how to clean a cars headliner

How to clean the headliner of a car

Cleaning your car’s headliner (otherwise known as the interior ceiling of your car) is essential for keeping your car looking new. Moisture, smoke, vape residue, dust, dirt, and grime can dull the appearance of your entire headliner.

When I had young kids, it was not uncommon to have dirty handprints or marks from pens, markers, or crayons on the interior ceiling or door panels of my car.

Cleaning your car’s headliner will help protect it against bacteria which can cause bad smells and odors inside your vehicle.

If your headliner has gotten wet, it can turn into mildew or mold which can be harmful when breathed in.

But most of all, a dirty headliner is simply ugly to look at.

What is a car headliner?

The headliner is the material that covers the interior car ceiling. The fabric is generally made from vinyl or cloth but can be made from other materials such as leather or suede.

The headliner is usually backed by a thin layer of foam or insulation. In some cases, it will be attached to molded plastic or fiberglass and attached to the roof of the vehicle with adhesive or fasteners. It is rare but it could even be attached directly to your metal roof, especially if you have an older car.

The headliner helps to provide insulative protection against weather extremes and noise. Besides the sound deadening function it provides, the headliner helps give your vehicle a more elegant look and feel.

For that reason, you will want to keep it clean whether it requires spot cleaning or deep cleaning of the entire surface.

How often should you clean the interior roof of your car?

Cleaning the interior roof of your car should be done on a semi-annual or annual basis as part of deep cleaning your vehicle. Surface cleaning your car roof and upholstery of visible dirt and stains should be done immediately upon noticing them.

Keeping the surface clean is important because the longer a stain sits, the more work you may have to do to remove it.

Is cleaning your car headliner easy and safe?

Cleaning a car headliner can be a difficult task, but it doesn’t have to be if you have the right product. There are different car headliner cleaners that can come in handy when doing this job.

It is important to pick the best cleaner for your headliner. Pick the wrong cleaner or cleaning solution and it won’t work.

Worse, picking the wrong cleaner or following the wrong process may damage your headliner.

For example, improper use of a steam cleaner may dissolve the adhesive that adheres the headliner to the roof and can lead to a sagging headliner. By choosing the right fabric cleaner you can safely remove the stained area and end up with a clean headliner.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that most headliners in cars are attached using glue or some form of adhesive. If your headliner gets too wet during the cleaning process or you use too many chemicals that lead to over-saturation, you can break down the adhesion of the glue. Over time this can cause your headliner to sag or come unglued.

You certainly can (and should) clean your headliner. Just be sure to evenly spray upholstery cleaner to avoid over spraying and excess moisture. If you use your own soap and water solution, be sure to apply with a spray bottle, sponge, or microfiber towel and gently dab to apply the stain remover.

Whenever using a fabric or upholstery cleaner directly, always test it in an inconspicuous spot before cleaning the entire surface to make sure it does not dull or bleach out the material, especially if your headliner is made from cloth.

How to spot clean a car headliner

The best product we have found to safely clean a headliner is an upholstery cleaner from Detail King.

Detail King Velour Upholstery Cleaner is a spray cleaner that is excellent at removing dirt and grime. It will remove most tough stains. Detail King makes many cleaning products that professional car detailers use.

Not only does Detail King’s Velour Upholstery Cleaner do a fantastic job on car headliners, but it will also remove dust, water-based stains, grease, and oil from your car’s carpet and seats. This makes it a great cleaner for most of your car’s interior including carpet, velour seats, sun visors, and door panels.

I even used it on our car mats and it removed ground-in dirt much better than some carpet cleaners I have used.

I first came across Detail King’s Velour Upholstery Cleaner from a local auto detailer. I was watching him work on my car’s floor mats and they went from dirty and stained to looking nearly brand new. And this was on a 7-year-old car! He used it on our seats, center and overhead console, trim, and headliner.

Detail King Automotive Velour Upholstery Cleaner
  • Remove accumulated dirt and grime.
  • Safe to use on a variety of interior surfaces.
  • Great for removing water stains.
  • Extremely convenient and quick cleaning.
  • Leave your fabric smelling amazingly fresh.

When I saw what he was using, I made a mental note to get some. I have used it to remove ketchup and juice stains from my cloth seats and dirt smudges on my headliner and door panels courtesy of my kids eating in the car during road trips.

What I like best about this product is that it is quite versatile and easy to use. All you need to do is lightly spray it on the stain or microfiber towel, apply it by gently rubbing it on the area to be cleaned, wait a minute or two for it to lift any stains, and then use a brush to gently scrub the stain.

Be sure to avoid over-spraying to prevent over-saturation.

I recommend using a microfiber towel, or an old bath towel to apply the spray to rather than directly spraying the surface.

For more stubborn stains, it may take two to three applications to fully remove. I apply once and apply again each following day until the stain is gone. This ensures the product has time to dry in between cleaning sessions.

Recipe for homemade car upholstery cleaner

Here is a simple DIY cleaning solution that can be used on automobile fabrics. It consists of white vinegar, dish soap, and hot water and can remove minor stains.

Step 1

Simply mix together the following amounts of baking soda and water.

  • 1/4 cup of baking soda
  • 1 cup of warm water

Step 2

Next, mix together some warm water, a few squirts of liquid dish detergent, a 1/4 cup of white vinegar and add the mixture to a spray bottle.

