Tips for Getting Water Stains Out of Car Seats

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Simple tips, straight from the pros, for how to get water stains out of car seats and other car upholstery.

It never fails: The ONE TIME you accidentally leave your windows down overnight, it rains. Or you forget to put the rear windows up all the way when you roll through the car wash. Even though it’s “just water,” your seat, whether cloth or leather, looks as though someone tried to watercolor paint on the upholstery.

The good news: It’s possible it clean it up with basic ingredients and a little patience. Here’s how to get water stains out of car seats, according to the experts.

Gather the Proper Tools

There are lots of ways to remove water stains. You may need some or all of the following:

Move Quickly

“Just like with any other stains, the faster you act, the better off you are,” says Kristiana Laugen, a home expert at Handy. “The longer these stains sit in the upholstery, they’ll continue to set and become harder to remove.”

Before you go after the stain itself, make sure you don’t inadvertently add to the mess. Remember: Blot, don’t rub. If you rub,  you risk pushing the stain even further into the fibers, making it more difficult to remove.

Vacuum Up Debris

Experts agree: Start by vacuuming the car seat thoroughly. This will remove any small, gritty dirt and make wiping down the surface easier in next steps of cleaning.

“Sometimes these crumbs or dirt can end up making the stain worse once they get wet,” Laugen says, “so it’s better to play it safe and remove them before you start the deep-cleaning process.”

Evaluate Your Cleaners

Richard Reina, a maintenance expert at CarID, suggests starting with the least intense products first, then breaking out the stronger stuff if the stain proves stubborn. But for any stain, he says, avoid harsh solvents such as acetone, kerosene and alcohol-based cleaners.

Pre-Treat Darker Stains

A good first step, especially for darker stains, is gently rubbing a teaspoon or so of white vinegar into the stain with a clean microfiber cloth, Laugen says. Let it sit for about five minutes before blotting away and moving on to shampoo.

Others recommend a mix of one gallon of water, one cup of vinegar and a dab of dish soap for fabric car seats. Note: Both these pre-treatments are for fabric upholstery, not leather.

Shampoo the Upholstery

Melissa Homer, chief cleaning officer at MaidPro, has her go-to products for the shampoo step of this process.

“The answer to any mistake you make on leather or pleather car seats is always the Lexol line!” she says. “I have tested so many leather cleaner and conditioners and Lexol is my favorite by a mile. It’s fast, easy, and corrects a world of sin.

“Just spray and wipe clean with the cleaner with a microfiber towel, which will remove grime and water marks, wipe off the excess, let it dry a bit and follow up with the conditioner. Just rub it in and let it dry soak in a few minutes, like hair conditioner, and then wipe off the excess with your microfiber towel and POOF, good as new!”

For upholstery, Homer’s favorite is Woolite Upholstery & Carpet Foam. “It’s a foam-based detergent, which helps you use less product and not accidentally push a ton of soap deep into the seat padding,” she says. And she trusts historically gentle Woolite to be color-safe and nondamaging to fabrics. Blot with a microfiber cloth to finish.

Reina says if the fabric seems sturdy, gently using an upholstery brush to get any stubborn stains out of crevices is fine. Just don’t overdo it.

Prep and Protect

Once you remove the stain, don’t forget to prepare and protect in case this happens again.

“Like cleaners, there (are) a slew of waterproofing and fabric guard sprays available,” Reina says. “Just be sure to check that it’s appropriate for the materials in your car.” Don’t forget to test the product in a small out-of-sight spot first to be sure it works with your upholstery. And make sure to condition the leather.

Katie Dohman
Katie Dohman is an award-winning freelance writer who has written about home, design, and lifestyle topics for more than 15 years. Her work has been featured in Artful Living, Midwest Home, Star Tribune, and Teen Vogue, among many others. She is currently living her own how-to story as she and her husband work through a complete gut remodel on their 1921 home—while parenting three tiny tots and dodging their dog and cat, who always seem to be underfoot.