How to Clean Up Spills in the Car

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CARS.COM — Kids and messes go hand in hand, especially in the car. Add in a road trip, and you’re likely to have miles of messes. If you’re lucky, the mess will be harmless, like water, or something that doesn’t stink, like peppermint tea. But let’s get real: Most of us have had to deal with spilt milk from leaky sippy cups that have rolled under the car seat, only to be found when the nuclear stench assaults our senses. Or the worst of all: the aftereffects of carsick children or leaky diapers. Many of us have even managed to get gasoline in our vehicles when filing up the gas tank or transporting a can of gasoline.

Whether your car seat, carpet or upholstery took the brunt of the damage, don’t panic. There are several ways to clean up even the most stubborn messes (including gas).

Related: More Family Car Advice

What’s a parent to do in the event of a potentially noxious mess in the car? There are several things you can do to keep your vehicle cleaner and avoid stains and nasty smells. Here are our tried-and-true techniques for everything from spilled milk in the car seat and dirt and debris ground into the carpet to spilled gas soaking into a seat, the upholstery or carpet in the trunk.

How to Clean Car Seats, Carpets and Upholstery and Remove Odors

Start With Protective Surfaces: Generally speaking, leather car seats or vinyl seats will be easier to clean than cloth seats. These materials also help keep nasty smells, like gasoline, from sinking into seats. They tend to stay cleaner, and they are much easier to spray down and wipe off when accidents happen.

However, several automakers offer a stain- and odor-resistant material in some of their cars. GM, for example, uses interior spray coatings to protect the seats and cabin materials from sun, sweat, sunscreen, bug repellent and more. Engineers conduct durability experiments on the seat and surface coatings, some of which involve applying perspiration to the seats for hours (a synthetic stimulant, not real sweat, phew!) to see how surfaces hold up. Sweat is just the beginning. GM spills “everything from sewing-machine oil to petroleum jelly,” said Doug Pickett, GM engineering group manager. “We do coffee, ketchup, blue-ink pen, regular soy sauce, chocolate milk, red Kool-Aid and black marker.”

Some Hyundai and Kia vehicles also offer stain- and odor-resistant Yes Essentials upholstery seat fabric. According to the company, the fabric “is designed with repel-and-release technology, so messes that would ordinarily stain most car interiors bead up on the surface to be easily wiped away,” it said in a statement. This makes it much easier to keep your vehicle’s seats cleaner than you ever imagined possible.

Stock Up on Supplies: The time to make sure you have products to clean your car seat, carpet and upholstery isn’t after a spill happens. Whether you have kids or not, it’s always a good idea to stock up to ensure you’ll have what you need when disaster strikes. Look for stain remover that is made specifically for car interiors. It’s also a good idea to keep a spray bottle on hand for plain water. Make sure you have access to a good vacuum for cleaning up dirt, sand and other dry spills. You might even want to think about installing protective covers on car seats and upgrading your floormats to better protect your carpet and keep your car cleaner. If you regularly transport gasoline in your trunk or cargo area, consider investing in a liner to catch any spills.

Act Fast: If someone in your car makes a mess, clean up as much as possible off the car’s seats and floor as soon as possible. Doing so helps keep stains from setting and becoming more difficult to remove. Scoop up any, um, chunks or loose dirt, and soak up any puddles with paper towels. Dealing with odorous liquids like gasoline quickly helps keep them from soaking in and becoming more difficult to remove.

Don’t scrub! Instead, gently blot the mess or scoop away loose dirt or debris. If you scrub, you could work the stain deeper into the upholstery or carpet.

Scrape It Up: If you’ve found your noxious fume culprit and it’s had time to dry and harden, try to scrape up any residual particulates first. Gather plenty of fresh towels, wet the area with hot water and soak up smelly after effects with the towels. Rinse and repeat. A soft-bristled brush and a bottle of spray cleaner that’s designed for car upholstery may make it easier to remove stubborn messes and dirt from your vehicle’s soft surfaces. For large messes, you may want to use a wet/dry vacuum cleaner once you’ve loosened the debris.

Stock Up on Baking Soda: Cover every possible affected surface with a thick layer of baking soda. Let that sit and work its magic for as long as possible (in the legendary strawberry milk episode, I let it sit for three days). The same principle that makes baking soda great for soaking up garlic fumes in your fridge means it will work in your car. It may even work to soak up the odor left behind if a gas can spills in your trunk. After a few days, use a high-powered wet/dry vacuum, or a commercial-grade coin-operated vacuum at the gas station or car wash, to suck up all that odor-absorbing magic powder. You may need to repeat the process a few times to get rid of really tough odors.

Combat Lingering Smells: By this stage, the spill should be gone, but there might be a lingering aroma. Rather than trying to mask one smell with another, try an all-natural product like Moso bags, which are filled with bamboo charcoal that can soak up smells from a mile away. OK, maybe not a full mile, but at least within the confines of your car. They come in several shapes and sizes to fit discreetly in your car, and if they work on my daughter’s ballet shoes, they can definitely work on your nasty car smell. Coffee grounds can also help absorb unpleasant smells.

Create an Alternate, Pleasant Aroma: Now that all traces of putridity are a distant memory, you can add a pleasant scent to transform your morning carpool schlep into a feast for your olfactory senses. Rather than adding chemicals to the mix, try a few drops of a favorite essential oil (I vote for grapefruit) on a cotton ball and tuck it into a cupholder or an in-door storage pocket. Breathe deep and enjoy that wonderful family, spills and all.’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

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