We spent an entire weekend testing over a dozen of the most popular upholstery cleaners, and after nearly 22 hours of scrubbing everything from dirt grime and coffee stains to lipstick and gum residue, we've determined that Tuff Stuff Multi-Purpose Foam Cleaner is the best cleaner for fabric and cloth, while Meguiar's Gold Class Leather Cleaner is the most effective for leather. We also recommend using a microfiber towel and a soft-bristle brush to help clean as deeply as possible. Article Summary
There’s nothing better than hopping in your car to a freshly detailed interior. Your floors and seats are spotless, dashboard is shining, and a big smile emerges as you inhale that fresh “new car” smell again. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to keep our interiors looking showroom condition all the time. Whether you’re an outdoors lover that’s constantly dragging dirt in the car, or you’ve spilled your coffee one too many times on the way to work, our daily activities tend to leave our interiors stained and dirty looking like a post-apocalyptic war zone.
We decided to put our detailing skills to the test and dedicated an entire weekend to finding the best car upholstery cleaner. We started by doing a little research and identifying which were the most popular and most recommended upholstery cleaners out there. We didn’t just search local shops, we also dug around online on both retailers and forums. This gave us a list of about 30 products that were rated highly and received generally good reviews from customers. From there, we reached out to a few professional auto detailers about which products on our list they would or would not use, and with their expert advice we were able to fine-tune our results down to 14 high-quality cleaners.
Since car upholstery cleaners aren’t too expensive (typically around $10-20), we went ahead and purchased all 14 bottles so that we could hand-test the products ourselves and try them out on different types of materials like fabric, leather, and suede (since those are the three most common upholstery materials). After cleaning everything from dirt marks to coffee stains to gum residue, below are the products we’ve found are the best car upholstery cleaners.
The best car upholstery cleaner for cloth/fabric
As we all know, fabric and cloth seats tends to stain and discolor the easiest when it comes to car upholstery, so this material was the most challenging to clean. We tried several different types of cleaners including liquid sprays, foams, and soap scrubs, but the most effective by far was the Tuff Stuff Multi-Purpose Foam Cleaner.
Tuff Stuff has been producing cleaning products since 1969, so it’s safe to say they know a thing or two about dirt and stain removal. They have a number of products designed for home and outdoor use, with the Multi-Purpose Foam Cleaner being their #1 seller due to its effectiveness and versatility. Not only is this foam formula great for deep cleaning the fabric upholstery on your car’s seats and carpets, but it can also be used on other surfaces including vinyl, chrome, and plastic (meaning you can also use it on other parts of your car that have these materials as well).
We chose Tuff Stuff’s foam spray as the best car upholstery cleaner (in the fabric and cloth category) because its bubbly formula removed stains better and quicker than any of the other products we tested. Most of the cleaning products we tried required multiple uses and a ton of scrubbing before stains and dirt would start to lift. With Tuff Stuff, only a single foam squirt was needed with some gentle scrubbing and the fabric was looking brand new again. Typically having to scrub a little extra isn’t the end of the world, but when you consider that one spray of Tuff Stuff is equivalent in effectiveness to about three sprays of competitor cleaners, it’s easy to see how the convenience is appealing, not to mention the fact that Tuff Stuff’s bottle will last you about three times longer.
If you browse through customer reviews of Tuff Stuff’s cleaner online, you’ll see we’re not the only ones who felt this way either. There are hundreds of reports of people being able to easily lift stains from substances like grease, pet residue, dark drinks, and even pink nail polish. For a visual example of the foam cleaner in action, check out the video where it is used to clean spillage from a jelly donut:
All-in-all, the Multi-Purpose Foam Cleaner from Tuff Stuff is by far the best car upholstery cleaner when it comes to materials like fabric and cloth, as well as vinyls and plastics. It can work well on leather too, but not quite as well as a cleaner that’s designed specifically for leather, which it what we’re going to discuss in the next section.
The best car upholstery cleaner for leather
Leather used to be considered an ultra-luxury feature on cars, but these days leather (and synthetic leatherettes) are becoming much more common as automakers try to provide higher quality at lower price points. With that in mind, we tried a handful of leather-specific cleaners in addition to our multi-purpose fabric cleaners discussed above and found that Meguiar’s Gold Class Leather Conditioner is the best car upholstery cleaner for leather and leatherette materials.
If you’re even slightly into the car scene, you know the name Meguiar’s. They’ve become one of the most trusted brands in the entire car community, and their lineup of auto-specific cleaning products are recommended worldwide by everyone from regular car enthusiasts to dealerships and professional detailers. So with that said, it really didn’t come as a huge surprise that one of their products was one of our top picks for best car upholstery cleaner.
