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My wife and I found an awesome new Mexican food restaurant while we were out of town, and we were excited to try it out. We ordered food to-go and drove there to pick it up. Typically, we place anything that can spill, on the floor where I have all-weather rubber mats, but we had a ton of stuff on the floor that night, and we were in a rush to go as I was double-parked waiting for my wife. We placed the bag of food on my passenger seat, went home, and had an incredible dinner.
Fast forward a couple days later, and I got into my car and look over only to discover one nasty looking greasy food stain on the passenger seat.
Since I was out of town, I had none of my normal car care equipment nor any cleaning products with me. I was scrounging around trying to find something to clean this mess up properly, but I didn’t have much luck. My wife happened to be at a nearby Walmart and she picked up a bottle of upholstery cleaner to tackle the stain. This guide is for those of you who need to remove grease food stains from your fabric car seat with minimal products and tools.
The important thing to know about removing a food stain from a car seat is that the complete removal of the stain is a two-part process. First, you want to visibly remove the food stain from the surface. The second part of it and probably more important, is that you want to remove everything that has soaked into the seat. Otherwise, you might not see the food stain anymore, but you will always have the smell of the stain lingering in your car.
Tools & Materials
You’ll need some kind of upholstery cleaner as it is formulated to break down and remove stains, as well as neutralize odors. The upholstery cleaner sprays that include a bristle head on top of the bottle is nice for ease-of-use. I personally used an Oxi-Clean upholstery cleaner as it was readily available to me, but I don’t recommend it because most of the bristles on the spray head are hard plastic, which can easily tear up your interior fabric. I recommend any of these below, which will also clean and deodorize, but they have softer bristles on the container.
You can also try to use laundry detergent mixed up with some hot water and a brush to clean the stain although I find it more effective to just go with a dedicated upholstery cleaner. Going with the latter is simply more effective with food stains, especially with dealing with the smell.
Shop Vac or Vacuum Cleaner
You’re going to be able to remove the stain from the surface of the seat with a cleaner, but you’re not going to get rid of the smell unless you can somehow suck all the dirty liquid that is soaked into the fabric of the seat. A shop vac works best since it’s powerful enough to extract the liquid from the seats (after you clean it with a cleaner.) If you don’t have a shop vac, you can try using a vacuum cleaner with an accessory attachment, although it won’t be as effective as a shop vacuum.
How to Get Food Grease Stain Out of your Car Seat
Prior to cleaning the food grease stain on your seat, you should gather all your materials first. This would be the upholstery cleaner, paper towels and rags/brushes, and vacuum or shop vac.
Below, is the grease food stain from the food that leaked. As you can see, the the juices and sauce leaked from the container and bag, and has crusted up here on the passenger seat.
At the time of the photo above, the food stain had settled for a couple days. By this time, much of the juices had probably soaked through the fabric into the seat. The first step is to remove the actual physical food particles that are sitting on the fabric surface.
You don’t want to scrub the area as you might just be pushing the stain further into the seat, which is what you don’t want. You want to wipe and pull up the food stain. I used some baby wipes that I had around that I found useful for this purpose. Paper towels (with some water or all purpose cleaner) broke apart a bit when I used them, but they can still be used if you don’t have anything else.
It’s also important to wipe away with a new section of the wipe or paper towel each time you wipe so you don’t wipe any food particles back onto/into the seat. Continue to do this until you’ve cleaned up the entire stain off of the surface of the seat.
You’re now left with a clean, but wet spot. However, you’re only halfway there. There are still food juices inside and below the fabric that you will need to extract. Otherwise, the smell of the food will just never go away. This is where your upholstery cleaner comes in.
I used an Oxi Clean upholstery cleaner here, which comes in a container with an integrated brush on top. This is typical with upholstery cleaners. I prefer to use the Woolite or Bissell upholstery cleaners as the brush head included is a softer brush, which is less likely to damage the fabric of your car’s interior.
The Oxi Clean upholstery cleaner that I’m using here has some very hard plastic bristles and a smaller portion of softer plastic bristles, so I had to be extra careful to minimize the amount of contact of the harder bristles on the cloth seats. If you actually used the harder plastic bristles to brush or scrub the seat, you can seriously tear up your fabric.
After working the upholstery cleaner solution into the seat, you now need to extract the liquid that remains in the seat fabric. A wet/dry vacuum cleaner (or shop vac) is strong enough to be able to do this as most people don’t usually own an extractor. You don’t need an extractor head for your vacuum either, you don’t even need to use any attachment; just the hose by itself. Suck all of the wet areas and then blot dry with some paper towels.
If you’re in a jam and don’t have an upholstery cleaner, you can try to use some laundry detergent mixed with some hot water. I used it in conjunction with a brush to scrub the area clean. If you have a handheld vacuum cleaner or a vacuum that has an accessory option where you can use a hose, you can try “extracting” the remaining liquid that way.
However, I’ve found that using a standard vacuum cleaner is usually not as strong as a shop vac; it may have trouble handling vacuuming up liquid that is soaked into the seat fabric. If you own a Dyson, you may be able to do this, but again, I would use no attachment, just a regular circular opening attachment as this seems to be most effective for sucking up liquids from fabric.
If you aren’t able to suction out remaining liquids that are soaked into your seat after cleaning, you will always have that food smell lingering in your car. The main goal of this cleaning process is to brush in the cleaning solution with the remaining food grease stain in order to break it up, and then suction it out of the seat.
You’ll likely need to do the process of cleaning and extracting liquids at least several times. You won’t really be able to tell whether or not the food stain completely clean simply by looking at it. It may appear clean, but it may not be under the surface of the seat.
The way that I check is after I clean it with upholstery cleaner, extract it with a vacuum, blot it with a paper towel, then I stick my nose right up into the affected area and smell. If I can still smell food (or something unpleasant), I will do the whole brushing, extracting, and blotting process all over again. I’ll repeat this until I can put my nose up to the spot and not smell anything at all.
You also can tell if there’s still food juices remaining if you blot the area after cleaning and find that the liquid that comes off onto the paper towel is not clear. In a way, this blotting also helps to pull food juices away from the seat in addition to the extraction with a vacuum.
As mentioned previously, repeat the process of cleaning, extracting, and blotting with a clean paper towel until the two following criteria are met:
- You blot the spot with a paper towel and it comes out clear.
- You can stick your nose right up into the spot and do not smell any residual smell of food.
When you have met these criteria, it’s time to fully let the seat dry. I’ll usually just open up the windows and let it air dry for at least a few hours. If you need to speed it up, you can run a fan on it to speed up the process.
Before and After Removing Food Stains from Cloth Seat
After that, you are done with removing the food stain from the cloth seating. Below are the before and after photos of the food stain removal from the passenger seat of my car.
The most important thing to remember here is that removing the food grease stain itself is only one part of the removal. You need to remove any food liquids that have soaked into the seat in order to remove the smell that comes with the stain. Without removing the soaked food juices in the seat, your car will always have that lingering smell of old food for a very long time.