Step 3

Use a soft-bristled brush or microfiber cloth to apply the mixture from Step 1 above. Let the cleaner sit for 20-30 minutes to maximize the cleaning effect. Use a towel to gently wipe away and remove excess moisture.

Step 4

Next, use your microfiber cloth to blot away any stains.

Step 5

Next, use the water and vinegar mixture to lightly spray and clean the entire headliner. Be careful to avoid applying too much. The surface should be moist, not wet. If you accidentally spray too much, wipe up excess with the microfiber cloth.

Step 6

Use a soft-bristled brush to gently rub the cleaner into the headliner. If an area has dried, give it another spray from the spray bottle and use the soft brush to gently work it in. Allow the cleaner to sit for several minutes but do not let the headliner dry out completely.

Step 7

Use a clean towel to lightly rub and buff the area and absorb any final moisture. For deep cleaning, you may need to repeat the entire process or spot clean rouble areas, but make sure the headliner has completely dried before repeating.

Step 8

The final step is to air out the car. This will allow the entire headliner to air out and dry and is great for eliminating odors if present. Bad odors may or may not be present, but either way, your car will smell nice afterward.

How to clean larger areas of your headliner

For larger areas, you can use more Detail King Velour Upholstery Cleaner, or you could invest in a Hoover CleanSlate Plus Upholstery and Carpet Cleaner.

What’s nice about the Hoover is that it can be used for more than just your car headliner.

It can be used on floor mats, car upholstery, door panels, or really anywhere on your car’s interior. Using it will make for faster surface cleaning.

The Hoover CleanSlate is preferred over a portable steam cleaner.

You can use a steam cleaner to clean a car headliner if you are careful. When combined with the correct cleaning solution both options can drastically cut down on the amount of time needed to clean the inside of your car.

A steam cleaner requires heat to generate the steam used to deep clean and absorb odors. However, if you are not careful, a steam cleaner can apply excess heat to the headliner and side panels and thus loosen or soften the adhesive that attaches the headliner to the backing material.

The Hoover Cleanslate will use water, but its powerful suction will make sure you don’t apply too much water at once unless you make too many passes over the same spot.

What I like best about the Hoover, is that you can use it in the house as well. It isn’t great at cleaning large areas like your living room, but it is great for steam spot cleaning upholstery or cleaning small stains off the carpet or furniture. It is great for cleaning up pet messes, wine and juice spills, and deep cleaning other dirty spots. Especially when you don’t want to steam clean the whole carpet.

Hoover CleanSlate Plus Upholstery and Carpet Cleaner
  • POWERFUL SUCTION: Powerful suction for life size spots & stains
  • TOOLS FOR EVERY MESS: Tools for every mess with the 7” WidePath Tool and TightSpot Tool
  • PERMANENT STAIN REMOVAL: Permanently remove tough pet stains and spots* with the included Oxy Concentrate
  • QUICK & PORTABLE: Quickly remove spills when they happen
  • TYPES OF MESSES: Clean tough messes like mud, wine, pet messes and more from carpets and upholstery

How to remove oil stains from a car headliner

Oil-based stains create a special challenge, especially if your headliner is made of fabric. For this problem DIY cleaning solutions aren’t as effective and can make the problem worse by spreading the oil or grease around further.

One option is to spray a few drops of WD-40 onto a rag and lightly dab the spot followed by the deep clean process above. The WD-40 will help dissolve the oil, but do not use WD-40 on real light fabrics. Again, test, test, test before using!

A better option is to use an upholstery cleaner with a built-in stain extractor.

For this particular problem, I recommend a cleaner from Chemical Guys. It is a carpet and upholstery stain extractor that works particularly well on oil and grease as well as coffee stains. It also works great on bad odors.

Chemical Guys Carpet and Upholstery Stain Extractor
  • SUPER-POWERFUL STAIN EXTRACTOR - Lightning Fast is a super-powerful stain extractor that penetrates deep, dissolves tough stains, then emulsifies and lifts dirt and debris to the surface to restore fabric, upholstery, and carpet.
  • TWO AMAZIN PRODUCTS IN ONE - Mistakes and spills happen all the time, but the stain can remain for a lifetime! Lightning Fast is boosted with strong cleaning agents that penetrate deep, dissolve stains, then emulsify and lift dirt and debris to the surface.
  • TOUGH ON STAINS, GENTLE ON FABRIC - Lightning Fast works hard so you don’t have to. Simply spray, agitate, then wipe. No need for hard scrubbing and brushing to remove set in stains, dirt, grease, or grime.
  • DESTROY ODORS - This cleaner is blended with odor-eliminating enzymes that destroy odors at the source, leaving behind a fresh, clean scent.
  • THE GO TO BRAND IN CAR CARE - Beginners and professionals alike choose Chemical Guys, not only for the finest car care products, but the world class customer support and vast detailing knowledge Chemical Guys is more than a brand it's a lifestyle with a worldwide following

Final Thoughts

Remember to test any upholstery cleaner on a small spot before cleaning larger areas. Most people will get great results but if you don’t feel comfortable cleaning your own headliner, as a last resort seek out the services of a professional car detailer.

Car detailers will have products they like that may work better. And they are experienced cleaning difficult stains. They can also deep clean your car’s interior which can save you a lot of time for just a little more money.