Although leather is much more common on cars these days, it is still a premium material nonetheless, and as such it must be treated that way. Meguiar’s Gold Class Leather Conditioner was our top choice because its formula doesn’t just focus on cleaning the leather (which it does that very well, by the way), but it also contains ingredients that restore softness, maintain color, and prevent cracking and aging. The majority of leather cleaning products on the market just focus on one thing or the other, or worse yet they just give your leather an over-the-top greasy “shine” without actually removing the grime that’s built up over time. Meguiar’s leather upholstery cleaner is the only formula we could find that truly gets into the grime buildup to restore the leather to factory condition, while massaging additional properties into the material to maintain and protect it over time.
TriNova’s Leather Cleaner was a close #2, but after testing the cleaning effectiveness on different types of stains as well as speaking to professional detailers about their experiences with leather cleaning formulas, they’ve recommended to stick with Meguiar’s. To see Meguiar’s Gold Class Conditioner in action, check out the below video using it to clean 7-year-old grime buildup off a leather center console:
Auto detailing doesn’t get much better than Meguiar’s, especially when it comes to leather upholstery. One of the references we spoke to was a man who has owned a custom hot rod upholstery shop for over 30 years. He said he first discovered Meguiar’s about 15 years ago, and since then has never used another product for treating his customer’s interiors. If you’re looking for the best car upholstery cleaner for leather (and even leatherettes), Meguiar’s Gold Class Leather Conditioner is the way to go.
A great all-around detailing spray
If you’re not necessarily looking for a cleaner that’s specific to cloth or leather, and you just want a more general product that will be a good all-purpose cleaner for your upholstery, our recommendation would be to go with Chemical Guys’ InnerClean detail spray.
Chemical Guys is another one of those brands you’ll immediately recognize if you grew up around cars. They originally started out in 1968 as a small group of guys whose mission was to produce quality car care products, and since then they’ve grown into an international company that can be found in over 50 countries. If that doesn’t show you they’ve succeeded at their goals, I don’t know what will.
While Tuff Stuff’s Foam Cleaner was the best at deeply cleansing cloths and fabrics, and Meguiar’s Gold Class Conditioner was optimal for treating and protecting leather materials, Chemical Guys’ InnerClean detail spray is just a great all-around upholstery cleaner for regular detailing purposes. For example, this is what we’d recommend to be your regular detail spray for your weekly car wash routine – situations where you don’t necessarily have any deep stains or long buildup to take care of, you just want to get your interior back to looking fresh and clean again.
With that said, InnerClean is not just your basic detail spray to wipe away dust. Chemical Guys has actually developed a patented formula which not only removes dust, but actually repels it as well. Think of the formula kinda of like how you wax your exterior. After a fresh wax, water rolls right off your paint and doesn’t tend to stick or spot. That’s exactly how InnerClean works: rather than clinging to your upholstery, dust slips right off the surface. With that said, it’s important to note that this happens at a microscopic level; InnerClean won’t make your interior a slip-and-slide like some other detail sprays tend to do (ArmorAll is most notable for this). Chemical Guys’ spray actually leaves your interior with an OEM-looking matte finish, so that everything looks and feels like it did the day the car came off the showroom.
Another unique benefit of Chemical Guys’ patented formula is that it includes UV protection. Typically you only see UV protection offered on leather-specific detail formulas like the Meguiar’s conditioner we spoke about above, but InnerClean also contains similar properties that help protect your dashboard and other plastic or vinyl pieces from fading or wearing due to UV damage. This is another reason why we recommend this as your regular detail spray, so that your interior can get a weekly treatment of sun protection to maintain its look and quality as long as possible.
For the best all-around detail spray available, Chemical Guys InnerClean is our top pick. As mentioned in a previous section, Tuff Stuff’s foam spray can also work great on vinyls and plastics just like this spray, but in terms of convenience, a liquid spray is quite a bit easier to work with.
Other cleaning tools you’ll need
In the future, we’ll be able to coat our entire interior with some magical spray, and in minutes our upholstery will look brand new without having to lift a finger! Unfortunately, for now, there’s a little more to it than that. After using one of the above sprays on your upholstery, you’ll need a couple tools to help wipe the dirt and/or stains away.
