Leather seats will make your car go from drab to fab. Whether you’re driving a minivan or a brand new BMW, leather car seats will transform your car from a pumpkin into a chariot.
Now, as with everything in life, high-quality means high maintenance. Cleaning leather seats is much trickier than cleaning basic polyester ones. There are plenty of steps involved; you need to consider the type of leather, what cleaning cloths you can use, how to condition them, and much more. So, if you want to know how to keep your leather car seats in impeccable condition — keep on reading.
Why Is Cleaning Your Leather Seats So Important?
Without proper maintenance, leather seats won’t age well. Think of it this way — if you don’t use sunscreen on your face during the summer, eventually, you’re going to get wrinkles. Something similar will happen to your car seats, except they won’t get wrinkles — they’ll just dry up and start cracking.
Another thing you need to watch out for is dirt. Leather seats don’t repel dirt as well as polyester ones do. What’s more, since dirt is such an abrasive agent, it can weaken the fabric. Once dirt weakens your fabric, it’s much easier to make a tear in the seat.
Finally, let’s talk about water and liquids. Leather seats are terrible at repelling liquids. All of the oils, sweat, and water will just soak into them, which will give the seats a greasy and oily look.
You don’t want to be sliding off of your seat every time you get into your car, do you? Of course not. So, let’s see what types of leather seats there are and what you can use to clean them.
Quick Cleaning Tips for All Types of Leather Car Seats
Before you start cleaning the seats, you need to determine what kind of leather is in your car. I’m going to talk about the four most popular types, and what kinds of cars usually have them.
Aniline leather isn’t as popular as it used to be. It’s an extremely high-quality type of leather that has a natural and smooth finish. However, it doesn’t have a protective coating. Without that, any spill will just go through the leather and directly into the seat.
If you don’t clean that up immediately, chances are, your car will be smelling like a wet dog pretty soon.
Car manufacturers stopped putting aniline leather into cars back in the ’90s. However, some older models from BMW and Mercedes have aniline leather in them.
Most high-class cars have semi-aniline leather seats. Unlike aniline leather, these ones actually have a coating, which means water won’t just go through them. Nevertheless, the coating is still pretty thin.
These seats are tricky to clean because most commercial cleaning products can easily damage them. Still, the Ferrari FF has semi-aniline leather seats, and that kind of car is definitely worth keeping them in pristine condition.
Full-Grain (Napa) Leather
Napa leather is usually made from cowhide; however, the hide can also come from goats, lambs, or calves.
Napa has the thickest coating and pigmentation compared to any other full-grain leather. So, it’s no wonder most luxury cars feature it, for example, the Rolls Royce Phantom. It offers a beautiful finish that fits any car interior. Also, it is much more durable than some other types and not easily affected by water or sun.
Corrected Grain Leather
Corrected leather is what you will find in most cars nowadays. This type of leather is kid-friendly, which means it is easy to clean and stain-resistant. Similar to napa leather, it has a thick coating, and the leather surface is usually sanded or buffed. Also, while it might not be as soft as aniline leather, it’s much cheaper and accessible.
How to Determine Which Type of Leather You Have in Your Car
If you want to find out which type of leather you have, the easiest way to go about it is to just google your car model. Most companies nowadays list this information online. However, they might not have this information for some older models. For that reason, I’m going to show you how you can find out which type of leather you have with a simple test.
Just pour a drop of water on your car seat and watch what happens. If the drop immediately goes through the seat — you have aniline leather. Semi-aniline leather will still absorb the water, but it will take a few seconds.
On the other hand, if the drop just slides off your seat, you have full or corrected grain leather. As I have already mentioned, most luxury cars use napa, while more accessible models have corrected leather seats.
What Cleaning Tools Do You Need?
Obviously, you can’t clean your seats with any old rag you have lying around your house. You’re going to need some special cleaning cloths and different cleaning solutions. Let’s take a look at which brushes work best and how to ensure that your cleaning supplies don’t damage your beautiful leather seats.
Microfiber cloths will be your first line of defense in the war against dirt and water. If you want your seats to look as beautiful as the day you bought them, you’re going to want to use microfiber cloths.
These are the only types of cloths that can eliminate even the tiniest dirt particles in your car. Additionally, they will absorb eight times their own weight in liquids. They work great if you’ve spilled some milk and want to clean it up before it starts to curdle.
Once you’re done with the cloth, you can just throw it in the washing machine, and it will be as good as new. A word to the wise, though — invest in a good microfiber cloth. I know it seems counterintuitive to blow your money on a cleaning rag, but high-quality cloths will last you a long time. In contrast, a cheap alternative will probably disintegrate the first time you try to wash it.
If you want to deep-clean your seats, you’re going to need a good brush. A regular scrub brush will do the trick. However, for proper in-depth cleaning, you should consider using a toothbrush.
Another great trick is using any old paintbrush you have lying around the house. Since the bristles are so soft, they’re less likely to damage your seats. Just make sure you cut the bristles in half and apply soft pressure.
