How to Clean Leather Car Seats: A Beginner's Guide

Emily Hanson 8 minutes Published: 11/05/2021

With great leather interiors, comes great responsibility.  Unless you’re a fan of the dry and patchy cracked look, your leather upholstery is going to demand a lot more attention than your bog-standard fabric upholstery. 

Why does it need maintenance though? Well, here comes your biology lesson. 

Whilst your own skin produces oils to keep it soft and hydrated when the animal hide is transformed into the leather (avert your eyes, vegans...), it can't produce its own natural oils anymore. To keep it supple and smooth, we need to clean and hydrate it ourselves. To keep the car upholstery as plush as it would be fresh from the showroom, you need to get into a regular cleaning and conditioning habit.

But cleaning leather car seats isn't as taxing as you might think. Your car is probably one of your most prized possessions, so learning how to properly care for the interior can keep it looking like that new car that first won you over.

We even got our good friend Ryan McElroy from Performance Alloys to give us some top cleaning tips for your leather seats! When it comes to keeping our cars in tip-top condition, Ryan is our go-to guy for car maintenance and car care advice.

If you're not after a guide on caring for leather car seats, we've written other guides to how to clean car seats, including how to clean cloth car seats and how to clean vinyl car seats.

So, when you've got a couple of hours to spare on a Sunday afternoon, get this task ticked off your car maintenance checklist, and thank us later.

What do I need when cleaning leather car seats?

Cleaning the inside of our cars isn’t usually as high on the agenda as taking care of the outside. The whole world can see your grubby windows and muddy alloys, but the remains of your McDonald's drive-thru adventure can be fairly well hidden from public view. 

To clean the outside of our cars, we just need a sponge, a hose, and a bucket of soapy water. Easy. But for some reason, the car interior seems like a much bigger job. 

What do you actually need to get those leather car seats looking squeaky clean though?

Equipment

You don't need a ton of equipment when cleaning leather car seats, so that's one less excuse you can use to get out of regular cleaning. In your leather cleaning toolbox, you should have:

  • A vacuum cleaner (and optional air compressor).
  • A set of microfibre cloths - these should be soft cloth, not rough and ragged.
  • A brush with soft bristles, or toothbrush for smaller areas (avoid stiff bristles at all costs).
  • Spray bottles (depending on your cleaning products).

You should have a few of these things lying around, but you can get these items at most decent DIY or automotive shops, or online (thank you Amazon Prime next day delivery!).

What products can I use to clean leather seats?

You've got a few options for your leather care cleaning agent. The cleaning process is split into two stages, so you'll need two main products: car leather cleaner and leather conditioner.

Shop Bought Leather Cleaner

If you'd prefer to use manufactured products, you should make sure that they are specifically formulated for cleaning leather car seats. 

When it comes to picking out a car leather cleaner, avoid generic, multi-surface soap products. These will dry out your leather upholstery, leaving it prone to damage. Steer clear of wax, silicone, or oil-based products too, as these can be very greasy. 

You want something that isn't harsh or oily but is strong enough to improve discolouration, and lift the build up of grime and gunk off of the leather surfaces. You can find 2-in-1 leather wipes that do a great job, but we like to take the long route, putting some real TLC into our leather care.

Hide from Auto Finesse is one of our favourite products and it's a specially formulated car leather cleaner. It's glycerine based and has a great light foaming action to draw dirt and debris out of the tiny pores and grain on leather seats.

When it comes to conditioner, go for a water-based conditioner with a neutral pH. Sourcing a high-quality leather conditioner without weird chemicals or plastics in it will make your job so much easier and will give your car's leather an amazing finish. The job of the leather conditioner is to replenish all of the natural oils in the leather, not stuff it up with scummy silicone. If you use a cheap and nasty product, you may as well not have bothered cleaning the leather car seats at all.

Laundry Detergent

If you fancy making use of household items you already have lying around, then you can whip up your own solution using laundry detergent or dish soap. Grab yourself a spray bottle and fill it with warm (not boiling) water and add half to one whole teaspoon of laundry detergent. Shake it up and you're good to go.

Vinegar

It might seem a bit weird, but vinegar is a genuine cleaning wonder. For cleaning bathrooms, kitchens, windows, and mirrors, it's a great antibacterial cleaner and it's cheap as chips (and goes nicely with chips too). But it does stink, so maybe save it for a not-so-hot day.

To use vinegar as your cleaning solution, just fill up a spray bottle about three-quarters full with vinegar and then top up the rest with warm water. It's so simple and easy, so definitely worth a shot if you don't want to shell out on mainstream leather cleaning products!

