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Common Car Upholstery Stains and How to Tackle Them

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 24 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Car Stains Drinks Food Clean Leather

One of the biggest annoyances for any car owner is stains inside the car – most commonly on the seat upholstery and carpets in the foot wells. These are the unfortunate but unavoidable result of normal use, especially if you are frequently transporting a large family with children and/or pets. Cars are often treated like mobile living and dining rooms these days, with the result that there is a high chance of food or drink being spilled or smeared into the interior – or even other substances in some cases, such as pen ink and make-up.

Why Bother with Car Stains?

Even if you’re not particularly “car proud”, it is worth your while to tackle and remove these stains from time to time. Not only are they unsightly but leaving stains embedded for a long time can lead to permanent discolouration and damage. Replacements can be costly and a hassle to source. Thus, by keeping them clean, you will make sure that they not only look better and last longer but that the car also retains its value better.

Liquid Stains

Spilled liquids are probably the most common stains of all as it is very easy to jolt a passenger holding a drink during driving and cause the liquid to spill out onto the car seat and carpets. Fizzy soft drinks can be a real problem as not only do they contain high amounts of artificial colouring but they are also usually high in sugar and therefore leave a “sticky” stain.

The first step is to soak up as much of the excess liquid as possible, using some paper towels or a clean dry cloth. Next, apply a commercial upholstery cleaner such as you can buy from your local hardware or auto parts store. A foaming fabric cleaner will also work. Use just a small amount and wait a few minutes after applying, before scrubbing the stain gently with an old toothbrush. Use more paper towels or clean cloth to dry the soiled area and then repeat until you can’t see the stain anymore. If you don’t want to get a commercial upholstery cleaner, you could make up a home-made one using a solution made up of ¼ cup hydrogen peroxide dissolved in 3 cups of water. This should be applied using a spray bottle and left on the stain for 10minutes before rinsing it off with a solution made of ¼ cup white vinegar to ¾ cups cold water. Make sure you blot the area dry using paper towels when you are finished. (Be careful: hydrogen peroxide can act like a bleaching agent so always test the solution on an unobtrusive corner first.)

Food Stains

Like with liquid stains, the first step is to scrape away and remove as much of the excess food particles as possible, using a blunt knife or the side of a spoon. Next, try to work out what kind of stain it is. If it is a greasy, oily stain then you are best to use a solvent-based upholstery cleaner. If it is a non-greasy stain, then the hydrogen peroxide solution mentioned above should work well. Follow the same steps as for liquid stains.

However, with any stains, it is always worth trying the simplest and gentlest solution first – in other words, try to remove it just with a solution of mild soap and water. In many cases, this will do the trick. Gently rub it into the stain, let it sit for 15mins, then rinse and wipe away using a damp sponge.

Mould and Mildew Stains

Unfortunately, stains from mould and mildew can be quite common – especially in older cars that are not aired frequently. To remove these – and get rid of the musty odour – you will need to use a product with peroxide and/or detergents. Citrus cleaners also work well. Spray the solution onto the stained area, wait a few minutes for it to penetrate and start working – and then blot the area, pressing firmly with paper towels or a clean white cloth. You may need to repeat the process if you have a particularly old or ingrained stain.

Leather Seats

All the previous suggestions have been for cars with fabric upholstery. For those who can afford leather interiors, the process is simpler as liquids and foods cannot soak through quickly. You can often remove marks with a simple wipe with a wet clot or sponge dipped in lukewarm water and wrung out fairly dry. There are also many commercial products available for cleaning and maintaining leather upholstery. Don’t forget to wipe all crevices as well and then to follow with a dry towel afterwards.

Be careful with leather – don’t use any abrasive cleaners or any oils, saddle soap or furniture polish on leather upholstery.

Tips to Remember

As with all stains, prevention is better than cure. It is worth investing in stain-repellent products for your car upholstery - there are also special leather versions for those with leather seats. When tackling any stain, remember never to use hot water as that can actually cause the stain to set deeper – stick to cold or lukewarm water.

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