Focus on Reconditioning - February 2002

Clean Without Damaging

By Joe Sipowicz

For years, detailers have been cleaning and shampooing fabric upholstery, yet few know how to treat the different fabrics without causing damage to the material and dye.

Before cleaning and shampooing fabric upholstery a prudent detailer should first examine heavily soiled and stained areas in the presence of the customer to determine whether or not the stain or dirt can be removed. This pre-qualifying procedure is important because you may not be able to completely remove the stain or clean the fabric and because of the risk that certain cleaning agents may actually damage fabrics and dyes.


Some of the most damaging stains come from the human body and/or from pets. The following are examples of how humans or pets can severely stain or damage fabrics and dyes:

Body Oils - The human body produces hair oils, skin oils and perspiration. These can permanently stain both leather and fabric upholstery. There are chemicals that can remove these oils from fabrics, but on leather the oily substances could penetrate the leather and become permanent stains. Even the coatings applied to protect leather will be broken down and removed by body oil and excessive abrasion. The only effective repair might be re-dyeing the leather.

Perspiration - Perspiration has greater potential to damage fabric upholstery than just oil. It is interesting to note that the salt in perspiration will weaken all fabrics. Protein and other substances in perspiration can also cause a yellow discoloration that is difficult to remove
by normal upholstery cleaning methods in light fabric colors.

Urine - Urine produces some of the most frustrating stains a detailer will encounter. Stains fall in either of two categories:

Color-added - These are yellow to yellow-brown in color and most noticeable on light-colored fabrics. Dark brown urine stains are areas that have attracted
additional soils. Once the area is cleaned, the remaining stain is a yellow pigment present in urine that may be impossible to remove with standard spot-removing and cleaning procedures.

Color-loss - When the yellow stain is lighter than the original color of the fabric, color will have been lost. This is especially evident when a dark fabric has faded to light yellow. This stain is correctable if the fabric is nylon, which can be redyed. However, many fabrics contain a blend of fibers that may not readily accept dye, or the dye will rub off on clothing. A color-added urine stain also may be present, which should be removed before redyeing is attempted.

Vomit - It contains stomach acid and other proteins that can damage fabric and dyes, and can be difficult to remove. If red-colored pet food, soft drinks or medicine is present in the vomit, it will further complicate corrective measures.


First and foremost you must learn to pre-qualify, that is, let the customer know what may happen before they leave and you begin working on the vehicle. For example, you may not be able to completely remove the stain; it is possible that color or even structural damage to the fibers will become evident after removal of the offending material; damage may worsen during the cleaning process. Make customers aware that they are responsible for pre-existing conditions, and that it is possible that further damage could occur during cleaning.

Body Oils - Use spotting agents that contain solvents to help break up oily residues. Allow about 10 to 15 minutes for the chemical to dwell. You can also use a high-alkaline cleaner (pH 10+) to assist, but these types of cleaners are risky on all but the most durable and colorfast materials. Always test before using high-alkaline chemicals on fabrics. Body oils on leather can require special treatments and may require several applications.

Perspiration - Most perspiration stains are removed with the same procedures and cleaning agents used to eliminate body-oil stains. Enzymes or oxidizing agents may be required to remove any remaining yellow stains. As with alkaline chemicals, these chemicals could damage the dyes or even contribute to browning. Test before use!

Urine - If the color of the fabric is not damaged, an acidic or enzyme-based spot remover should be first applied. Any remaining color-added stain requires the application of a reducing or oxidizing agent. Be very careful when using either of these products as they also could damage the dyes in the fabric. Important: There can be color loss in the fabric that is not evident until you remove the yellow stain. That is why you must pre-qualify.

Vomit - You must first neutralize the acid content in the vomit with an alkaline stain remover. After rinsing the vomit and stain remover from the fabric, a protein stain might remain. Apply an enzyme spot remover to remove protein residue and rinse again. If any residual discoloration remains after using these procedures, you can try using oxidizing agents or reducing agents. Always pre-test!

The key to avoiding problems in dealing with these difficult stains is to remember who has the problem. The problem is the customer's until you make it yours. Spend the necessary time to carefully explain the limitations of what you can do and the risks involved in any attempt to clean and restore what are, essentially, abused materials.

Joe Sipowicz is technical services manager at Portland, OR-based Detail Plus. He has been involved in the detailing industry for nearly 20 years both as an owner/operator of detailing centers and as a manufacturer. Joe has written on the subject of auto detailing for over 10 years. He can be contacted at

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