How to Steam Clean Car Seats: Step by Step Guide

Gladys K. Connelly
Gladys K. Connelly has 10 years of experience as a professional housekeeper. Since 2018, she joined the team of thehousewire to write about housekeeping and to deliver useful cleaning tips and tutorials to the readers.
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Updated May 21, 2023

The Easy and Effective 8-Step Rulebook for Steam Cleaning the Most Stubborn Car Seats

The Easy and Effective 8-Step Rulebook for Steam Cleaning the Most Stubborn Car Seats

How To Steam Clean Car Seats
Cleaning your car seats may not bring them back to their like-new conditions – but it will certainly help. With the right products and tactics, you can clean your seats without causing any damage.

Have you ever thought about steam cleaning your car’s interior? Skip the hot water or upholstery shampoo and invest in a steam cleaner. This handy appliance will not only clean the toughest spots – but it will also refresh your car seats by using just steam.

Here you’ll get the lowdown on how to steam clean car seats the right way.

How Often to Steam Clean Car Seats

You should steam clean car seats at least once or twice every two years.

But if you notice a musty smell or have pets on your car interior, steam clean car upholstery once a quarter.

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 most importantly, you need to know if they can be safely steam cleaned.

An upholstery fabric car seat can safely be steam cleaned if they have a ‘W’ tag. This tag stands for water and indicates that if you clean it with a water-based product, it will remain colorfast. If your seats have another label, such as SW, X, or S, it’s not safe for steam cleaning.

However, the challenge is more to having access to such a label – than actually understanding it.

These labels are also based on testing by fabric manufacturers regarding colorfastness in accordance with the Joint Industry Fabric Standards and Guidelines Committee.

This means that this label refers to the ability of the upholstery fabric to remain colorfast to water or solvent. But they don’t necessarily reflect the actual ability of the fabric 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, test your car seat fabric for colorfastness. You can do this by cleaning a small, discreet area first. Rub the test area with a dry paper towel to see if any color appears.

  • If no color appears, continue steam cleaning the rest of your upholstery.
  • If there is a small amount of color on the paper towel, there’s a small chance of color running. But, it should be safe to continue cleaning.

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

When you’re steam cleaning, the surfaces should reach between at least 160°F to 180°F. But, a temperature higher than this can damage your upholstery fabric.

You can use an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature on the surface of your upholstery after each pass.

  • If the temperature is too low, move your car steam cleaner wand more slowly.
  • Or if the temperature is too high, try and move the cleaning wand faster to avoid damaging the material.
  • If you don’t have an infrared thermometer, just don’t hold the steam trigger continuously. This way, you won’t overheat the fabric.

What You’ll Need




01 Vacuum the Car Seats

Vacuum the surfaces of your seats using a crevice tool or a non-metallic, soft bristle brush attachment.

Suction slowly in short straight lines to loosen and capture as much dirt, food crumbs and debris build-up or soil as you can.

Don’t forget to vacuum in the hard to reach places such as underneath the seats, edges and corners.

02 Remove Odors

Spray white vinegar on the affected area and dab it with a dry, soft microfiber cloth.

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

03 Spot Clean Stains

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

To spot-treat, use a sponge and stain remover to extract the spill. 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

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

Install the appropriate attachment: If you’re cleaning upholstery fabrics, use the standard cleaning brush. If you have leather seats, attach the softer attachment. If you don’t have one, simply attach a microfiber cleaning cloth to the nozzle.

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

Squeeze the handle trigger of your steam cleaner to produce steam.

Push and pull the steam cleaner slowly to deep clean each section of your upholstery.

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

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

06 Ventilate the Car & Vacuum Again

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

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

If you still have some debris or loose dirt to clear away, vacuum your seats one last time.

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