Leather Car Seat Cleaning:
Breaking all the rules

Best auto detailing tips tag line

When it comes to leather car seat cleaning most of you will go in search of answers only after your leather has become heavily soiled. At this point you will likely have reached out to what the industry offers in a dedicated car leather cleaner only to be disappointed yet again!

It is one thing to keep your car's leather clean from the beginning. An entirely different thing to clean car leather that has been neglected for years and now you have decided you can't tolerate the dirt any longer and go in search of the best car leather cleaner. Not only will you be presented with endless choices, but most of you will be sorely disappointed when you learn first hand that most traditional car leather cleaners are not formulated to be strong enough to clean leather in your car that is truly dirty.

Most Car Leather Cleaners Simply Suck!
Yes, I said it.

leather car seat cleaning

Is your car leather beginning to look something like the picture to the right?

Not horrid, but certainly in need of some attention in the form of leather car seat cleaning.

But nonetheless, the leather in this picture is well over-due for some attention and the regular maintenance of cleaning has been "deferred".

And while most over the counter retail leather cleaning products will remove some dirt, these same retail products have been dumbed down to the point where they deliver unacceptable results for most people who have let the leather in their car go too long without cleaning.

Car Leather Cleaner and Your Car Leather

ferrari car leather cleaning

  • Most people think car leather is a very delicate material that requires sensitive leather cleaners and conditioners.
  • Most people do not realize that just like every other area in our lives today, technology has made things not only more durable, but easier to clean and maintain; car leathers included.
  • Virtually all car leathers today, from high end to entry level cars have leather that has been coated with a protective clear coating. This not only makes the leather material far more durable, but also easier to clean and maintain.
  • Unlike car leather of the past, what you are really cleaning is not actually the natural leather you think you are cleaning, but a synthetic clear coating.

For a greater understanding of the different types of car leathers, you can see my Car Leather discussion page for a comprehensive overview. It will open in a new window so you may return here easily.

Leather Car Seat Cleaning:
Getting professional results!

Before Cleaning Car Leather

leather car seat cleaning before

After Cleaning Car Leather

While I could have used much more dramatic before and after pictures as I have on other pages of this site, these pictures represent what I consider the situation in which most of you will find yourselves; dirty, but not excessively dirty. At one of my other car leather upholstery cleaning pages, you can see a more dramatic before an after picture I took while cleaning the leather in a Lexus RX.

"I get it Darren, most leather cleaners suck and I am tired of the disappointment, can you tell me what you use so I can get these same level of results!" 

Glad you finally asked!

The Alternative to Leather Car Seat Cleaning:
From Mild to Wildly Dirty!

Interestingly, and probably not completely surprising at this point is that the product I use for these results isn't an actual car leather cleaner, but a an all-purpose cleaner that is a concentrate and can be custom blended to the desired strength of cleaning power you need.

I have had countless customers stand in amazement as they behold their leather upholstery they had no idea could be cleaned to this level of clean once again!

Leather Car Seat Cleaning:
The unexpected leather cleaner

Simple Green 13005CT Industrial Cleaner and Degreaser, Concentrated, 127.8 Fl Oz, Pack of 1

The detailing industry would have you believe you need a dedicated cleaner for every job possible when it comes to your car:

  • Upholstery cleaner
  • Leather cleaner
  • Vinyl/plastic cleaner
  • Tire cleaner
  • Wheel cleaner
  • Etc., etc.

The reality is that I have found many cleaners outside the world of auto detailing that are either just as effective as dedicated detail products, or more effective than the dedicated detail products you have been taught you need to have.

Leather car seat cleaning is no exception and the industry has endless choices for you. The problem with these are two main problems:

  • They are generally ineffective on any car leather that has more than a trivial amount of dirt (great products if your car leather that is basically clean)
  • Far more expensive when compared to an all-purpose cleaner like the Simple Green concentrate
leather car seat cleaning bmw m4

Darren's Professional Tips: If I had to live with a single all-purpose cleaner, this one from Simple Green would be one of them! For it represents the winning combination of features and I use it for so many off-label uses in my professional detailing business, and not just for leather car seat cleaning:

  • This is a concentrate; custom blend to suit your needs.
  • For basic leather cleaning I use a dilution of 10:1
  • For heavy duty leather cleaning I increase the strength based on how much dirt I am having to deal with (Simply experiment with different dilution ratios to determine the winning balance based on you and your needs of the moment)
  • I also use brushes and scrub pads not typically recommended within the auto detailing world.
  • Remember, car leather is much more durable than most people would expect, so scrub away! (see video below)
  • I use distilled water when mixing any of my chemicals; distilled water is about as pure of water you can get and allows for a better product after you mix the desired ratio.
  • Always, always, test each and every product in an inconspicuous place first for results. Then proceed from there. There are always going to be exceptions to any rule. You want to rule out your moment happens to be one of the unwanted exceptions.
  • Most cleaning duties will require light applications, done repeated times until desired results are achieved.
  • If a gallon sized product of concentrate seems way over-kill for you and your needs, be reminded that I use this product in a hundred different ways from the car, to the house, to the garage. It is incredibly versatile.

Leather Car Seat Cleaning Tools

Almost as important as the product or chemical itself, is the combination of the right tool with the right chemical, following proper techniques of leather car seat cleaning. Since most people want to treat their cars' leather with "kid gloves" as the saying goes, you must remember that in order to obtain the kinds of results shown in the pictures, you must use much more aggressive products and techniques, which include a scrub brush.