Most supermarkets and drugstores carry leather wipes. They’re basically wet wipes, except these ones have less or no alcohol in them. You can put them in your glove compartment and always have them on hand.
Cleaning Solutions for Leather Car Seats: Commercial vs. Homemade
Now, commercial cleaning products can be a great option if you want to avoid the hassle of making a cleaning solution yourself. However, some of them could damage your seats. So, I’m going to show you what to look for when you’re buying cleaning solutions in the store and give you a few of my top recommendations. Also, I’ll talk about how to make a DIY cleaner.
Most retailers that specialize in car maintenance offer some sort of a leather cleaner. You can order the cleaners from Amazon or go to Home Depot and browse through the selection. Amazon also has many two-for-one deals, so you can get both the cleaner and the conditioner at the same time.
Still, before going through with the purchase, consider the type of leather you have first. All manufacturers make cleaning products for a certain kind of leather. However, if you see that a product says it’s good for all types — try to steer clear of it. These usually contain cheaper ingredients, most of which can seriously damage your seats.
I actually recommend buying a foamy cleaner instead of a standard liquid cleaning solution. Foam is less harmful, so there’s no way you can damage your seats with it. What’s more, foam penetrates the seats much better than liquid. It will drive all of the grime to the top layer where you can just wipe it off using a cloth. Some of my personal favorites are:
1. TriNova Leather Conditioner and Cleaner — Two-in-one cleaner that will protect your leather seats from harmful UV ray exposure.
2. Guardsman Protect & Preserve For Leather — Fantastic choice for light-colored leather that also improves stain-resistance.
3. Guardsman Clean & Renew Leather Wipes — Alkaline-free wipes that are great for all types of leather.
If you don’t want to go to the store and stare at the labels for an hour, you can always use some supplies found in your kitchen. However, avoid things like wax or anything silicone-based. These won’t clean your leather car seats at all. Instead, they’ll make your seats greasy, and you will slide off of them as soon as you get into your car.
You can take a teaspoon of laundry detergent and mix it with warm water. All you need is a spray bottle and a microfiber cloth. Spray the mixture on your seats and let it sit for a few seconds. Then, take a cloth and wipe everything down.
Using a laundry detergent solution is a much cheaper alternative compared to commercial cleaning products, and it is easy to make. Also, using a detergent that has a nice scent will leave your car smelling like a meadow. Not the worst-case scenario, right?
Vinegar and Water
Fill a spray bottle three-quarters full with some white vinegar. Then, top that off with some warm water and start spraying. This mixture will have the same effect as using a laundry detergent. However, the only downside to this method is the smell. Vinegar has a strong smell that will stay in your car for a while.
Vinegar and Oil
Since you don’t want your car to smell like a salad, you can change the recipe a bit. By adding linseed or olive oil, you can somewhat neutralize the smell of vinegar. Just mix a quarter of a cup of oil and half a cup of vinegar. You can also add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to get that new car smell. Once the seats are dry, go over them with a microfiber cloth.
The Benefits of Natural Products
Using natural products is much cheaper than buying them in a store. They are milder compared to commercial cleaning solutions. Most importantly, you can use them on all types of leather seats. Just make sure you go over them with a good conditioner after.
How to Clean Your Leather Car Seats: Step-by-Step
Now that you know the why and the what, let’s talk about how. I’m going to give you a detailed guide on keeping your seats in great condition. Also, to make sure you never opt out of conditioning your seats, I’ll talk about how effective conditioning is, why you should do it, and how often. Let’s dive in.
1. Vacuum the Seats
First, before you even look at a scrub brush, you have to vacuum your seats. You can also use an air compressor to blow all of the dust away; however, that means you’ll have to vacuum between your car seats or even entire car after. In any case, make sure you are using the proper extensions on your vacuum to avoid any potential damage.
2. Wipe Down the Leather
The next step is wiping. You can use a mixture of water and detergent or vinegar. Alternatively, you could buy wipes for leather from Amazon.
Remember, don’t soak the cloth. Spray the cleaning solution on it and wring it out until it’s almost dry.
Clean one small section at a time. Make sure you’ve tested your solution on a small patch of leather to avoid any potential damage. Finally, don’t forget to go over the entire section with a dry microfiber or terry cloth.
3. Scrub With a Cleaning Solution
The first two steps are great if you’re just looking to freshen up your seats a bit. However, if you want to deep-clean the seats, you need to clean the leather with a solution. Take your liquid cleaner, or preferably foam, and spray a small section of the seat.
Use circular motions and moderate pressure for the best possible results. Then, before the solution dries, take your clean cloth and wipe the whole area down. Here, you can also use a scrub brush or a toothbrush to clean all of the nooks and crannies.
4. Steam Clean the Seat
Finally, as the cherry on top — steam cleaning. Steaming your seats will leave them glowing. Additionally, the steam will kill all of the bacteria that might have made themselves at home in your car. A steam cleaner is easy to use, and it’s a multi-purpose appliance.
