From leather to fabric, stain removal to shampooing, these are the best tips for keeping your kid's car seat as clean as the day you bought it. OK, almost as clean as the day you bought it.

By Christin Perry
September 14, 2020
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Credit: Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Every parent knows how quickly a car seat can go from gleaming to grimy thanks to all those Goldfish crumbs, juice box stains (why, oh why, do they have to shake it every time?) and well, bodily fluids. Kids will be kids, after all, but it doesn't mean you couldn't use some help cleaning up after them.

Enter this breakdown of the best ways to clean car seats. Whether yours just needs a bit of a spot cleaning, or you're dealing with a code-red emergency diaper blowout situation, we've got a solution for you.

How to Clean Fabric Car Seats

Most car seats these days, even the most expensive ones, are made of fabric. It's durable and comfortable for your little one, but unless you're dealing with a car seat cover that zips off, cleaning a fabric car seat can be a bit of a hassle. Follow our simple steps to get the job done:

Step 1: Remove the seat from the car to allow for easy access.

Step 2: Vacuum the seat first, making sure to get as deep into the crevices as possible.

Step 3: Use a mild soap or cleaning spray, suggests Beth McCallum, a writer for Oh So Spotless. Apply all over the seat, focusing on stains.

Step 4: Gently scrub the seat with a cloth or bristle brush, depending on how dirty it is, then wipe off any excess moisture.

Step 5: Let the seat dry completely before reinstalling it in your car.

How to Clean Leather Car Seats

Now that many manufacturers use high-quality cloth fabrics, we actually don't see many leather car seats these days. But if you do have a leather car seat, you'll need to follow slightly different instructions for how to clean it—and commit to cleaning it more often.

The bottom line on leather? It can last a long time, but you have to treat it well. Don't let your leather car seat get completely disgusting, with tons of caked-on food, spills and stains between cleanings. If you do, you'll be tempted to use more cleaning products in order to get the car seat clean, which can result in scratches, fading and staining.

Follow these steps when it comes to regularly cleaning a leather car seat:

Step 1: Remove the seat from the car to allow for easy access.

Step 2: Vacuum the seat to remove crumbs and other small debris that could easily scratch the leather if you scrub too hard.

Step 3: Make a solution that consists of two parts white vinegar and one part water. You can choose to apply this to a cloth or spritz it directly onto the seat. Either way, though, you'll want to use it sparingly.

Step 4: Test the solution on a small area of the seat to ensure color fastness.

Step 5: Using a microfiber cloth, gently rub the vinegar and water solution all over the seat, using a bit of extra elbow grease where it's needed.

Step 6: Towel dry any excess moisture, taking care to get all those hard-to-reach places.

Step 7: Let the seat air dry until it's completely dry (avoid leaving it out in direct sunlight for long though), then reinstall it into your vehicle.

How to Get Stains Out of Car Seats

If you've just got one or two stains you'd like to remove for your child's car seat, you may be tempted to use a car seat stain remover. But remember, your baby's skin comes into contact with the car seat on a regular basis. So be sure to check the ingredients first for any harsh chemicals.

Or a safer bet? Spritz the stain with vinegar, then sprinkle on some baking soda and let the solution dry before vacuuming. It's a natural solution that serves not only as a stain remover but a deodorizer as well.

How to Shampoo Car Seats

Most car seat safety manuals discourage the use of any harsh chemicals since they can break down the seat's materials over time. That can compromise your child's safety in a car accident. Instead, experts recommend using a gentle baby shampoo mixture if you want to shampoo a car seat. Simply mix a solution with two cups of warm water and a dab of baby shampoo, and apply it to the seat using a rag, sponge, or bristle brush (even a toothbrush can work). Remember you can't dry the seat in the dryer, so only use as much liquid as you need.

How to Deep Clean Car Seats

If you're dealing with the worst of the worst kind of car seat mess (I doubt you need details on the type I'm speaking of) you may be in need of a deep clean. Rest assured that it is possible—given time, effort, and lots of tiny tools. But first, here are a few common mistakes to avoid when deep cleaning a car seat:

  • Don't drench it with a hose. While it may seem tempting to just yank the seat out of your car and blast it with a garden hose or power washer, please resist this temptation. Drenching a car seat with water can cause rust to form in the parts along the underside of the seat, which can reduce the seat's effectiveness in a crash.
  • Don't wash the straps. Another major car seat cleaning no-no is washing the straps or harness. These are made of woven threads that use tensile strength to provide just the right amount of "give" in a car accident as long as they're used properly. Soaking the straps in water or putting them in the washing machine can cause the threads to loosen, which can lead to malfunction in an accident.

Here are safe steps for deep cleaning a car seat:

Step 1: Remove car seat from your car and take off any padding you can. Remember to take a "before" photo to help you figure out how to reassemble the seat! (I've been a victim of this more than once.)

Step 2: Using a long, thin attachment, vacuum the seat thoroughly, taking care to reach deep down into the crevices.

Step 3: Shampoo any padding that can't be removed following our steps for how to shampoo a car seat above. If padding is removable, it's OK to wash it in the washing machine on a gentle cycle, but note that it's never okay to put it in the dryer. The heat of the dryer will destroy the backing on the fabric.

Step 4: If it's possible to remove the straps and buckle, do so, and using as little liquid as possible, spot-clean these. The buckle can be submerged in water, but the harness can't (see above), so you could use a small cup for this purpose. While the seat is as dismantled as possible, use a toothpick, toothbrush, kitchen knife, or other small item to scrape any nasty crud out of those impossibly small spaces. (This is where sticky food like raisins and fig bars like to hide out.)

Step 5: If you haven't put the seat's padding in the washing machine, scrub any stains with a bit of extra cleaner, or use the vinegar and baking soda method here.

Step 6: Let any padding you've removed air-dry or sit in the sun until they're completely dry.

Step 7: Reassemble and reinstall the car seat.

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