Non-traditional Leather Cleaning Scrub Brush

Rubbermaid Professional Plus Scrub Brush, Scrubbing Brush (FGG23712)

  • One of my favorite scrub brushes for use on most materials within your car
  • Perfectly suited for scrubbing leather; not too stiff, not too soft
  • Also my "go-to" brush for shampooing any carpeting, floor mats, or heavily textured door panels or leather seats

Commercial-Grade Non-Abrasive White Cleaning Pad 5 Pack By Mop Mob. Large, Multi-Purpose 10 in x 4 1/2 in Scouring Pad Fits Universal Holders. Great For Scrubbing Sinks, Tile, Windows and Fine China

  • Perfect scrub pads for cleaning leather car seats in particular due to the mostly flat, large areas of leather car seats
  • Easy to use and control as they fit nicely in the palm of your hand
  • Easily use to mold around seat contours and within seat seams as you are scrubbing your way to clean
  • The exact pads I use for leather car seat cleaning regardless of how clean or dirty the leather seats are
  • These scrub pads come extra long which means two things: you get more pad for your money, and you can simply cut them to the exact length best suited for you

Chemical Guys Horse Hair Brush

Chemical Guys ACC_S95 Long Bristle Horse Hair Leather Cleaning Brush, , 1 Pack

  • Made specifically for leather car seat cleaning
  • More gentle than the Rubbermaid brush above if you are nervous and this is your first leather car seat cleaning moment
  • These brushes are extremely safe for anyone nervous about cleaning their leather car upholstery for the first time, but just accept that they are also not as effective as my other two cleaning brushes/pads when it comes to car leather that has become very dirty

Professional Sprayer Bottles

Since the Simple Green product I recommend above is a concentrate (the good news) you will need some professional sprayers to mix and use your cleaner in.

Bar5F Empty Plastic Spray Bottles 32 oz, Chemical Resistant, Professional, Heavy Duty, Fully Adjustable Head Sprayer, Pack of 3 (Grey)

  • The exact spray bottle and spray heads I use professionally
  • The most ergonomically friendly sprayer heads I have ever found
  • Chemical resistant sprayer heads

Leather Car Seat Cleaning...
now what?

Just as soon as you are finished cleaning your car leather upholstery, likely the very next question will become:

"Darren, what should I use on my leather car seats to condition and protect them?"

This is an easy answer for me and an answer that will goes against what you have likely been taught and certainly what the detail industry teaches people.

My suggestions and recommendation include 3 specific choices:

Quality Car Care products:
Off-label uses

Darren's Note: All 3 of these products go completely counter to what you would ever expect when talking about your car leather upholstery. But just read my descriptions and then come to your own conclusions.

I have used all these products on car leather for over 15 years (these products were originally formulated for body shop use and only sold through traditional distribution. Only recently have they become available to the general public)

CSI Q-7 Detailer Quart 62-205-Q

  • Perfect for use after any car leather cleaning job
  • Creates a nice, uniform appearance to your car leather
  • Creates a nice feel to your car leather
  • Versatile product that has so many uses which saves you both time and money: exterior quick detailer, interior detailer, leather detailer/conditioned, window cleaner, drying aid when washing your car, and more
  • My "go-to" product to maintain my cars interior when it comes to weekly dusting and light cleaning of any of the non-porous materials within my car: leather, vinyl, plastics, door gaskets/seals, door threshold plates, etc. (the only place I don't use this product on is the clear instrument panel lenses and any GPS/infotainment screens. Not because it will damage them, but only because these screens often have a anti-glare coating already on them and it is hard to create a uniform appearance to these screens. I use straight water with a soft, clean micro-fiber towel for these screens)

CSI Q-7 Wax 16oz 62-204-P

  • A car wax on car leather? (Yes!)
  • Car leather has a clear protective coating. Just like your car paint that has a clear protective coating. This non-staining spray wax can also be used on your car leather to enhance and protect your car leather just like it does your car paint (I know; hard to wrap your mind around but it works great)
  • Creates a uniform appearance to your car leather after leather car seat cleaning especially when you are working on black car leather that can often look uneven in appearance after your cleaning job
  • Can be used as an alternative to the Q-7 Detailer above if you want to use regularly to perform light dusting/cleaning of your cars upholstery (this product is just as suitable for all your non-porous materials within your car just as the Q-7 Detailer is; including your car leather)

CSI Nu Tyre Lotion Quart 62-208-Q

  • A tire dressing that is also perfectly suited to be an interior dressing if you like a more enhanced appearance (shiny, but not hyper-shiny)
  • Can be used on any non-porous materials when creating a uniform appearance when you also like some additional shine
  • I do not apply this to any of the clear instrument panels or infotainment screens
  • Dries to the touch so no messy, greasy, oily residue feeling after application (my choice in a tire dressing also due to its ability to dry to the touch which means no unwanted tire dressing sling)

Leather Car Seat Cleaning:
Darren's Summary

car interior detailer

I am willing to bet that you have not only learned a few new things about cleaning car leather, but sit in amazement at the thought of using so many non-traditional car leather cleaners and conditioners!

Trust me; you are not alone!

All the CSI products I recommend after you have cleaned your leather car seating have unique features to them that allow them to not only be used in the ways I have recommended, but represent a brand of car care products that goes counter to the industry as a whole:

  • Basic products that are meant to keep car care simple (the company refers to this as their version of the KIS approach: Keep it simple)
  • Products made using true waterborne technology (this allows them to not only be completely body shop safe, but products that work perfectly with each other due to chemical engineering that is consistent throughout the product line)
  • A simple product line made up of products that are all very versatile (this means less products you need to buy, and less products that do more)
leather car seat cleaning mbz c class

I hope I have not only helped, but offered some alternatives to the traditional leather car seat cleaning methods most of the world would have you follow that I consider less than efficient and based on a lot of misinformation!


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