This article was written by our good friend Ryan McElroy over at Performance Alloys. When it comes to keeping our cars in tip top condition, Ryan is our go-to guy for car maintenance and car care advice.
There are still few things as nice as stepping into a car with plush and luxurious leather seats — sorry vegetarians! — but it’s important to realise that leather interiors will always require a bit more attention than your average fabric upholstery.
Given that leather is a natural product, it needs to be cleaned and protected regularly to replace the natural oils that keep it supple and prevent it from cracking. Cars with leather seats that see a lot of use and vehicles with heated seats will need even more care and attention as they are exposed to abrasion and dry heat more often.
If properly looked after, your leather seats can last the whole lifetime of your car. If not, they can start to dry out, crack and wear surprisingly quickly. The good news is that it’s much cheaper and much easier simply to keep them clean than it is to replace or reupholster them. And here’s how you do it!
What you’ll need to clean leather seats
Before you start attempting to clean your leather seats, make sure that you have the right stuff for the job. For cleaning leather, avoid any products or soaps that aren’t specifically made for use on leather as these can dry out or damage the leather.
I recommend a specially formulated leather cleaner as these are designed to have a light foaming action to help draw dirt and debris out of the tiny pores and grain on leather seats. I personally use Hide from Auto Finesse but any high-quality leather cleaner will work.
You’ll also need a good leather conditioner to protect your leather seats, plus a vacuum cleaner, a set of microfibre towels and a soft bristled brush. You can buy brushes specifically for use on leather if you like but just make sure to avoid stiff bristled brushes as these can damage your seats.
Step #1 — Assess and remove any loose dirt
The first step of cleaning leather seats is to give them a visual inspection and look for any blemishes, tears or frayed patches. Problematic patches are typically found on the lower seat bolsters as they get worn and brushed against every time you get in and out of your car.
Stay aware of these areas when you begin cleaning as the removal of the top layer of leather could result in the colour being stripped out of the hide with aggressive scrubbing.
After you’ve given your seats a once-over, use a vacuum cleaner to remove any loose dirt and debris.
Use a narrow hose attachment (if available) to get into all the creases, folds and seams. This is important as any trapped dirt can act as an abrasive when you’re cleaning your leather — effectively working like sandpaper.
Step #2 — Apply leather cleaner and work it in
Once the light dirt is gone, grab your leather cleaning product and apply it to your seats. I recommend working on a small area rather than trying to clean all of your seats in the one go.
Allow the cleaning product to sit for between 1-2 minutes and then lightly work it into the leather surface using your soft brush. On older or more delicate leather surfaces, skip the brush altogether and instead use a clean microfibre towel to gently massage the leather cleaner in.
After a few minutes you should notice dirt and stains start to get pulled out of the leather as the product foams up. Simply scoop up the dirty suds with a microfibre cloth. If there’s any excess product or foam left on the seats, you can add a bit of water with a soft sponge and then wipe clean with a microfibre.
Step #3 — Protect your leather with leather conditioner
At this stage you might take a good look at your shiny seats and think that’s the job done. However, when it comes to leather upholstery, the most important stage isn’t the — it’s protecting it.
Leather conditioner replaces the natural oils in the leather to keep it supple and prevent it from drying out and cracking, while also adding a protective barrier in the same way that waxing your car protects the paintwork.
Personally, I prefer to use Auto Finesse’s Hide Leather Conditioner on our own vehicles but you can use any high-quality conditioner that’s specially formulated for use on leather. Some conditioners can be bought with subtle colouring compounds, which can accentuate the appearance of coloured leather seats.
To use the leather conditioner, it’s much like applying wax to your paintwork: simply massage into the leather seats using a clean microfibre towel, allow it to cure for between 5 and 10 minutes and then buff off with a fresh microfibre.
Step #4 — Taking care of your other leather parts
The same products and approach can also be used on all leather in your vehicle, including your steering wheels, gear knobs, tonneau covers, head liners and so on.
For smaller areas, however, we’d recommend applying the product directly onto a microfibre cloth and then working it in rather than trying to apply it directly to the leather in order to avoid spillage.
As we stated before, the most important thing when it comes to maintaining the appearance of your leather is to keep it protected. As a rule of thumb, it’s recommended to add a fresh layer of conditioner roughly every two months.
An easy way to remember is to simply add an extra coat of conditioner to your leather seats every time you add a new coat of wax to your car. That way you’ll protect both the outside and the inside at the same time and keep your vehicle looking great for years to come!