How to Safely Clean Your Car’s Headliner Like a Pro

Cleaning a vehicle’s headliner can be a challenge for even the most experienced auto detailers, as it’s a risky part of the car to clean. The last thing anyone wants is for the headliner to start sagging, yet this is a common occurrence after a detail. So when it comes to cleaning the headliner, it’s important to pick the right method based on how dirty it is.

Many times, there are just a few dirty spots or random stains that need to be cleaned off, and this is actually ideal and easier to tackle. However, there are also times when the entire headliner is filthy from cigarette smoke. It might look like a yellow tint is covering the headliner, and the entire surface will need to be cleaned.

How to Spot Clean Stains and Filthy Areas on a Headliner

Minor stains and marks on the headliner can be cleaned using a microfiber towel or soft detailing brush. Always do your best to clean it without using any chemicals, as this is the safest option. However, once you brush away all the loose dirt and there is still a noticeable stain, it’s time to bust out the APC (all-purpose cleaner).

Apply your APC or upholstery cleaner to the microfiber cloth, and proceed to dabbing the stain to moisten it up a little bit. Do this until the stain is saturated, and then use a clean, dry part of the microfiber cloth to wipe the area. Repeat as necessary.

If the stain isn’t coming out and it’s an oil-based mark from grease, makeup or crayons – then try to use a little bit of alcohol on the microfiber to saturate it instead of using APC. This works well 90% of the time!

You can also use white vinegar with warm water and dish soap as a homemade cleaner.

How to Clean the Entire Headliner Without Damaging It

Cleaning the entire headliner is a real pain in the neck. Sometimes, you have no choice though. There are a few good options for getting the job done right, each involving different tools.

Steam Cleaning the Headliner

If you have a steam cleaner then turn it on and let it heat up. Many people will argue this is dangerous and will affect the glue holding on your headliner. Once the glue is messed up your headliner will sag. Using the steam cleaner method can be risky if done wrong, but there is a fairly safe way to do it!

When using the steam cleaner on the headliner, keep it moving. If you let it heat up one spot for too long you will cause damage, so if you’re a professional and cleaning the headliner of a customer’s car – be careful! Keep a clean microfiber cloth on you so you can wipe down a section after steaming it. Work in 18-24 inch sections. Steam an area, moving back and forth with the steamer for a few seconds, and then wipe. Try not to use any chemicals.

Recommended steam cleaner: McCulloch MC1275

Using a DA Polisher

This method involves chemicals. Dual-action polishers are usually used on the exterior of a vehicle, so this method might seem shocking at first. When using a DA polisher, you’re able to use a variety of pads, and we recommend using a microfiber pad in most situations.

You’re going to be using a diluted APC or upholstery cleaner for this one. Mist the cleaner on the pad, and then mist some on the ceiling of the vehicle. Be careful not to overdo it, and work in 2 ft sections. Use the DA polisher on a low setting and only bump it up if needed and the headliner material definitely plays a role in how fast you should be operating the machine.

Recommended DA Polisher: Chemical Guys TORQX Random Orbital Polisher

Using a Microfiber Cloth and APC

This is essentially the same method used for spot cleaning stains on a headliner, except working in larger sections at a time. Just like steam cleaning and using a DA polisher – keep a working area of about 18-24 inches. Do it in sections. This time, you can mist some of the cleaner on the ceiling – use a microfiber cloth to dab the area, then use a clean microfiber to wipe it dry (as dry as possible). Do this until the entire headliner has been cleaned. This method works fine for getting rid of mild stains and dust. It is also safer than using a steam machine or DA polisher.

Recommended APC: Mothers 87138 Professional All-Purpose Cleaner

Using a Carpet Extractor on the Headliner of Your Car

A carpet extractor will work in a lot of situations, but using one on the headliner of your car is even more risky than steam cleaning it. You have to soak the fabric in order for the extractor to do a good job. When using a carpet extractor on the ceiling of your car, you must be careful not to use as much water as you normally would on carpet. Extract as much as possible to avoid letting water or chemicals soak into the glue holding your headliner in place.

Recommended Carpet Extractor: Bissell 3624 Spot Clean Professional

The Most Important Part..

Let it dry! Leave the windows open if the vehicle is in a safe location and let it dry. This will prevent damage if the headliner is still damp. If you’re doing this for a customer, then you must definitely let it dry. Fans are helpful. Turn on the car, crack open the windows, and turn the fan all the way up on full blast.

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