What to Use for Cleaning Stains on Leather Car Seats
The most important thing about getting any stain out is reacting fast. Also, don’t panic — you can get out even the most persistent stains with something everyone has at home.
You can use non-gel toothpaste on almost any surface stain. Take a dab of it, put it on the stain, and rub it in with a toothbrush. Gently rub and don’t apply too much pressure. Once you’re done, you can take a clean cloth or a towel and just wipe down the area.
Nail Polish Remover (Rubbing Alcohol)
Put a little bit of nail polish remover or rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab and dab the area where the stain is. Once the stain is gone, you can mix some washing liquid with water and wipe down the surface. Don’t forget to go over it once again with a clean, dry microfiber cloth.
Baking soda works great on all grease or oil stains. So, if you’re someone who loves getting takeout and often leaves the bag on the front seat — listen carefully. If some of the grease from your takeout bag has transferred onto your seat, know that it’s not the end of the world. Sprinkle some baking soda over the stain and let it sit for a few hours, or better yet, overnight. In the morning, you can rub it down with a wet cloth to remove any residue.
Lemon Juice and Cream of Tartar
Mix one part lemon juice and one part cream of tartar until you get a paste. Apply the mixture to the stain and let it sit for 30 minutes — and not a minute more. Once the 30 minutes have passed, take a wet cloth and wipe everything down. Be extra careful when using this method — the paste can bleach some types of leather.
You’ve probably heard somewhere that it is impossible to get an ink stain out. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. All you have to do is use some hairspray on the stain and let it sit for a few minutes. Then, just go over it with a clean, dry cloth.
Talcum Powder or Cornstarch
You can use either one of these ingredients instead of baking soda. Just sprinkle some on the stain and let it sit overnight. In the morning, remove the residue with a clean, damp cloth.
How to Keep Your Leather Seats Clean and in Good Condition
Okay, so how important can conditioning your seats really be? Well, in reality, it’s a step you don’t want to miss. Think of windshield protectors as the sunglasses for your car, and the conditioner as a sunscreen with SPF 50.
If you don’t want your seats to look weathered, let’s talk about how to condition them properly, which products to use, and how often you should do it.
How to Use Leather Conditioners
The process itself is pretty simple. Once you’re done deep-cleaning the seats, wait for them to be fully dry. If you have seat warmers — you can turn them on to speed up the process.
Next, take the recommended amount of conditioner and use a brush or a towel to buff it in. Leave it on for about 20-30 minutes and then wipe it away with a microfiber cloth. The more you condition your seats, the softer the leather will be.
Leather Conditioner Recommendations
You can use one of those two-in-one cleaning products I’ve already mentioned. However, there are a few great conditioners on Amazon if you want to go the extra mile for your beautiful seats. My personal favorites are:
1. Leather Honey Leather Conditioner — Works well on all types of leather; one treatment lasts six months.
2. Chemical Guys Leather Cleaner and Conditioner Care Kit — Includes a cleaner and a conditioner.
3. Lexol Leather Conditioner — Doesn’t contain any chemical solvents and won’t leave a greasy residue.
4. Meguiar’s Gold Class Leather Conditioner — Provides UV protection to help prevent aging and fading.
Most of these conditioners are two-in-one, so you can also clean your seats with them. What’s more, all of these products are multi-purpose. You can even use them for your dashboard and steering wheels, as well as leather furniture and shoes.
How Often Should You Condition Your Seats?
There’s no universal answer to this question. It depends on what kind of climate you live in, what types of leather seats you have, and how often you wash your car.
If you live somewhere where the air is dry, you can do it once every couple of months. Dry air can suck the life out of leather, so to speak. It will make it dry out and crack, which is why you need to do it more often. On the other hand, if you live somewhere more humid, you should condition the seats once every three or four months.
Protect Your Leather Seats From the Sun
You know the old adage, “Better to be safe than sorry?” Well, all of the things I’ve talked about so far will help keep your seats in perfect condition. Still, there are some measures you can take to ensure your car is always protected from the heat.
First, consider investing in a good heat rejection window film. In addition to looking cool, window film will block out any harmful sun rays.
Also, consider getting some windshield protectors. Not only will they protect your seats, but you can also customize them and buy some fun ones to make your car look even cooler.
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, make sure your car is in the shade as often as possible. Staying out of the heat will protect not only your seats but also your car paint and dashboard. You can read about the effects of sun damage below.
There you have it — an extensive guide on cleaning leather car seats. Now you know what types of leather seats exist and how to clean them. The next time you go to Home Depot, you’ll sound like a real pro picking out different cleaning solutions and conditioners.
If you follow all of these steps, I can guarantee your car will thank you. Remember, the more time you invest in it now, the better off you’ll be in the future. You’ll never have to worry about dirty or dried-up leather seats again.
Also, I recommend incorporating seat cleaning into your yearly schedule. It might seem difficult and time-consuming at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to do in an hour.
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