The Simplest Way to Clean Children’s Car Seats, According to Cleaning Pros

published Apr 5, 2023
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Young girl sitting in a car seat and eating lunch on a road trip
Credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

With all that car seats and strollers go through on a daily basis, there’s no avoiding the inevitable stain or spill. Whether it’s sunscreen, fruit juice, melted ice cream, or even bodily fluids, we’re here to tell you it’s not the end of the world — that even the most stubborn car seat stains can be removed.

Before we turned to the car seat cleaning pros, we asked a handful of parents about their go-to method to spot-treat car seat stains and they shared many of the usual suspects: Dawn, OxiClean, Folex, distilled white vinegar, baking soda and water, and baby wipes. The pros, however, offered a less expected solution for getting those stains out the first time. Whether your car seat is brand new or a two-time hand-me-down, here’s how pro cleaners recommend you keep kids’ car seats clean and stain-free.

How to Clean Kids’ Car Seats

Tanisha Williams, owner of BuckleBath Brooklyn — a professional disinfecting and cleaning service for children’s car seats and strollers — and her husband (and business partner) Jamel Williams, are parents to three young daughters, including 5-year-old twin girls. In addition to personal experience with kids’ messes, they’re professional cleaners who know best when it comes to getting even the toughest stains out.

To start, the Williams suggest following any and all manufacturer’s guidelines for cleaning your car seat or stroller, especially when it comes to temperatures and drying times, to avoid damaging your gear. Otherwise, their recommendations work for most fabric car seats, which tend to be made of cotton, polyester, and/or nylon. 

When it comes to treating a spill or stain on your child’s car seat, here’s what to do.

  • Address the spill as soon as you can. Dry the liquid immediately, and vacuum or sweep up larger particles if necessary.
  • Grab a dye-free, fragrance-free detergent: Once you’ve done what you can to clean up debris and offending liquids, it’s time to treat the stain, which is “where it gets a little tricky.” Tanisha recommends using a dye-free, fragrance-free laundry detergent, preferably one that you use on your children’s laundry, in case your child’s skin is sensitive, so as to avoid any irritation from the car seat. There are tons of options on the market, and every child is different, but if they aren’t reactive to the detergent, you should be good to go.
  • Treat the stain and let it sit for 5 minutes: Take a corner of the stain and wipe a little bit of the detergent in circular motions, then let it sit for five minutes. 
  • All good? Proceed. If you don’t notice any discoloration, it’s fine to go ahead and treat the entire stain with the detergent on a rag or soft brush. Jamel notes that it’s important to go along the grain of the fabric and work in layers to dissolve the grease and grime. Let the stain air-dry and treat it again gently if needed.

    If the stains or spills are deeper than your gentle scrubbing can tackle, that’s when it’s best to contact professionals like Tanisha and Jamel. 

What to Avoid When Cleaning Car Seats

Harsh cleaners are a major no-no when it comes to kids’ car seat stains, and should be avoided at all costs, even if the stains are potty-related.

“People’s natural gut reaction is to just hit stains with whatever household cleaner they have around the house, like Lysol, bleach, or ammonia,” Jamel said. “You don’t want to use those things because they could damage the fabric and they could also damage the integrity of the straps and all of the safety mechanisms that keep your kids safe.”

The Most Stubborn Car Seat Stains

When it comes to the worst car seat stains, there are certain times of the year that strike the hardest. Tanisha and Jamel noted that two of the biggest (and hardest-to-clean) stains are actually seasonal favorites that ought to be treated immediately.  

“In the summertime, our biggest clients are with sunscreen,” Jamel said. “They come to us in August because they started using it in June and they just neglected the car seat stains throughout the whole summer. The sun bakes it in and sunscreen is really difficult to get out the longer you keep it there.”

On the other end of the spectrum, road salt that mixes into snowy slush and ends up on kids’ boots and the bottom of strollers in the wintertime can leave a lasting salt residue stain. Jamel noted that like any other stain, it’s best to treat salt and sunscreen stains immediately.

How Often Should You Be Cleaning Kids’ Car seats?

How dirty could they really get, right? Well, as it turns out, a 2021 U.K. study found that the inside of the average car has significantly more bacteria and germs than a toilet. Gross!

For that reason, the Williams recommend a basic cleaning — clearing debris, sanitizing the surfaces — of your children’s car seats at least quarterly. 

“Kids spend so much time in their gear and are constantly touching things and wiping it on their car seats or strollers, then putting their fingers in their mouth,” Jamel said. “If you can eliminate one link of that chain of infection by cleaning them regularly, that’s what you’re essentially doing, and you greatly reduce the risk of your kids getting sick. You’ve taken one step towards keeping your kids a little healthier.”

When all else fails, seek professionals like Tanisha and Jamel. During cleanings at BuckleBath — which is currently primarily in the northeastern U.S., but has plans to expand, the pros also do a safety check on all of the gear being cleaned. Jamel notes this is particularly important for families using used car seats or the same car seats for several children in the family over time. “They need to be checked from time to time, and just keeping them clean goes a long way in stretching out the life of a particular piece of gear.”

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