How to clean car upholstery like a pro

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Close-up of the aqua-blue upholstery of a 1967 Ambassador 990.

Make your car upholstery look nice. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/CZMarlin/Wikipedia)

Your vehicle’s upholstery will become soiled by everyday dirt, food, smoke, sweat and other fluids, sprays, powders and salves. Constant exposure to the blazing sun only makes things worse. Here’s how to clean your car’s upholstery so that you won’t be embarrassed for your date to see just how disgusting you are when you’re cruising by yourself.

Stage a preemptive juggling strike

The easiest way to help keep your vehicle clean is to not juggle food, drinks, reading materials, telephones, grooming appliances, makeup and toys. Pay attention to the road and keep both hands on the wheel. If you must break into your stash of distractions, pull over so that you can devote your full attention.

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Fire up the vacuum

General day-to-day maintenance of your car’s upholstery begins (and sometimes ends) with the vacuum. Do this regularly, just as you would in your home, as it lifts the upholstery fibers upright. This makes it more difficult for future dirt to set in. Use a specialized car vacuum with interchangeable parts that are designed to reach into the contours of car upholstery. When you do this, remove all floor mats so that you can vacuum underneath, then vacuum the mats separately before returning them to the floor.

Stain repellents like Scotchguard are a fine way to protect your carpet from future mishaps. Don’t go cheap here, if you’re looking to protect your car’s carpet upholstery and not age it prematurely.

Cleaning leather

If you think it’s a good idea to buy Armor All or some other leather-cleaning product for your car’s upholstery, then you also probably think that the only water safe to drink is Fiji. For cleaning leather, a damp towel is typically all that’s necessary. Fully finished leather is already water resistant, so if you catch a spill quickly, it may not seep through. If the stain is a bit more serious – such as ink or nail polish – you’ll need leather cleaner and a soft sponge. Don’t use products that aren’t designed for leather only.

Dealing with rubber and vinyl

Specialty cleaners may also be needed for rubber and vinyl upholstery surfaces. Some home remedies will even work. With vinyl, try baking soda on a damp rag, followed by a rinse with dishwashing detergent and water. Considering that rubber and vinyl are even more susceptible to sun damage, an interior protectant can be a good investment.

Some upholstery-cleaning extras worth noting

  • Dilute coffee spills with cool water and blot. If the stain remains, soak with glass cleaner and blot dry after 5 minutes
  • Clean greasy stains with paint thinner (test in a discrete area of carpet first) and salt or cornmeal. Let it sit overnight, then vacuum the area
  • Use hairspray or salt on pen ink stains in carpeting
  • Use club soda or baking soda and water on vomit to dilute and neutralize the acid content
  • Cover blood with a paste made of dry laundry starch and cold water. Let dry, brush and vacuum away
  • Dilute alcohol spills with cold water
  • Brighten fading carpet by first vacuuming, then sponging it lightly with clear ammonia and water. The mixture is a half-cup of ammonia to one pint of water. Note: Don’t use ammonia on wool carpet
  • Use Borax on smelly carpet upholstery. Let it sit for an hour, then vacuum. A second application will kill fleas and flea eggs
  • Hate carpet static? Mix five parts water and one part liquid fabric softener and spray on carpet upholstery
  • Hate carpet imprints? Put a damp towel over the spot, and press with an iron set to low heat. Don’t let the iron sit, as synthetic fibers can melt
  • Use liquid shoe wax polish on your car mats to keep them looking new

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