How To Clean Leather Car Seats – Homemade and Commercial Solutions

Everybody I know loves a car with a leather interior. And when you think about it, what’s not to love? Leather seats are elegant, comfy, smell great, and can make you feel like a King, even if you’re only driving a humble family vehicle.

However, although leather is high-class, it’s also high-maintenance.

The good news is being serious about cleaning will save you a lot of money down the road since you won’t waste your money replacing them in the future. You just need to clean them regularly to prevent cracking, fading, staining, and other signs of wear. But do you know how to clean leather car seats?

man carefully scrubbing his red leather car seat

If you don’t know anything about upholstering, we did your homework for you and found the easiest way to keep your leather car seats looking brand new.

This article will explain the different types of leather, as well as the right way to take the grim off without damaging your seats.

Now, let’s get started!

Why is Cleaning my Leather Car Seats Important?

Leather seats add a luxurious touch to any vehicle, but they can age quickly if you don’t take proper care of them. So before we talk about how to clean your seats, you should know what to watch out for.

All seats experience some level of wear and tear, but usually, the driver’s seat takes the brunt of it — for obvious reasons. Every time you drive your car you scrap the leather in the seat, which over time adds up and can produce cracks.

Dirt is another agent that you should keep an eye out for. Not only will dirt make your car’s interior look bad, but its abrasive quality will weaken the fabrics of your seat if you let it. With time, this will tear your seats and even fade their natural color.

Leather also does a lousy job at keeping liquids at bay, so if you don’t clean your seats regularly, they will absorb your body oils and sweat, which will give them a glowing, greasy look.

However, if you clean your seats on a regular basis — say every month, plus a deep cleaning 2-3 times a year —none of these agents will damage them too much.

How Can I Identify Which Leather Seat Type I Have?

You should know the type of leather used on your seats before you start. This way you can make them look as good as new without actually damaging the fabric. Most cars today use one out of four leather types. Ordered by quality, these are Aniline, Semi-Aniline, Napa, and Corrected Grain.

1) Aniline Leather: Use the highest quality hides to give the seat a natural bright color and extra softness. It looks really good but can be a pain in the neck to clean. To make matters worse, it doesn’t have a protective coating and lets water pass — which makes spills a recurring nightmare for every owner! Luckily for you, chances are your car doesn’t have these types of seats since production stopped in the 90’s.

2) Semi-Aniline Leather: Use the same dyes as Full-Aniline but with an added coating on the surface for increased resistance. You can find them mostly on high-priced cars. They don’t look as bright or feel as soft as Full-Aniline, but they do a better job at keeping water out and resist your daily wear and tear much better.

3) Nappa Leather: Out of all the full-grain leathers, Nappa possesses the thickest coating and pigmentation. This makes it very durable while still allowing it to show off the natural beauty of an uncorrected leather piece. In other words: It may not look as beautiful as an Aniline Leather, but it still looks pretty damn good in your car!

4) Corrected Leather: This is the kind of leather that you want if you have kids. Corrected Leather uses inferior hides which manufacturers polish to smooth out any imperfection. It’s the most common type of leather used in vehicles today, and can still feel pretty soft despite being mostly artificial.

A simple way to find out the type of leather used on your seats is to Google your car model. Most car companies make this information available online, but if you can’t find anything then just pour a drop of water on your seat and you’ll know which type of leather it is right away.

Aniline doesn’t stop liquids at all, so the drop should disappear almost immediately. If you do it on Semi-Aniline leather, it will take a little longer. But if you see the drop slide off without penetrating in then it’s probably made of Nappa or Corrected Leather.

What Tools And Materials Do I Need To Clean My Leather Seats?

Cleaning your leather car seats is a straightforward process. All you need is a good cleaning solution, something to scrub your seats with, and a dry piece of Microfiber cloth to dry them.

Homemade Cleaning Solutions

You can buy leather cleaning solutions in your local automotive goods store. Better yet, you can make one yourself at home. If you’re only doing a superficial cleaning, simple house cleaning products or vinegar can get rid of the grime on your seats for only a fraction of the cost.

Homemade solutions are a good alternative to commercial products. Besides being cheap, they’re also mild enough not to wear down the leather fibers. This makes them a perfect match for Aniline or Semi-Aniline leather seats which wear down faster if you clean them with stronger products too frequently.

