these on car paint, clear instrument panels, or wood veneer within the car, but those are about the only surfaces/materials I don't use them on)
  • Amazing how many hard to reach areas these bottle brushes are ideal for: in-between car seats and center console, trunk carpeting to break loose dry debris, inside cup holders and side compartments, etc.

Bottle Brush

OXO Good Grips Bottle Brush

  • Amazing how many uses I can find for a tool that typically has nothing to do with detailing a car!
  • Incredibly versatile tool! You will continue to find more and more uses for it the more you use it.
  • From shampooing hard to reach carpeting, to seat hardware, to breaking loose trapped debris in the trunk carpeting as I am vacuuming.
  • Any "how to clean car upholstery" must have this amazing tool as part of the "must have" cleaning tools.

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.

Wheel Woolies Detail Brush

Wheel Woolies - Boars Hair A5D Detail Brush: 1" Diameter

  • I prefer this boars hair detail brush when I am using any chosen car upholstery cleaner to use wet rather than the other boars hair detail brushes that I keep dry.
  • Boars hair is incredibly soft and gentle and only becomes even softer when the hairs become wet.
  • I use this when I have to use a cleaner that is going to be required to break loose debris and dirt when detailing intricate parts within the cars interior.
  • A must have in my professional detail arsenal.

Boars Hair Vent Dusting Brush

Boars Hair Ultra Soft Car Detail Brushes - Set of 3 - Perfect for Washing Emblems Wheels Interior Upholstery Air Vents, NO METAL Brush Parts

  • A must have for dusting your dash vents.
  • Ideal set; reserve one for dry and one for getting wet (with one as a back-up) with cleaning solution.
  • Use on vents, cup holders, or any intricate parts of the cars interior.
  • Boars hair is a very soft bristle.

How to Clean Car Upholstery: Steps for professional results

how to clean your car upholstery

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

cleaning car upholstery seat

"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

medium weave car 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

tight weave car upholstery cleaning

"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.


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