There is nothing like a fresh cup of coffee to perk you up. And with our busy schedules, many of us car owners look to take our coffee to go while we navigate the urban jungle. Everything works out great – until that jerk-wagon ahead of you slams on the brakes, and you spill that fresh coffee all over your cloth interior.
It’s during times like these when muttering a few “colorful metaphors” is common. Spilling coffee in your car happens more frequently than you’d think. In fact, I’d wager that more than 75% of those reading this blog have at some point in their lives done exactly this.
Coffee and tea are both ‘flavored’ from natural, plant-based ingredients. Which makes removing stains quite tricky. However, there are some proven methods for accomplishing this task on cloth, leather, and other interior materials.
Let’s explore some of the best chemical and natural methods for removing those difficult coffee stains from your car.
Why Does Coffee Stain a Car Seat?
It’s typically assumed that stains due to spilling coffee or teas are sourced by the natural leaf or the color of the product. Well, that’s not entirely accurate.
Coffee and teas contain ingredients called tannins. A tannin or tannoid is a class of astringent, polyphenolic biomolecules that bind to and precipitate proteins and other organic compounds such as alkaloids or amino acids.
The are sourced in several species of plants, including coffee beans and tea leaves, where its primary task is to provide protection from pesticides or other predators. The name tannin is often associated with the process of tanning animal hides or leathers – or providing a staining agent to permit the hide to strengthen.
When coffee or tea is spilled in your car, specifically on cloth or non-protected leather surfaces, the liquid will evaporate quickly starting on the outside of the wet area. As it dries, the liquid on the inside of the stain begins to spread outward, bringing the tannin materials along with it. This agent is what leaves the recognizable and annoying stain.
How to Remove Fresh Coffee Spills to Reduce Staining
So – now that we understand what causes the stain, what can you do to reduce the potential of that unplanned coffee spill from staining? There are a few different steps for treating fresh coffee spills. These techniques work on hot or iced tea as well.
Let’s address the best practices for cleaning up freshly spilled beverages.
Step One – Pull Over as Soon as Possible
When you spill coffee or tea while driving, the first step is to find a way to pull off the road as quickly and safely as possible. The last thing you’ll want to do try to fix this problem while you’re driving. It’s just not safe, and plus, you’ll have to accomplish a few things in a specific order for this method to work.
If you can’t pull over anytime soon or are a few minutes from arriving at your destination, just wait – as this technique will work while the spill is still in a liquid state.
Step Two – Grab Some Supplies
Once you’re stopped, it’s time to collect a few items that will help reduce the stain potential. This will include:
- A few microfiber cloths or towels. (always a good idea to keep a six-pack of all-purpose towels in the trunk of your vehicle just for these unexpected situations).
- A bottle of cold, fresh water. (another reason why we recommend keeping a full bottle of drinking water in your car).
- A small container of dish soap or car wash prep shampoo. (This is a good item to have in your emergency kit in the trunk. Simply use a 3 or 4-ounce flip top bottle, fill it with a detergent shampoo, so you can use it on stains like this if they occur).
Step Three – Soak Up Excess Liquid with Microfiber Cloth
If there is still liquid on the seat, floor, or other interior material, use a clean microfiber cloth to soap up any liquid. When you do this – make sure to blot the surface, and do NOT rub the stain. This action will cause those pesky tannins to spread further – leading to more staining and additional clean-up steps.
Repeat this step until the cloth is saturated. When its wet, swap to a new, fresh microfiber cloth. We recommend keeping a six-pack of clean microfiber cloths in your trunk – in case you have larger spills that require immediate attention.
Step Four – Brush Off Any Solid Material
There are some situations where you’ll spill coffee or tea grounds. This is where staining can become extremely difficult to remove due to the toxicity of tannins found in the ground. Here are a few important details to consider before you remove the solid substances.
- Make sure the surface is free of any liquid. Wet surfaces will cause the solid substance to stick and cause more staining.
- If the solid stuff is embedded in the material – which is more common with cloth upholstery, use a wet/dry shop vacuum to remove.
- Again, make sure to suck the grounds straight up, and resist the urge to spread the vacuum across the surface.
Step Five – Apply Cold Water to the Stain
This step is debated in the detailing world. Some claim that hot water is best, others prescribe to the cold-water method. I find the cold water works best. If you have a clean spray bottle, fill that with the cold water, and spray some on the surface. Blot dry until the area is clean.
Step Six – Add some Detergent or Baking Soda
If the direct water method does not work, the next progression is to elevate by adding dishwashing detergent (or the car degreasing or wax-stripping shampoo) or dry baking soda. With both, you’ll want to mix with clean water, to create a concentrated formula or a paste (if using baking soda).
Here is how this step should be completed.
- Place the concentrated formula on the stain area. Add a small amount of clean water to create a gentle lather. Using your finger or a light brush, gently rub the detergent or paste into the stain.
- Leave the soap or paste on the surface for at least 20 minutes. This will start to loosen up the tannins.
- Use a fresh microfiber cloth with cool water to remove.
How to Remove Dry Stains on Cloth Car Seats
While the method above is quite effective at reducing the potential of coffee stains drying and leaving a permanent mark, there are times when the stain will remain. In this situation, you’ll have to use some other techniques or supplies that can be challenging for some.
Method #1 -- Vinegar and Water
Vinegar is some potent stuff. The acidic substance does a great job at breaking down natural plant-based substances – like coffee and tea stains. Here is how you can use white vinegar – blended with some fresh water to remove these stains.
- Mix one cup of white vinegar to one gallon of water. You can use less by using a 1 to 16 ratio or one-part vinegar to 16 parts water.
- Add a few drops of dish soap or car prep shampoo in a spray bottle with the vinegar/water solution.
- Spray the solution on the area where the stain exists. Use a stiff-bristled brush to work in the solution then let it sit for about 20 minutes. When complete, use some fresh water to rinse and blot dry with clean microfiber towel.
Method #2 – Glass Cleaner
Following on the white vinegar treatment is another ammonia type of solution for removing coffee stains – glass cleaner. For this to work correctly, you’ll simply need some standard glass cleaner that contains ammonia and a dry microfiber cloth.
Before you get too crazy about this, make sure to test on a small area of your car upholstery to ensure it doesn’t cause more stains. If that works OK, then simply spray some glass cleaner on the stained area until it’s saturated. Let it stand for five minutes, then blot dry with a clean microfiber towel.
How to Remove Stains on Leather or Vinyl
While the home remedies above are good for removing coffee stains on cloth upholstery, they’re not as good when you’re trying to clean leather or vinyl. To be honest, I’ve yet to discover a DIY cleaning option other than using material-specific industrial cleaning agents for removing stains on these interior materials.
For example, if you’re looking to remove stains on leather, you need to use a leather-specific cleaning agent. Most of the time, when coffee stains into leather, it’s nearly impossible to remove through traditional techniques. Always defer to the experience of a professional detailer to tackle these types of stains.
Wrapping it Up
While coffee and tea are awesome to provide you that boost of energy needed to get going, it really sucks to remove from your car’s interior. The best advice we can offer is to clean up the spill as soon as possible, by using the natural options mentioned above.
If the stain dries, consult with a professional automotive detailer before attempting homemade DIY solutions. In most cases, the pro detailer will be able to take care of this problem with a limited cost to you.