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is praised for the beneficial effects it can have on your skin and hair,  so no wonder it’s magic on leather! 

After you’ve cleaned your interior appropriately, coconut oil (or even olive oil) can be used as a gentle conditioner for the leather. Just apply gradually in small quantities and rub in with a dry cloth. 

As always, test first on a small, discrete or hidden area to ensure it doesn’t cause any damage to your leather.

 

Baking soda

Hailed as a natural stain remover, baking soda is a popular choice when it comes to getting rid of tricky stains. You can either mix up a paste with a few drops of water, or sprinkle over and allow the stain to absorb before wiping away. 

However, it’s important to remember that baking soda can be harsh on more fragile materials. If you’re worried about ruining a significant section of your seating, it might be best to stick with leather cleaning products.

How to clean leather seats?

Before you take a deep dive into cleaning, it's worthwhile checking out the car care section of your car manual to see if it highlights anything to use or avoid when it comes to cleaning leather car seats. If everything looks good, you can get cracking with this process:

Assess and remove loose dirt

First up is giving your car’s interior a good look over. You're on the hunt for any damage to the car interior, including holes, tears or frays. You also want to check if there's any perforated areas - if you get liquid stuck inside these areas, it'll damage the inner foam and your seats will soon be done for.

Once you've taken stock of any blemishes, you can go hoover-happy. Trapped surface dirt can be very abrasive and it'll strip the colour off of the hide and scratch your material, so it's got to go. You want to start off by getting rid of any crumbs that have lodged themselves in the seat crevices. Getting rid of all of this surface dirt will make tackling the seats with car leather cleaner much easier later on.

Whip out your hoover and get vacuuming. Suck up all the surface dirt, and if you've got an air compressor, you can use this to blow stubborn dirt particles out of those irritatingly hard-to-reach areas.

Apply leather cleaner and work it in

Now it's time to arm yourself with your commercial leather cleaner/laundry detergent mix/vinegar cleaning agent and get ready for some deep cleaning.

Start by applying your cleaning product to a small area of your car seat, especially if it's the first time you've used that particular product. Doing a spot test like this will flag up any issues before you go ahead and destroy all of your leather upholstery.

If your seats don't fizz up and begin to melt on contact with your cleaning agent, then take it as a green light to keep going. Apply your car leather cleaner to sections of the seats at a time, rather than spraying everything down at once. Proper deep cleaning like this requires patience and care - you've paid good money for this car so you want to look after it!

Leave the cleaner to sit for a few minutes. Then grab your soft bristle cleaning brush and massage it in. Don't frantically scrub at it or you'll damage the upholstery. Your cleaner will foam up and dirt will be pulled out of the leather. Use a clean cloth to wipe away the suds. If you've used a little too much product on your seats, just spray or splash it with a tiny bit of water and wipe it off with your cloth.

If you have perforated surfaces, don't spray the cleaner directly onto the seat or you'll be in danger of saturating it. Instead, spray your cleaner onto your brush directly, and then use this brush to rub the surfaces.

Wipe over with a damp cloth, then again with a dry cloth. You don't want to leave any residue at the end - it'll become sticky or will smell weird.

Protect your leather with leather conditioner

Now you've got nice, clean and shiny seats. Job done. Almost.

Your last step is to apply a protective coating to your leather car seats with some deep conditioning. Just like you'd wax your car to protect that expensive shiny paintwork, conditioning the leather gives it temporary shielding from heat and abrasion.

If you've got coloured leather, you can find conditioning products with colouring compounds to lock in the rich shades.

To properly condition the seats, massage the conditioner in with your microfibre cloth in circular motions. Leave it for around 5 to 10 minutes - this allows it to cure, soaking into the leather. With a fresh microfibre towel, buff it up, wiping away excess conditioner.

As much as you might want to hop inside and take the car for a spin with your lovely clean seats, it's important that you leave it for at least an hour to set. It's a good idea to park your car in the shade or in your garage to give it a good chance to soak in, rather than the heat of the sun absorbing it all.

Job Done

You should have lovely clean leather car seats now, as snazzy as those in the car showroom.

A little bit of elbow grease and a calendar reminder alert go a long way in your quest to clean your leather car seats to perfection. Once this job is done and dried, sit back and enjoy that squeaky clean, soft and smooth leather interior!

Now you're on a roll, why not familiarise yourself with some other cleaning and maintenance tasks? We've gathered some top car maintenance tips from auto experts, and here are some excellent car maintenance apps that will keep you right!