To make a simple homemade cleaner, combine 1 part of white vinegar and two parts of linseed oil in a spray bottle. Alternatively, you can also combine three parts vinegar and 1 part of water. Either way, you should test your creation on a small area of your seats before continuing.

Commercial Cleaning Solutions

You can find plenty of leather cleaning products in the market. But be careful with what you buy, as some are abrasive enough to damage your seats. To avoid this scenario, test your commercial solution on a small area of your seat first. This will make it easier to patch or hide if you screw up.

When buying a solution, you should choose the right kind for your leather type. Manufacturers make their products with one type of leather in mind. So make sure you read that label twice before you start scrubbing it over your car seats.

If you can afford it, you should buy foam instead of liquid leather cleaning products. For starters, foam is much more efficient at cleaning leather than any liquid on the market. Foam is also a safer choice because it prevents the kind of bleaching streaks that many liquid-based cleaners create.

Moreover, foam can penetrate into the leather. This means it can drive the dirt unto the surface and encapsulate it so you can wipe it off with a damp cloth, instead of just moving it around — like liquid cleaning products tend to do.

Scrub Brush

Deep cleanings need some vigorous brushing. So whether you prefer a toothbrush or a regular scrub brush, make sure you add this item to your toolkit.

Alternatively, you can also use a paintbrush instead, since its softer bristles are less likely to damage your expensive leather seats.

Just make sure you cut the hairs about halfway and you don’t apply too much pressure when scrubbing.

Microfiber Cloth

You’ll need a piece of cloth to dry your seats and remove the dirt brought out by your cleaning solution. This could be any clean piece of rag or cloth lying in your garage, but nothing gets the job done better than a Microfiber cloth.

These specially designed cloths can attach their tiny fibers to even the tiniest, microscopic dirt particles. And that’s just what you need to pick the dirt and grime stuck in your car seats.

Leather Wipes

Leather wipes are cheap and easy to use. Carrying them in your glove compartment can save you a lot of troubles — especially when dealing with spills.

For extra convenience, make sure you buy the two-in-one wipes.

These carry both a cleaner and a conditioner, so you can save time doing both things at once.

How to Clean Leather Car Seats – Step by Step

You can choose between different methods to clean your car seats depending on their aggressiveness. But before you make your pick, you should know why you’re cleaning your seats.

Did you spill a drink over them or do they look greasy because you were driving without the air conditioner on? Depending on the answer to these questions you can choose one method that will get the job done without wearing down your leather seats too much.

When cleaning your seats, you should…

– Vacuum or use an air compressor to blow out your seats before you start . Any dirt or objects on your chair could damage the fibers of the leather when you scrub. Also, make sure you use a plastic attachment for upholstery as this won’t scratch the leather while you vacuum it.

– Only clean a small section at a time. Don’t go crazy and start scrubbing the entire back of the chair until you know how the leather will react to the solution.

– Don’t let the solution dry up. All the dirt you’ve pulled out is in the solution. So make sure to dry each section immediately after scrubbing it.

Superficial Cleaning

This method is quick and painless for your leather seats. If your seats look oily, sweaty, or you haven’t cleaned them in a while, this short cleaning will get rid of the dust and dirt lodged in them really fast.

Step 1: Spray your homemade solution over a small area of your seat and rub it with a towel without putting too much pressure. (For perforated seats, pour the solution over a towel rather than directly onto the seat)

Step 2: Clean the solution with your microfiber cloth before it dries up. If your seats have heating, turn it on once you’ve dried them off with your cloth

Make sure to follow these steps once a month and your leather seats will look fresh all the time.

Scrubbing Cleaning

This one is a bit more aggressive and should help you clean off any spills or recent stains you have on your seats. Remember that leather is a delicate material, so this isn’t one method that you should use too often.

Step 1: Depending on the size of the area to clean, grab a toothbrush, scrub brush or paintbrush.

Step 2: Pour your solution or foam over the area and use circular motions and moderate pressure to get as much dirt out as possible.

Step 3: Use a microfiber cloth to wipe off the solution or foam before it dries up.

Deep Cleaning

Even if you clean your car seats on a monthly basis, dirt is still going to find a way into your leather seats. So the only way to get it out is by giving them a hot steam cleaning.

As a rule of thumb, you should give a deep cleaning to your leather car seats at least once or twice a year. This number can vary depending on use and the color of your car (with lighter seats needing it more often).

