How to Steam Clean Car Seats?

Most of us spend a lot more time in our cars than we actually realize. Commuting, road trips, and everyday errands add up to us spending a good chunk of our lives in our car. You clean your house regularly, sometimes giving it the deep ‘spring cleaning’ treatment, but how often do you really clean your car? Sure, we run that little vacuum attachment over the seats occasionally or maybe even that big hose at the car wash. If you are lucky, you get that French fry between the seats that’s been there since…. Who knows? No judgment here.

Given the amount of time you spend in your vehicle, your upholstery can take a real beating. Ferrying around sports teams, a weekend-home DIY project, or trips with your fur-covered family members all add up to a lot of wear and tear on your vehicle’s cloth interior.

Just like your carpets at home, you don’t want to spray just anything on your car seats. Use the wrong product, and you are left with weird spots or discoloration. And just like your house, if you ever want to sell your car, unsightly upholstery can reduce the resale value. Steam cleaning your vehicle’s upholstery can keep your resale value high and make your car, truck, van, or SUV more pleasant to ride in.

This how-to guide will let you know how to steam clean your seats and car upholstery and how to protect them from future wear and tear.

Can You Steam Clean Car Seats?

Sure, but it’s important to note what material you will be cleaning. Most all-cloth textiles, made out of the following materials, can be steam cleaned:


This durable fabric is made from plastics. It’s resistant to stains, age-related wear, and heat.


Like nylon, polyester is from synthetic materials. Most polyesters are UV and water-resistant.


Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also known as vinyl, is a flame-resistant plastic used in several automotive parts, including seating and liners.

If you think you have leather, check to see if it is real or fake first since there’s a big difference between the two. Your owner’s manual should tell you.

Faux (fake) leather:

Fake leather is made from vinyl or other types of polyurethane (plastic). It’s definitely less expensive than genuine leather but may or may not be as resilient as real leather.


As the top of the line in car upholstery, leather is the most expensive. Owners are usually nervous about how to care for leather properly. You can steam clean car leather, but you shouldn’t do it often, as leather can shrink over time if repeatedly exposed to heat and moisture.

How to Steam Clean Car Seats

Many readers may be unfamiliar with steamer machines. If this is your first time using one, do not worry, we will guide you through the whole process.

Rent or Buy a Suitable Steam Cleaner

Steam cleaners come in all shapes and sizes and can often be rented from cleaning supply shops or even grocery stores. They come with attachments, so be sure to look for the fabric steamer tool and a soft-bristle brush attachment.

Usually, people will rent a steam cleaner, but if you want to buy one to use only on your vehicle, keep the following criteria in mind:

Tank capacity:

Depending on the size of your vehicle, you may have to refill the water tank every 10 minutes. So, for larger cars, SUVs, and vans, pick a model with a bigger tank.

Necessary attachments:

A fabric steam attachment is essential for cleaning car fabric. Since steam cleaning requires evenly distributed steam, a simple nozzle can easily scald your fabric. A brush head is another good tool to have on hand in case you need to scrub out stains.

If you don’t plan on steaming your car very often, it’s probably more economical to rent a cleaner from any number of places. These range from rental suppliers, grocery stores, or home improvement warehouses.

Check the Weather or Prepare Your Garage

Steam is, essentially, extremely hot water. The hotter the steam, the smaller and more effective the water molecules are at cleaning. Eventually, that steam will condense into liquid water. So, your car seats are going to be damp when you’re done. Don’t worry, they won’t be soaking wet, but you still want to dry them as quickly as possible. Depending on the weather, just parking your vehicle in the sun with the doors open will do the trick nicely. If you are steaming in a garage, make sure it’s well ventilated and, if possible, use a fan or two. Drying your fabric out quickly will eliminate the risk of mold.

Vacuum Well

Before you steam, vacuum your car thoroughly. This keeps the steamer from melting that pile of candy that you lost in the seat crack that one day or from ‘reheating’ those French fries. Removed debris also lets the steamer get deeper into the carpet for better cleaning.

Pre-Treat Stubborn Stains

Just as with household carpets, some car upholstery stains require extra TLC. There are several pre-treatment products made specifically for vehicles. Using these on stains, like spilled coffee, increases the chances of your steam cleaning being successful. Be sure to use as directed.

Prepare Your Steam Cleaner

After you vacuum and throw away any trash, get your steamer ready to do the heavy lifting. Fill the tank with water and/or the cleaning agent provided with the steamer. Switch on the unit and wait for it to heat up. Usually, this won’t take more than a few minutes. Make sure your attachments (fabric steamer attachment and soft-bristle brush) are handy. The steamer attachment may come with a protective cloth. If so, make sure it is on correctly.

Soft Brushes Only:

Only use soft brushes on your car seats. Do not use any metal ones as they can tear or scratch your material.

Start Steaming Your Car Seats

When it comes to using your steamer, think of it almost like a vacuum cleaner. Run it over the surface of the fabric as if you are vacuuming it.

Starting back to front or front to back doesn’t make a difference but going top to bottom will keep you from kneeling on damp fabric and, thus, prevent you from spreading dirt on an area you’ve already cleaned.

Avoid steaming metal parts:

Keep the steam away from any metal if you can help it; frequent steaming can lead to rust.

Move slowly in straight lines:

Keep your movements even and consistent. This helps you keep track of where you have steamed.

Scrub stains out gently:

When you come to a stain that you’ve treated or may have missed, use the soft brush attachment to loosen it up. Don’t rub over and over as you can damage the fabric. If the stain won’t come out, treat it again before applying steam a second time.

Wipe seats:

Use a clean microfiber cloth (not a normal towel that can leave lent everywhere!) to remove any excess moisture.

Watch Out For Real Leather

If you have leather, don’t keep the steamer in one spot for any length of time. A quick pass is more than enough for leather. Excess moisture and heat can cause damage.

Let Vehicle Interior Dry

After steaming, your seats and carpets should dry in three to five hours. You can help ensure this by keeping the windows open and parking in a sunny spot. You can also use a fan or two to speed the process.

Finishing Touches

After drying, it’s important to treat your upholstery or leather to protect it until the next steaming. Leather conditioner works well for real and faux leather. Any number of car upholstery conditioners are available for normal fabrics.

Enjoy Steam Detailing

Steam cleaning really helps to remove the grime of everyday usage. It’s less harmful to most fabrics than intense scrubbing. Some people even say that the process is therapeutic as you can visually see all the dirt and grime come out of the fabric.


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