The Best Ways to Clean Car Seats

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.

car seat attached to back seat of car
Photo: 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.

That's why you need 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 cleaning a fabric car seat can be a hassle unless you're dealing with a car seat cover that zips off.

Follow our simple steps to get the job done:

  1. Remove the seat from the car to allow for easy access.
  2. Vacuum the seat first, getting as deep into the crevices as possible.
  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.
  4. Gently scrub the seat with a cloth or bristle brush, depending on how dirty it is, then wipe off any excess moisture.
  5. Let the seat dry completely before reinstalling it in your car.

How to Clean Leather Car Seats

We don't see many leather car seats these days, now that many manufacturers use high-quality cloth fabrics. 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 must 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 to clean the car seat, which can result in scratches, fading, and staining.

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

  1. Remove the seat from the car to allow for easy access.
  2. Vacuum the seat to remove crumbs and other small debris that could easily scratch the leather if you scrub too hard.
  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.
  4. Test the solution on a small seat area to ensure color fastness.
  5. Using a microfiber cloth, gently rub the vinegar and water solution all over the seat, using a bit of extra elbow grease where needed.
  6. Towel dry any excess moisture, taking care to get all those hard-to-reach places.
  7. Let the seat air dry until it's completely dry (avoid leaving it in direct sunlight for too 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 from 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, sprinkle some baking soda, and let the solution dry before vacuuming. It's a natural solution that serves not only as a stain remover but also as a deodorizer.

For greasy or oily stains, try gently brushing a dab of dish soap on the spot using an old toothbrush, then use a damp cloth to blot away the suds before air drying.

How to Shampoo Car Seats

Most car seat safety manuals discourage the use of 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 need 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 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 in the parts along the underside of the seat, reducing the seat's effectiveness in a crash.

Don't wash the straps

Another major car seat cleaning no-no is washing the straps or harnesses. These are made of woven threads that use tensile strength to provide just the right amount of "give" in a car accident if used properly.

Soaking the straps in water or putting them in the washing machine can cause the threads to loosen, leading to malfunction in an accident.

Here are safe steps for deep cleaning a car seat:

  1. Remove the 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!
  2. Using a long, thin attachment, vacuum the seat thoroughly, taking care to reach deep down into the crevices.
  3. Shampoo any padding that can't be removed following our steps for shampooing a car seat above. If padding is removable, washing it in the washing machine on a gentle cycle is OK, 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.
  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 another 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.)
  5. If you haven't put the seat's padding in the washing machine, scrub any stains with some extra cleaner, or use the vinegar and baking soda method here.
  6. Let any padding you've removed air-dry or sit in the sun until they're completely dry.
  7. Reassemble and reinstall the car seat.

The Bottom Line

Taking care of your child's car seat may sound like a huge pain, but with a few of our no-fail tricks up your sleeve, you can easily handle even the funkiest messes your child can make. To help keep your car sparkling clean, consider limiting what types of snacks your child consumes in the car, and create a cleaning schedule to keep the messes from growing.

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