Step 1: Pour a good amount of foam or liquid on the area you want to clean.

Step 2: Use a piece of cloth or a brush to scrub the solution or foam all over the area.

Step 3: Cover the head of your steamer’s special upholstery attachment and use it to steam the surface you’re working on. Watch as your car seat magically changes its color.

Step 4: Dry any area where liquid, foam, or dirt is left.

Step 5: You can also apply a leather sealant to stop your seats from fading, aging, or getting stained.

Note: If you don’t yet have one, check out our guide to the best steam cleaners for cars.

How Do I Remove Stains?

The best you can do when it comes to stains is removing them as soon as you can. But since commercial removers can do more harm than good on natural leather, it’s better if you use one of these home products to get rid of your stains:

– Toothpaste. This will work great on surface stains. All you need to do is dab non-gel toothpaste on the stained area and then gently scrub the stain. Clean the area with a cloth or clean towel when you’re done.

– Nail Polish Remover. Pour a bit of nail polish remover over a cotton swab and rub it over the stain. Once it’s gone, clean the spot with liquid dish soap diluted in warm water before you dry the area.

– Hairspray. If you have an ink stain on your seat, use hairspray and let it sit for a couple of minutes before you wipe it with a towel.

– Baking Soda. This is one of the best ways to deal with grease stains.  Rub it over the stained area and let it sit overnight while it absorbs the oil. Then clean the area with a damp cloth and before you dry it.

– Talcum powder or cornstarch. This method is gentle on your leather seats but will remove grease spots without leaving any trace. Just rub it over the area and follow the same steps you use to clean with baking soda.

– Lemon juice or Cream of Tartar. The most effective yet dangerous method on the list. Use it only on light upholstery, as it can bleach some types of leather. Mix equal parts of juice and cream of tartar into a paste (test it before you use it). Rub it over the affected area and let it sit for 30 minutes before you remove it with a damp towel.

What’s The Best Way To Condition My Leather Seats?

Once you’ve cleaned your seats, you want to use a leather protector or conditioner on them. This will keep them soft, give them a pleasant smell, and also guard them against the elements.

Since leather is dead skin, it gets dry if you leave it on its own. Conditioner will make your seats look alive again and draw positive attention to your car’s interior. Choose one which is water-based and doesn’t contain petroleum distillates or silicone — which would give a greasy, oily finish to your seats.

Leather conditioners can extend your seats’ lifespan considerably. However, you shouldn’t overuse them, as this can backfire by saturating your seats with an artificial solution.

To use leather conditioner:

  1. Give your seats a good cleaning and make sure that everything has dried up before you continue. If your seats have heating, turn it up just to make sure.
  2. Pour a good amount of conditioner on your seats and use your hands, a brush, or a towel to spread it.
  3. Wipe any excess conditioner with a microfiber towel and let it sit there for 20-30 minutes.

Make sure that you repeat this process every four weeks. If you do this, you’ll have leather seats that will not only feel good but look great and are less likely to crack in the future.

Wrapping It Up

Now that your leather seats are clean make sure you create and follow a fixed cleaning schedule from now on. It might seem like too much trouble at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to do it with your eyes closed.

Remember to park your vehicle under shade, clean your seats every month and only use the right materials and techniques to avoid damaging the leather. The first thing you should do after reading this article is finding out which type of leather your car has. This way you’ll know exactly when and how you should clean it.

Truth be told, keeping your leather car seats clean is really easy. All it comes down to is using the right materials and being consistent. If you do that, your car seats will be the envy of all your friends and will add a lot of value to your car when you resell it!

Now that you’re done with all of this, ready to move on to something else? Check out our guides on how to clean your car’s windows (on the outside and inside), as well as all you should know about the optimal frequency of washing your car in general.

From childhood go karting and motocross, to collecting and obsessing over scalextric, matchbox and radio controlled cars, I've always had an obsession with cars. Learning through manuals, books, trial and error, and more knowledgeable family members, I've also enjoyed tinkering with the mechanics and electronics of any vehicles I've owned. Now, over 3 decades later, I've started this site as a place for me to share my knowledge, to teach others how to care for and maintain their vehicles themselves, at home, so they can get the most of their vehicles and save a pretty penny compared to always seeking out professional help.

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