A towel is the first tool on the list, but not just any towel – a microfiber towel. Microfiber is different from cotton in that it consists of a much more finely woven fibers (think smaller and thinner), hence the name micro-fiber. Because the fibers are more fine, there are more of them per square inch, which means they’re much more effective for cleaning surfaces, especially in cars where you’ve got tons of nooks and crannies for small particles to be hiding in.
Microfiber has become the go-to towel material in the car industry, and just like regular cotton tools, there are many different quality levels to choose from. If you don’t get the right quality, the fibers in these towels can begin to leave scratches over time. Our favorite for car upholstery are Chemical Guys Professional Grade Premium Microfiber Towels. These towels are extremely high quality as well as scratch-free, lint-free, and swirl-free.
Microfiber towels usually get the job done, but for slightly tougher-than-average situations, you’ll want a brush to help scrub dirt, grime, or other substances off your upholstery. Choosing the right brush just comes down to bristle strength. Because we’re talking about things like cloths, fabrics, leathers, and plastics, a light- or medium-duty brush will give you just the right amount of strength to scrub away substances while being gentle enough to not damage your upholstery.
Our favorite scrub brush is, again, by Chemical Guys. Their Carpet Scrub Brush comes in three different strengths: light, medium, and heavy. Light-duty is typically recommended for more sensitive materials like leather and headliner, whereas medium-duty would cover carpets and plastics. Heavy-duty typically isn’t recommended for upholstery. We primarily use the medium-duty brush as we’ve found this is the best all-around bristle strength. In addition, you can use these by hand (which is how we do things), or if you prefer to use higher-end tools on tougher jobs, the back of the brush comes with an attachment for a drill.
How to effectively clean car upholstery
Cleaning your car’s upholstery is a slightly more time-consuming process than washing the outside of the car, and because of that, a lot of people only do the bare minimum. This is why some of your friends’ cars look like a junkyard when they’re only a year or two old. However, if you dedicate the time to keeping your interior maintained, your car will be looking showroom-condition well past that big 100,000-mile marker – not only impressing your friends, but also keeping your car’s value as high as possible (if at any point you decide to sell).
Below is a step-by-step process on cleaning your interior from start to finish, as well as some tips for specific parts of your upholstery like fabric, leather, and plastic.
Step 1: Start by vacuuming
Always begin your upholstery cleaning by vacuuming. Vacuum every area you can: carpets, floor mats, seats, etc. This will allow you to suck up the majority of the loose dirt and dust around your car, which in turn makes things easier once you break out your cleaning spray because you don’t have as much to clean. This step is crucial because if you use the cleaning spray before vacuuming, all you’ll do is wet all the dirt down which makes it much harder to get out.
Step 2: Move on to dashboard, door panels, and headliner (if needed)
Most people will move on to seat cleaning after vacuuming, but we recommend cleaning your dashboard and door panels first. Our reasoning behind this is that you’re going to be moving all over your seats while you wipe down your dashboard and door panels, so if you clean the seats first, you’ll just dirty them up again by moving around all over them. Saving the seats for last will ensure they stay as fresh as possible.
When cleaning your dashboard and door panels, use your cleaning spray and a microfiber towel. Remember to use the spray generously; a little will go a long way since these parts of your car generally don’t get too dirty.
Step 3: Time to hit the seats
Now that you’ve taken care of the surrounding parts, it’s time to condition your seats. How you go about this will depend on the type of seats you have: cloth or leather.
For a tutorial on cleaning cloth seats, check out the video below:
For a tutorial on cleaning leather seats, check out the video below:
Bonus Step: Shampoo your floor mats and carpets
Depending on how often you detail your car, your floor mats and carpeting may be due for a deeper cleaning than a regular spray or foam upholstery cleaner can handle. If you notice a large amount of discoloration or a big number of spots and stains, taking the extra time to shampoo them will go a long way for keeping your car in top condition. You can either take them to a professional cleaner, or if you’ve got some sort of steam cleaner or shampoo machine around the house, you can do it right in your own garage. Remember to allow time for these to dry before taking your car out for a ride again.
Wrapping it up
Cleaning your car upholstery certainly takes a little bit of time, but the result is well worth the effort. Regularly keeping your interior in good shape isn’t just good practice for appearance and hygiene, but it’ll also keep your car’s value high over time as well in case you ever decide to sell it. Making sure you use only the best car upholstery cleaners is crucial to ensure you have proper protection on your interior. If you’ve got cloth seats, keep them treated with a cloth-specific cleaner like Tuff Stuff; if you’re riding on premium leather, get the full treatment of cleansing and protection from a trusted brand like Meguiar’s. If you’ve got any additional tips and tricks on