How to Clean Your Car’s Leather Seats

Leather seats aren’t just found in luxury cars. Indeed, select trims of vehicles as basic as the Hyundai Elantra come in leather. Unlike cloth or vinyl, leather-covered seats require special treatment to keep them looking new and to prevent cracking or further damage.

Leather Overview

1. A matter of coats

Did you know leather goes through a preparation process before it finds its way into your car? Depending on the grade of leather used, it goes through a chrome tanning process before it is dyed and finished.

In luxury cars, an extra re-tanning step is typically added. Here, natural tannins, such as tree bark, enhances the leather smell. By the way, Bentley utilizes a vegetable tanning process on the leather covering its instrument panels and headliners for a more flexible leather. Bentley and Rolls-Royce also derive their leathers from bulls, whereas most leathers come from cows. Bullhide is typically larger and thicker than cowhide, and usually preferred by ultra-luxury manufacturers.

2. Reference your owner’s manual first

No matter how you think leather should be cleaned or what the instructions on a bottle of cleaner indicate, there’s something you must do before you begin. And that’s to refer to your owner’s manual (or a related special care pamphlet). The manufacturer knows best how to treat the leather in the car they built.

If there are special instructions on how this is done, carefully follow the manufacturer’s guidance. After all, if there is a problem such as discoloration, you don’t want to void a warranty by doing something wrong. Also, keep this point in mind: the leather covering the seats may not be the same leather as the dashboard wrapping, filling the door inlays, surrounding the steering wheel or topping the transmission shifter.

How to Clean a Leather Interior

If your car doesn’t have special instructions on how to care for leather, then follow these steps:

1. Assemble your tools

These include: a vacuum with a brush attachment, two or more microfiber towels, purified water, a bucket, a non-detergent leather cleaner (you want to preserve the oils, not remove them), a synthetic scrub pad, a stiff nylon brush, a toothbrush (for reaching between the seams), and work gloves.

2. Vacuum the leather

Use a vacuum with a soft brush attachment to clean leather surfaces. Go over every square inch of leather to ensure even the smallest amount of debris is removed.

3. Wipe with a damp cloth

The vacuum won’t remove grease or find every dust particle. So follow the first step with a microfiber towel dampened with purified water. Wipe down the entire surface and allow it to dry.

4. Spot test first

Never assume a leather cleaner is right for your vehicle. Therefore, apply a small amount of cleaner to an inconspicuous place, such as underneath an armrest or at the base of the seat back. If the results are less than stellar, try another product. Repeat the process until you’re satisfied.

5. Apply with care

Follow the instructions on the bottle when applying the leather cleaner. Typically, you’ll apply a few squirts of the solution to a clean microfiber towel and wipe it on (and off). The surface areas where people make direct contact with skin, such as armrests, may need extra care. In this case, you’ll be turning to tougher tools such as the pad, brush and toothbrush.

6. To condition or not?

Once you’ve thoroughly cleaned all leather surfaces, you may think you need to apply a conditioner. But that’s not necessary, especially in modern cars with advanced prepared leathers covered in sealant. Moreover, conditioners usually contain oils and waxes, which can’t penetrate the finish. If the product you choose is a combined cleaner/conditioner you can still use it. You just don’t need to invest in a separate conditioner.

Keeping Leather Like New

How often should you clean your leather? As often as it becomes dirty or stained. Twice per year may be sufficient for some owners, while others may want to clean their leather as often as they clean their car. In other words, each time you wash and wax your car, you might turn your attention to the interior and concentrate on the seats, dashboard and other surfaces.

Maintaining your leather seats will keep them in top condition. It can also benefit the car’s value, especially when it comes time to sell.


Car and Driver: Cattle Cars: How Leather Goes from Cow to Your Car —
WikiHow: How to Clean Leather Car Seats —

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