How to Steam Clean Car Seats: Step by Step Guide

By
Claire O
Claire Onidi is a passionate home improvement enthusiast and the dedicated mind behind thehousewire. Over the years, she's cultivated a deep understanding of cleaning techniques, space optimization, and sustainable home practices. The sensation of a freshly cleaned room, the aroma of a newly baked cake from her kitchen, and discovering a new eco-friendly cleaning hack are just a few of the joys that drive her. Through Thehousewire, Claire shares her wealth of knowledge to help others craft their perfect living spaces.
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Updated October 27, 2023

How-to-steam-clean-car-seats

Project Overview

  • WORKING TIME: 10 mins
  • TOTAL TIME: 15 – 20 mins
  • SKILL LEVEL: Beginner
  • ESTIMATED COST: $3 to $5

Steam cleaning your car’s seats may not bring them back to their like-new conditions – but it will certainly help.

I must admit: with two tiny humans who think car seats are dinner tables and a furball that occasionally demands chauffeur service, my car’s appearance lost its showroom shine. Of course, I already tried to vacuum and spot-clean my car seats but it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

With a quality steam cleaner and the proper cleaning methods applied in the correct order, I could clean my car’s interior without causing any damage. Whenever I’ve used this method, my car seats look almost like they did back in their glory days.

This effective cleaning tool comes in handy to remove the most challenging spots and revive my car seats using only steam.

How Often to Steam Clean Car Seats

Ideally, car seats should be steam cleaned at least once or twice a year – which is a good schedule for me.

But a more thorough cleaning session may be necessary quarterly if there is more activity in your car like pets, children, or a suspicious musty smell.

Before You Begin

Determine the Types of Fabrics

There are a variety of different types of fabric seats in a car, whether carpet, upholstery fabric, leather, or vinyl – they all have their pluses and minuses.

But the most important is to determine whether they can be safely steam cleaned.

  • An upholstery fabric can be steam cleaned if it has a ‘W’ water tag indicating that if a water-based product or solvent is used, it will remain colorfast. However, the challenge is more to having access to such a label – than actually understanding it.This label is also based on testing by fabric manufacturers regarding colorfastness in accordance with the Joint Industry Fabric Standards and Guidelines Committee.This means that it refers to the ability of the upholstery fabric to remain colorfast to water or solvent – but not necessarily the actual ability to withstand specific cleaning methods.
  • On the other hand, vinyl and leather car seats can be safely steam cleaned if done properly.

Test For Colorfastness

To be on the safe side, I usually start by testing the car seat fabric for colorfastness and cleaning a small, discreet area first:

  • I steam clean the test area, then I rub it with a dry paper towel to see if any color appears.
  • If no color appears, I continue steam cleaning the car upholstery.
  • If there is a small amount of color on the paper towel, there’s a slight chance of color running. To be sure, I use cool or cold water to test the area again with a paper towel. If it’s confirmed, I stop the steam cleaning process.

To be sure, you can use cool or cold water to test the area again with a paper towel.

Pay Attention to The Steam Temperature

As a general rule of thumb for steam cleaning, the surface temperature should be at least 160°F to be sufficiently effective, but should not exceed 180°F to avoid damaging the upholstery fabric.

An infrared thermometer can help measure the surface temperature on the surface after each pass. If the temperature is too low, move the car steam cleaner wand more slowly. If it’s too high, try to move it more quickly.

If you don’t have an infrared thermometer—don’t worry, I’m in the same situation—avoid holding down the steam trigger continuously to prevent overheating the fabric.

What You’ll Need

Tools

Materials

Instructions

01 Vacuum the Car Seats

Steam-clean-car-seats-Step-1-Vacuum-the-car-seats

First, vacuum the surfaces of the seats using a non-metallic, soft bristle brush attachment.

Suction slowly in short straight lines to suck up as much dirt as possible and vacuum in hard-to-reach places such as underneath the seats, edges, and corners with a crevice tool.

02 Use White Vinegar to Remove Odors

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If there are any unpleasant odors, spray white vinegar on any affected area and dab it with a dry, soft microfiber cloth.

Be careful not to spray too much vinegar as this can leave a vinegary scent in the car. If the smell of white vinegar makes you feel uncomfortable, I suggest adding a few drops of your favorite essential oils to the spray bottle.

03 Spot Clean Stains

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Pre-treat any protein-based stains before applying any heat to the seats. Otherwise, the heat will set the stains and lock in the smell.

To spot-treat and extract the spill, use a sponge and stain remover. Either a commercial stain remover or a homemade carpet cleaner, it’s up to you – both are equally efficient.

Place a small amount of cleaner onto a clean cloth and blot it into the stain from the edges towards the center. But don’t scrub the stains.

If the stain is resistant, blot several times to completely remove the spot. Then, blot the area with clean water a few times to remove any remaining cleaning product.

04 Prepare Your Steam Cleaner

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Most steam cleaners come with a special carpet or upholstery attachment.

Install the appropriate attachment:

  • If the fabric is upholstery, use the standard cleaning brush. For leather seats, attach the softer attachment.
  • If you don’t have one, simply attach a microfiber cleaning cloth to the nozzle with a rubber band.

Fill the water tank: lift it straight up and out of the main unit and unscrew the cap on the bottom. Remove the insert assembly and fill the water tank with water. Once the water tank is filled, replace the insert assembly and cap.

05 Sanitize The Car Seats

Steam-clean-car-seats-Step-5-Sanitize-The-Car-Seats

Squeeze the handle trigger of the steam cleaner to produce steam. Push and pull the steam cleaner slowly to deep clean each section of the upholstery.

For areas with stubborn dirt or sticky residue, go over them with an extra pass straight away. And don’t wait for the seats to dry.

The fabric should be damp but not wet. If the upholstery is too wet, the fabric steamer should have a dial that can decrease the amount of steam it’s producing.

06 Ventilate the Car & Vacuum Again

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Leave the upholstery to completely dry. Steam cleaners use a minimal amount of water to clean to avoid any excess moisture. But, the surface of the upholstery may be damp from steaming.

Leave the doors and car windows open to allow the upholstery to completely dry.

If there is still some debris or loose dirt to clear away, vacuum the seats one last time.

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