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One of the worst feelings you can have is driving a car with a sticky steering wheel. Personally, I’ve driven company vehicles for my day job with several that were more than 10 years old and have been changed hands many times. Some of them had some really tacky-feeling steering wheels. Although the steering wheel might be tacky due to the steering wheel material itself, in most cases it is simply due to the steering wheel being dirty.
The steering wheel typically gets sticky because oil and grease trasnfer from people’s hands onto the steering wheel. This is exacerbated if the driver eats in their car since whatever they’re eating. People may also use lotions and sunblock products that can get onto the steering wheel too. Over time, a combination of these things can lead to a build-up on the steering wheel, resulting in a dirty and sticky/tacky steering wheel.
There’s pretty much one solution to getting rid of the stickiness of the steering wheel and that is to simply clean it. By cleaning the steering wheel of the gunk that has caked up on the surface of the steering wheel, you will restore the original feeling of the steering wheel material and get rid of that awful sticky feeling.
Tools & Materials
Interior Cleaner, All-Purpose Cleaner, Leather Cleaner
No matter what material your steering wheel is, dedicated interior cleaners are generally safe enough for you to use on them. All purpose cleaners can also be used, provided that they are diluted to the correct ratio for the purpose of cleaning a car’s interior. If they are not diluted correctly, they can stain or cause damage to the steering wheel. Finally, if you have a leather steering wheel, a leather cleaner may also be used as it ensures that it safely cleans the leather without causing unwanted damage.
Detailing Brush, Scrub Ninja, Microfiber Towel
You will need some kind of brush, sponge, or towel to clean the steering wheel along with the cleaning chemical. It can be something as simple as a microfiber towel, but if you require more aggressive cleaning, you can step up to a detailing brush, or even a Scrub Ninja cleaning sponge. In most cases, you will be able to clean your dirty steering wheel using one of these three products. I wouldn’t recommend using a stiff bristled brush or even a toothbrush as I feel it might be too stiff for cleaning.
Interior Protectant, Leather Conditioner/Protectant
These days, most people wouldn’t bat an eye towards applying a protectorant or a leather conditioner on the steering wheel. However, for safety purposes you shouldn’t actually apply these products on the steering wheel as it might cause you to lose your grip. If you must use a protectant or leather conditioner, ensure that you’re applying a one that doesn’t leave any oily residue behind.
How to Clean a Sticky & Tacky Steering Wheel
First, determine what material you have on your vehicle’s steering wheel. Is it vinyl? Is it leather? Keep in mind that it may be difficult to tell what material you actually have on your car. It could be either of these materials– it could even be leatherette (a.k.a. faux leather), it could be painted leather, or even painted vinyl. Honestly, you may just not know or won’t be able to tell. Even experienced detailers may not know the difference; if you want to play it safe you can simply use an interior cleaner.
The easiest one to tell is vinyl and it is also probably the easiest to clean. Vinyl is quite resistant to wear-and-tear and you can usually clean them quite freely without worrying too much about causing damage. Vinyl looks like the material below. They’re usually found on economy cars or on vehicles with a lower trim level.
To clean it, it’s really as simple as applying the cleaning chemical onto your microfiber towel, detailing brush, or Scrub Ninja and scrubbing away on your steering wheel. The dirtiest areas will be where you hold onto the steering wheel. It may require several passes to fully clean the dirt off of the steering wheel.
I recommend never spraying the cleaner chemical onto the steering wheel because a lot of times the overspray gets onto other areas (especially the instrument cluster plastic) and leaves overspray stains. If these stains are left for a long period of time, they can be nearly impossible to remove by wiping away. So, always spray your cleaning solution directly into your towel, brush, or sponge before cleaning.
A microfiber towel works sufficiently if the steering wheel isn’t that dirty, but if you do need more cleaning action, you can step it up to a detailing brush or a Scrub Ninja cleaning sponge. I find using the Scrub Ninja is generally the quickest way to safely scrub the dirt and gunk off of your steering wheel. However, using a detailing brush works best in crevices where you’d find in and around emblems and seams of the steering wheel, not to mention the buttons that you’ll often find on newer vehicles.
On leather steering wheels, you might need to be a bit more careful about how aggressive you are with the scrubbing. As you can see below, working some leather cleaner with a microfiber towel is more than enough at cleaning the dirty part of the steering wheel. You don’t need to go too aggressive right off the bat. Always use the least aggressive method to clean possible.
Sometimes you can’t tell if you have leather, painted leather, or synthetic leather. If you do have true leather, a leather cleaner ensures that you’re cleaning it with a leather-safe chemical solution. Most interior cleaners and leather cleaners are pretty mild, however you should always be careful with all purpose cleaners as they can cause damage and/or leave stains if not diluted properly. Some detailers complain about stained interiors even though they’ve allegedly diluted their all purpose cleaner properly.
I’d also like to throw out there that even though your steering wheel may be made out of leather, you might have other parts of the steering wheel such as the middle airbag portion that is made of vinyl or other material. So just because you have a leather steering wheel, doesn’t mean that your entire steering wheel is made out of leather.
In the situation below, I have a leather steering wheel with a painted vinyl airbag cover that already has paint peeling from the cover. Unfortunately with regards to the painted vinyl, the only real way at completely restoring the painted vinyl is to repaint it.
Now back to cleaning that sticky, tacky steering wheel. No matter what material you’re dealing with, the goal of getting rid of that sticky, tacky feeling is to clean the gunk off of the surface of the steering wheel. First, clean with a cleaner and a cleaning product, then wipe it all off with a towel.
Check that the dirty contaminants that has come off on your towel. Also, feel your steering wheel after it has fully dried to see if it is still sticky. If it is still sticky or still looks dirty, you can continue to clean and agitate with cleaning solution and brush/sponge. After you scrub, the soapy bubbles left behind will appear dirty, indicating that the dirty contaminants are being removed from the steering wheel. Proceed to wipe all of the dirtied soapy solution away with a towel and check your work once again. Repeat as much as necessary.
Eventually, you will have cleaned off the mix of dirt and grime that was on the steering wheel which caused it to feel sticky and tacky to the touch. This might take many tries to fully clean the steering wheel depending on how dirty it started off. If you still cannot get the caked on contaminants off of the steering wheel, you might have to go for a steam cleaner to get it all off. A steamer provides the effective combination of heat and water to produce the steam needed to loosen up the caked-on contaminants.
If your steering wheel is completely clean, it should not have any feeling of stickiness to it. It’s a safe practice to never apply any protectant to your steering wheel once you’ve finish cleaning it. If you must, use a product that won’t leave an oily or slick residue behind.
If the steering wheel is made out of real leather, you can actually use leather conditioner after cleaning to ensure that the conditioner itself absorbs into the leather. If you don’t use a leather conditioner, the oils from your hand will seep into the ports of the leather and possibly cause premature damage to the steering wheel.
And that is all it takes to clean your steering wheel. In terms of the action of cleaning it, it’s as simple as it gets: clean and clean again until it’s no longer dirty. The thing to be aware of however, is that steering wheels generally shouldn’t have protectant applied to them after it has been cleaned. It’s also important to know what materials you’re working with on your steering wheel so you can appropriately and safely apply the right cleaning chemicals for the job.