Leather car seats add a touch of class that just can’t be rivalled by boring cloth seat covers. Not only are they comfortable, but they’re hard wearing and wipe clean as well. Over time they can get dirty, but it’s not time to pay a detailer lots of money for something you can do at home with a few inexpensive items.

Types of Car Leather

There are tons of different types of leather out there, from cowhide to sheep leather and even exotic animal hides for the ultra-luxury car market. You probably have cowhide on your seats, which is preferred for it’s stylish yet durable properties. 

The thing you must check carefully though is whether you have real leather or leatherette plastic car seats, because the cleaning and aftercare techniques are vastly different. You’ll have to get down and check under your seats if you’re not sure. 

Leather or Pleather? 

Have a look under your seats where you can see the edge of the material. Real leather will have rough and uneven edges whereas pleather (plastic leather) will be perfectly straight. Look closely at the surface of your car seats- are there uneven marks and wrinkles? Or is the surface completely uniform? 

Real leather is from an animal and comes complete with imperfections and character not found on machined plastics. Another way to check for genuine leather is by touch. If the surface warms to your hand quickly, it’s likely to be genuine, but if it’s cold and too smooth, it’s probably pleather. 

Just to make things more difficult, some car manufacturers use a mixture of real leather and synthetic coverings on the higher wear areas. If you suspect this is the case, get on an owner’s forum, or contact your main dealer with your VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) to hand for the lowdown on your specific car.

How Leather Seats Wear and Deteriorate

One of the beautiful things about real leather is the way that it ages with use. A genuine set of leather car seats will mellow in colour and take on new life as you use them, but if the wear is uneven or sun damaged, it’s time to act. 

Leather car seats in a car used every day will take a beating. And if your car lives outside all year round, the weather and humidity especially can take its toll on your seats. You can’t underestimate how much damage the sun’s UV rays can do to your seats. Old, cracked leather seats cease to be an asset and can become a shabby mess. 

Car seats tend to wear in specific places, especially on the bolsters where you get in and out, and the bottom of the seat itself where you sit. Leather seats are hard wearing and durable, but they can still be ripped or gouged by animal claws, sharp corners, or even keys left in your back pocket when you sit down. 

How leather seats wear

How To Prepare Leather Car Seats for Cleaning

As with any cleaning or repair task, good preparation is vital for obtaining a quality finish. In order to truly clean your seats, you need to clean your car’s interior thoroughly. 

For the best results, we recommend removing your seats, if you know how and have the space to do so. If you can’t get them out, don’t worry, but it could be a tight squeeze when you’re working on those hard-to-reach spots.

Once your seats are removed, it’s time to give them a thorough vacuum to remove any dust or loose dirt. Use the upholstery brush and thin nozzle to get into the deep seams and between the seat and seat back, being careful not to scratch the leather. 

Get hold of a cheap set of paint brushes if you don’t have some clean ones laying around. Use the wide or thin brushes to make sure you’ve got rid of all the dust. You’ll be surprised how much can get trapped in the deeper sections of some leather car seats. 

Once you’re happy the seats are totally dust-free, shake the brushes off so no dust remains.

Vacuuming leather seats

Products To Use

You can buy specialist car cleaning products that cost a lot of money or save the cash and use household cleaning products. It’s up to you how much money you spend. 

Whatever you decide to use, always patch test on an inconspicuous area before cleaning the rest of your car. Let the product fully dry as well because you can’t tell if any subtle colour or texture changes when the product is still wet. 

Here’s a list of some of our favourite household cleaners you can use on your leather seats:

    • Vinegar is an all-purpose cleaner with near-magic properties that works on almost any surface you can think of, including leather car seats. Mix one part of white distilled vinegar with three parts water in a spray bottle and rub in with a microfibre cloth
    • Mild facial soap can be an excellent and low-cost car seat cleaner if it has a neutral PH. Mix a small amount with tap water in a spray bottle and use it to wet a clean paintbrush. Work the brush in a circular motion into the cracks and heavily soiled areas
  • Sandpaper, yes sandpaper, is an effective way to revive old and damaged leather car seats. Use a fine sandpaper, 1200 grit or above to even out scuffs, high spots and scratches
  • Isopropyl alcohol is another effective all-purpose cleaner and disinfectant that works wonders on leather car seats. Look for it in the first-aid section where it’s also known as rubbing alcohol or surgical spirit. Used with a microfibre cloth it’s a solvent that can dissolve oils and dirt

Cleaning Your Leather Car Seats

When you’re confident that your seats are well prepped and you’ve tested your favourite leather cleaner on an inconspicuous spot, it’s time to get to work on your dirty leather seats. 

Repairing Cracks and tears

The art of fixing cracks, tears and cigarette burns in leather car seats deserves an article of its own, but you can definitely try it yourself. Leather repair kits don’t cost the earth, but make sure you can match the colour accurately or else the repair will stick out like a sore thumb. 

Some professional level kits contain a range of colours that you mix to fit almost any shade of leather but bear in mind that you need to let the repair dry completely before the true colour shows. 

Pre-Washing Leather Seats

For really soiled leather car seats, you’ll need your clean paintbrushes and mild facial soap mixture. Spray the solution onto the brush, not on the seats, and work it into the cracks, pores and wrinkles in a circular motion. 

You can use a stiffer brush to really work it into the crevices, but don’t get the seat too wet or it will take ages to dry. Take your time on each panel of the seat for the best results and be prepared to repeat this step more than once if the seats are very soiled.

The secret to getting the best results is to now use a clean microfibre cloth to remove the foamy residue. The cloth will pick up all the dirt in the foam and leave clean leather behind. Make sure there isn’t any dirt, dust or grit on the cloth, or it will go straight back into the seat.

If you think the dirt isn’t lifting well enough, or the dirt is just not coming off, you can grab an old toothbrush or a natural bristle nail brush to work into stubborn patches. These tools can work wonders on stitching and piping, but don’t scrub too hard.

Top tip: Only work on one panel at a time. Don’t be tempted to “soak” leather with your cleaning product, it’s much more effective to agitate an area then wipe away with the microfibre cloth. Never leave product on the seat to dry, as it can stain the leather.

scrubbing leather seats

Conditioning Clean Leather Seats

This is a step that a lot of people forget about once they’ve cleaned their leather car seats. Leather is skin, so it makes sense to moisturise it to keep it supple and looking at its best. This is one time that we’ll recommend you stick with specialist leather conditioning cream. 

Don’t use cooking oils because they’ll only make your seats shiny. Leather soaks up whatever oils you put on it so unless you want your car to smell like your kitchen cupboard, use a neutral and nourishing professional grade cream.

Keeping your seats clean and free of dirt and dust is the best way to look after them in the long term. Giving them a wipe over often will prevent heavy soiling and should keep them in great shape for years to come. 

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