Is there anything more disgusting than your kid’s car seat? That’s rhetorical. You already know there isn’t. At its absolute best, you’re still dealing with crushed Goldfish Crackers and ice cream drips. At its worst? You can add in melted crayons and maybe an exploded diaper. While a more organized mom might tackle those messes on a case-by-case level, the rest of us ain’t got time for that. The actual cleaning part doesn’t even seem that challenging. It’s removing the car seat from the car and then removing its cover that feels like a monumental task.
Sadly, your car is starting to smell, and that’s probably the culprit. But how do you clean a car seat? Mamas all over TikTok, Instagram, and parenting groups love to weigh in on what you should “*never* do” when tackling that nasty beast — with TikToker @child_safety_advocate recently going viral for revealing a pretty surprising “never.”
So, what can you do? How do you safely clean a car seat? It’s a bit of a process, so let’s break it down further.
Cleaning Car Seat Straps
Let’s be real: Those webbed straps are sometimes the most disgusting part of the car seat. After all, your child’s body isn’t covering the bulk of them. And those straps and buckles come directly between your child and their snacks. Frustratingly enough, that webbed material is also the most fragile.
As @child_safety_advocate recounted in her now-viral video, “I sprayed down my daughter’s car seat with a hose to clean it the other day. Soon after, I was looking through TikTok and saw a CPST [child passenger safety technician] saying that soaking straps ruin them and you need to replace it. I called Graco to check, and they said yes, soaking the straps makes the elasticity off and adds wear and tear.”
While car seat manuals include this information, most moms in the comment thread readily admitted that they read the manual and still didn’t remember that detail. So, the 4-1-1:
- Never submerge or soak the straps. According to SafeInTheSeat, completely soaking your car seat harness stretches and weakens the material used to make the webbing. Since those straps keep your kid in their car seat during an accident, this is the last thing you want.
- Never use harsh chemicals. Do not use Clorox wipes, bleach, vinegar, etc., to clean the straps. Using abrasive cleaning tools, like a scrubby sponge or brush, is also not recommended. Stick to water wipes (like the kind you use during diaper changes) or wet rags only.
- If you aren’t having luck with water, try heavily diluted dish soap and wipe down afterward.
- Take time to pick out, shake out or otherwise dislodge anything gunking up that crotch buckle.
- Consider replacing truly gross straps — many car seat manufacturers will sell new covers or harnesses, so you don’t have to replace your entire seat.
Cleaning an Entire Car Seat
If you still have your owner’s manual, start there. For many of us, that puppy went out with the trash as soon as we installed the car seat. No judgment. (People who keep and regularly return to manuals of any kind are a breed all their own, and, honestly, I’m a little jelly about their organization and follow-through.)
In the case of a car seat, keeping that manual is a really smart idea. It goes into all the ins and outs of the fifteen million ways to adjust that sucker so it’s safe and comfy for your little heathen. It also goes to great lengths to help you clean it properly. You’ll find:
- Spot treatment advice
- Detergent tips and no-nos
- Drying instructions
- Reassembly and reinstallation directions
If you know your seat’s make and model, consider using Google to find your manual online. (You can probably find your car seat model in your Target Circle receipts, babe.)
How to Clean a Car Seat Without a Manual (Cover/Pad)
If the hair on the back of your neck stood to attention in sheer defiance at the notion of using a manual: Heeeeeey! Wanna be mom friends? We’re clearly cut from the same cloth. And don’t worry, B. Nearly all car seat models come with the same directions.
- Get a drink, meditate, pop an edible — just do whatever it takes to calm yourself down by about half your operating speed and bump up that level of patience.
- Remove the car seat from your car.
- Remove the cover from your car seat. There will be roughly a million tiny buttons, little elastic loops, etc. Whenever you think you’ve unhooked the last latch, you’ll give the cover a tug and find a new location where the plastic and the cloth are still attached.
- Shake the ever-loving life out of that cover into the yard. The birds and squirrels will thank you.
- Check for a tag on your cover. It could give you a bit more information on caring for the cloth cover or pad. If you have that, it’s almost as good as your manual. Most car seat covers can go in the machine, but not all.
- If allowed, place only the cover/pad (not the straps) in the washing machine. If not advised, place the pad/cover in the sink.
- Use a gentle detergent (like Dreft) and warm water. Use the gentle cycle on the machine or hand wash in the sink.
- Do not use the dryer. Some car seat covers are dryer safe, but most aren’t. If you’re operating without a manual, err on the side of caution and let the cover air dry.
- Once the car seat cover is completely dry, you can reattach it to the car seat and reinstall it in your car.
- Make sure you take time now, before you have to go somewhere, to get your kiddo set up in the car seat. You’ll need to adjust the headrest and straps to fit correctly. It’s easier to do this when you’re not rushing to get somewhere.
How to Spot Clean a Car Seat
You’re probably never going to do this, but if you think you might, keep these tips in mind:
- Wipe up drips and spills before they set in.
- Never use harsh cleaners and chemicals on any part of your car seat
- For new “stains,” baby wipes ought to do the trick.
- For tougher stains, HGTV suggests mixing baby soap and water to get to the stain. You could also try a Dreft detergent wipe. Just wipe clean with a damp (non-soapy) cloth and then dry quickly and thoroughly.
Even More Car Seat Cleaning Tips
- Plan on taking a day (or two) for this project. Since most car seat pads can’t go in the washer, you’ll need plenty of drying time.
- Expect to clean out your car, too, because you know the fabric under your car seat is just as disgusting as the actual car seat. Bring out the Shop Vac to do some heavy lifting from your car, or plan on having a sitter so you can run to the car wash.
- Film yourself removing the cover from your car seat to help you reassemble it later. There are a million hooks, and you want to make sure you get all of them.
- Use canned air on the hard shell of the car seat. Many places will tell you to take a hose or pressure washer to the hard plastic shell. However, between the styrofoam inserts and very important usage stickers, this seems like a bad idea. Canned air will knock crumbs out of even hard-to-reach areas. Then a wipe down with a baby wipe should be enough.
The Verdict on Dawn Powerwash
Dawn Powerwash is the universe’s gift to parents. Full stop. There’s nothing that magical little bottle of lovely smelling product can’t do… except car seats. Well, technically, it can. Dawn Powerwash will absolutely clean your car seat. However, while the electric blue Dawn dish soap is safe enough for baby ducks, the additives in Powerwash make it a little too abrasive for the fabric of your car seat. Also, it creates a lot of suds, which, sure, people typically love. But when avoiding soaking a harness, making a bunch of suds is not the way to go.