Mystery Spills

By Sharon Naylor

September 2, 2015 5 min read

When you know that a stain in your car is caused by makeup, coffee or french fry grease, you know how to remove it. But what if you spot a mysterious stain on your car seat or seat belt?

To remove an unknown stain, you'll need to be very careful not to make the stain even worse, potentially ruining your car seat or seat belt material with a poorly chosen solution.

Your first step, as with any car-care need, is to check your car's manual to find out from what materials your car seats or seat belts were made. Knowing the type of cloth or leather helps you target your efforts. For instance, you may need a leather stain removal kit. The manual could have cleaning recommendations designed to keep you within your car's warranty. Some manufacturers will suggest specific cleaning brands. Or your warranty may say that you need to take your car into the dealer for cleaning and repair. Always read the fine print.

Once you have all of the necessary information, it's safer to proceed with a DIY cleaning sequence.

Taylor Flanery, blogger and author of "Stain Removal 101," suggests a careful progression to reduce stain-setting dangers. "You might think you would try blotting with water first, which would be the intuitive first step for how to remove stains of unknown origins, but that would not be correct. You can set an oil-based stain if you apply water first"

Instead, Flanery advises blotting a stain on fabric with dry cleaning solvent first. "A water-based stain will not be set by trying dry cleaning solvent, so you will not ultimately harm the fabric more by trying this step first. If this removes the stain, you are done. If not, let the item air dry before proceeding further."

If dry cleaning solvent, applied using the product's instructions, does not remove the stain, Flanery recommends rubbing waterless hand cleaner, such as Goop, on the stain, letting it sit for approximately 15 minutes, and then rinsing it well. Waterless hand cleaners were designed to help mechanics get rid of grease and oil from their hands without using water, but they can help remove greasy stains from fabric, too.

If this still doesn't work, Flanery suggests using cold water pressed into the stain, left for at least a half hour. It's essential to use cold water, not warm or hot, since those temperatures could set a protein-based stain.

"Next, blot the unknown stain with a solution of 1 tablespoon white vinegar, 1 tablespoon laundry detergent and 1 cup of cool water," says Flanery, since slightly acidic treatments can remove a stain. If this doesn't work, use cold water to blot the stained area. Then try a more alkaline blotting process using a solution of 1 tablespoon of ammonia, 1 tablespoon laundry detergent and 1 cup of cool water.

It's essential to rinse the vinegar-applied area well because combining vinegar and ammonia together will just neutralize the two products, making the ammonia ineffective.

Remember that these are steps for fabric, not leather, so don't apply ammonia and other products to leather seats. Stick with leather-cleaning products.

If none of these suggestions work for removing the stains of unknown origin, take your car to a car-detailing center or to your dealer for professional service, telling them every step, and every product, you used.

Sarah Aguirre, housekeeping expert for, emphasizes that fresh spills and stains may be easier to clean than ones that have sat in your car for days or weeks, baking in the sun, setting into your car fabric. Since passengers don't always reveal that they dropped something on your seat, it's a good idea to look over your car after you've given anyone a ride, especially snacking children.

Aguirre also reiterates the importance of following cleaning solution directions to the letter, trying them first on an inconspicuous area of your car seats or seat belts to "check for colorfastness before applying treatment to a large, noticeable area. Do not use if the color changes."

And beware of bleach-based stain sticks; they might remove tomato sauce stains from your white shirt wonderfully, but they can damage the color and fabric of your car seat or seat belt.

And most importantly, don't mix stain removal products. Aguirre says that mixing different chemicals can cause potentially dangerous toxic fumes. And mixed chemicals can create larger stains on your fabrics.

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