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Made a Mess? How To Clean Car Seats

Chris Kaiser
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If America is a car culture, it is so not just because of our love of the open road or how often we personify ourselves in the vehicles we drive. Ours is a car culture, first and foremost, because of all the time we spend in our cars.

The modern commute just keeps getting longer which in turn means more non-work hours, hours of eating, socializing, recreating, even child-rearing end up happening on four wheels. All those extra miles add up both on your tires and on your van’s carpet and upholstery. Life happens, with kids, pets, drive-thru mishaps, and more. In fact, one of the few guarantees in life, aside from death and taxes, are the unforeseen messes in your kiddie hauler.

Aside from addressing the occasional spilt soda or drippy ice-cream cone, consistent regular maintenance is one of the best ways to retain value in and fend off depreciation on your vehicle.

Here are some of our rules of road for addressing the inevitable messes you’ll encounter as a car owner. 

woman eating a burger in the car

10 General Rules

1. Default to Cold Water

Warm or hot water can actually set some stains rather than remove them.

2. Glass Cleaner

Glass cleaner works on more than just glass and can be effective in removing all sorts of stains.

3. Vacuum Monthly

Don’t forget that your car’s carpeting is a high traffic area and one for which you’re rarely (if ever) removing our shoes.

4. Test for Color-fastness

Whether you’re using the latest brand name cleaning product or a DIY concoction, always test an out-of-the-way section of carpeting or upholstery to reduce the risk of fading.

5. Spray Don’t Soak

Avoid applying too much liquid cleaner or water to seats lest you soak the underlying foam, which take forever to dry and, in some climates, can even lead to mold.

6. Work Small Areas

Start small and work your way from outside in to prevent spreading the stain further.

7. Apply Cleaner to Brush or Cloth

This will prevent over use of cleaning products and reduce the possibility of dampening seats and upholstery.

8. Speed Kills (Stains)

Dilute spills with cold water as soon as possible and blot them dry. Then you can start addressing any lingering stains.

9. Keep Baking Soda Handy

Traveling with baking soda might sound like overkill, but if you have kids or pets it’s nice to have vomit insurance at the ready. (See Below).

10. Microfiber is a Must

Prevent any scratches to your car’s windows by always using a clean microfiber cloth exclusively for that purpose.

Cleaning car seats with sponge

Supplies

The nice part here is most of these items you’re likely to already have sitting around the house or garage.

Must:

  • Glass Cleaner
  • Blue Dawn dish soap (yes, brand matters in this case)
  • White Vinegar
  • Baking Soda
  • Toothbrush
  • Spray Bottle
  • Clean cloth or rag

Optional:

  • Microfiber Cloth
  • Ice-pack
  • Scotch Tape
  • 20-Mule Team Borax
  • Lemon Juice
  • Rubbing Alcohol
Man blotting car seat with towel

Specific Stains

Recommended approaches to the most common vehicular messes and mishaps.

Coffee

Rinse with cold water, follow with an application of glass cleaner, rest for 5min, rinse again with cold water, blot excess and allow to dry. Alternatively, you can use a mixture of lemon juice or vinegar and lukewarm water, blot and allow to dry.

Coffee Spill

Gum/Chocolate

Freeze by covering with an ice pack and allowing to rest for at least 10 min. Scrape away excess with butter knife. Use a toothbrush and a solution of vinegar and water to take care of any remaining stain on cloth, for leather/vinyl use scotch tape.

Lipstick

Use non-gel toothpaste and a damp cloth, dab with rubbing alcohol to remove any staining.

Ink

Plenty of options here. Try any of the following mixed with water: baking soda, vinegar, hairspray, or rubbing alcohol.

Vomit

Sprinkle a layer of baking soda over area. Allow to rest 15-30 min. Scrape up excess and debris. Then use a mixture of baking soda and water, blot area with a cloth, and rinse with cold water. Repeat as needed.

Oil/Grease

Use dishwashing liquid in small amounts applied with a toothbrush, scrub gently, rinse thoroughly to avoid discoloration of cloth or cracking of leather.

Alcohol/Pop/Wine

Lukewarm water this time mixed with either lemon juice or vinegar.

Protein (Blood, Eggs, Milk, etc.)

Cold water rinse as soon as possible, use a solution of baking soda and water, cold water rinse.

Pet Smell

Sprinkle 20-Mule Team Borax on cloth upholstery and carpet, allow to rest 1 hour, vacuum.

Wet Dog

There you have it. The list for life’s messes. Tell us your road mess disaster and your clean-up triumph. We bet you have some doozies.

And if you’ve tried it all and you still can’t get the mess out, it’s probably time for a new one! Search from our millions of listings to find your next vehicle.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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