How to clean leather car seats

How to clean leather car seats

Leather car seats. They’re an everyday luxury many enjoy in their day-to-day. But what happens when seats start getting dirty? Start ageing, start wearing, start cracking?

Before you get into cleaning your car’s leather seats using our suggestions here, it’s always worth reviewing the care section in your car manual to see if there are any specific recommendations in there — either to use or avoid using when it comes to cleaning the specific seats of your car.

To clean your car’s leather seats, you’ll likely want to have on hand:

  • Your cleaning solution of choice (we’ll talk about the options later in this article)
  • A vacuum or way to clean up dirt and dust (soft bristled brushes, as otherwise you could damage the leather)
  • Soft, ideally microfibre, cloths
  • A soft-bristled brush for small areas

And generally, if you spill something on leather seats, you want to use a microfibre cloth to blot it up while it’s still wet - once it dries, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to clean up. This is the case especially for grease or oil-based stains.

Also got fabric car seats in you car? Read our step-by-step guide on how to clean car seats (including children's car seats) here.

Look for damage and clean up loose dirt

One of the first things you want to do before using liquid products to clean your leather is to inspect your seats closely for any damage — mostly tears, holes or frays. You’ll want to note where these are and be particularly careful when cleaning these areas, as you don’t want the inner foam of the seat to get too damp or saturated, because that can cause long-term damage.

Once you’ve noted where the wear and tear is, this is the part where you sweep away any crumbs or surface dirt. If you’ve got a vacuum, use that now. It’s a good plan to do this before you clean the leather because wet dirt is not pleasant, and you don’t want that embedded into our leather seats — it kind of defeats the purpose of the clean!

What to clean with

Once all the loose, surface dirt is cleaned off, it’s time to actually clean the leather. Usually, this is a two-step process: getting the dirt out of the leather by cleaning it, and protecting the leather from future dirt and discolouration.

There are a number of different solutions you can use to clean leather, including:

  • Store bought leather cleaners: If you go for store bought, go for those specifically made for leather car seats. Try to avoid multi-purpose products, as they’ll likely dry out the leather upholstery, and wax, silicone and oil-based products might be too greasy to use on leather car seats. Glycerine-based cleaners and water based, neutral pH conditioners are generally best.
  • Laundry detergent or dish soap: Warm water mixed with a half- to whole- teaspoon of laundry detergent can be a homemade alternative
  • Vinegar: Yes, the all around home-cleaning powerhouse can work on leather as well. Typically a 3:1 solution of water to vinegar works well. That is, for every 3 parts water, add one part vinegar. Again, the best water temperature to mix with here is warm water.
  • Baking soda: If you have a small, stubborn stain that doesn’t seem to want to get out, using a baking soda paste might be worth a try. Baking soda can be quite harsh, though, so if the stain is over a large section, it’s probably worth sticking to store bought products.
  • All of the other DIY recommendations: some other combinations recommended for cleaning leather car seats include citrus-based solvents, and some swear by olive oil and white vinegar.

Quick note: If you have pets that drive in the car with you, if you use citrus-based cleaners or conditioners for your leather seats you’ll probably want to wipe it down thoroughly, as citrus can be toxic to many pets.

How to clean your seats

Before you start cleaning your full car interior with your chosen leather cleaner, test it in a small, tucked-away corner. You should do this patch test to make sure there’s not an unexpected reaction between the leather and your chosen cleaner that discolours or otherwise damages it. If there’s not a fizzy kind of melting on contact, you should be okay to use the leather cleaner you’ve chosen. So while the cleaning solutions we’ve included here are some of the most common, if you come across anything else, or have a family recipe, or a recommendation from a friend — best to test it first.

As this kind of cleaning is usually a deep clean for the leather seats, a lot of time it makes sense to go seat-by-seat or section-by-section rather than trying to do it all at once. Once you apply the cleaner, let it sit and then gently massage it in — remember, leather is an organic material. Once it’s soaped up, use a clean cloth to wipe away the suds.

For those areas that are already damaged or have holes, rather than spraying the cleaner directly to the area, spray your brush and use the brush to clean around the damage. As you’re wiping the suds away, you want to get the leather as dry as you can.

Now to protect your leather

If you’re in a hurry, you don’t necessarily have to use the leather conditioner. The leather conditioner helps protect your car seats, and will hopefully give them a longer life than they would’ve had otherwise. It’s like waxing your car in a full valet to protect the paintwork. It’s strongly recommended, but ultimately a nice-to-have, rather than being absolutely needed.

There are some DIY recommendations for leather conditioners as well, most notably one part vinegar and two parts linseed or flaxseed oil. Store-bought leather conditioners are, again, a strong recommendation, particularly if you have coloured leather. This way the leather conditioner can match the colouring, and help revitalise the richness of the colour if it’s dulled over its lifetime so far.

You want to apply the leather conditioner with a microfibre cloth using a circular motion to massage in, let it sit for 5-10 minutes or the recommended time if you’ve store-bought. This is the curing time, which allows the conditioner to absorb fully. Once the recommended time has passed, use a new microfibre cloth to wipe down the surface and remove any excess conditioner.

As tempting as it may be to take your fresh car for a spin, you want to leave it for at least an hour to set and settle, ideally in a garage or shady area so it absorbs properly, otherwise you may end up with a well-conditioned pair of trousers.

A few final tips...

While what we’ve shared here are the DIY options, if you have particularly stubborn stains or a lot of them, it may be worth going to a professional cleaner, whether that's for a full valet or full detail service or just an interior clean. The DIY options here are probably best for general maintenance and upkeep rather than to restore some more broken-down seats.  

Urban Jungle is not a financial advisor and information in this article should not be taken as advice or recommendation.