Shampoo vs. Steam Clean: Which is Better for a Car?

Vehicles have become an integral part of our daily lives. Because we spend so much time commuting, our cars eventually accumulate dirt, debris, dust, and grime within the carpet and upholstery. A clean vehicle can improve your mental health, so it’s time to decide which way to clean your automobile: shampoo or steam clean?

Car steaming

Shampooing and steam cleaning are effective methods for washing a car’s upholstery and carpet. Shampooing utilizes soap and agitation, whereas steam cleaning uses heated water and pressure. Carpet shampooing is less costly but has a longer drying time, but steam cleaning dries faster but is pricier.

When you notice your vehicle’s carpet or upholstery starting to look a little dull, it’s time for a good cleaning. This article discusses steam cleaning, carpet shampooing, and how each method works. We’ll also cover the benefits of each to help you decide which way is best for you.

What Is Vehicle Carpet Shampooing?

Vehicle carpet shampooing

Vehicle carpet shampooing is a carpet and upholstery cleaning method. It involves the use of a carpet cleaner or scrub brush, and specially-formulated shampoo designed for car carpets, mats, and upholstery.

Carpet shampooing is, by far, the most common method for cleaning a car’s carpets and upholstery.

How Does Shampooing a Car’s Interior Work?

Carpet cleaners are large pieces of equipment similar to vacuum cleaners. However, these machines utilize two water tanks–one for clean water and another for dirty water. They use a spinning or vibrating nylon brush for deep cleaning carpet fibers or upholstery surfaces.

The machine works by injecting a cleaning chemical into the carpet or fabric upholstery. The brush rotates or vibrates to loosen dirt and scrub away stains. It cleans and rinses the fibers or fabric with fresh water before sucking up the loosened dirt and debris into the dirty water tank.

Car owners may also manually shampoo their car’s carpets and upholstery. The manual shampooing method requires a carpet cleaning brush, carpet shampoo, and a shop vacuum to remove dirt and excess moisture. Using a scrub brush requires elbow grease, and experts recommend rinsing afterward for the best results. However, rinsing isn’t always necessary, especially when using no-rinse carpet shampoo.

I recommend the Chemical Guys Upholstery Cleaner. It breaks down stains to minimize hard scrubbing and requires no rinsing. The built-in odor eliminators leave your car smelling fresh.

Benefits of Car Shampooing

Shampooing a car’s carpets and upholstery can loosen dirt and grime, remove stains, and leave the vehicle smelling amazing, especially when opting for a fragranced shampoo.

Here are some other benefits of shampooing a car’s carpet and upholstery:

Easy & Effective

Carpet shampooing is an easy, effective cleaning method. It’s ideal for vehicles with newer stains or spills and minimal odors. Keep in mind, however, that when shampooing carpets and upholstery, it takes a while to dry–but the end result is worth it. You can speed up the process by using microfiber drying cloths or a shop vacuum to remove excess moisture.

Cleans All Upholstered Surfaces

Whether using a carpet cleaner or the manual scrubbing method, shampooing is safe for all fabric upholstered surfaces, including the ceiling liner, rear window upholstery, carpets, seats, and fabric side panels. Remember to use the upholstery attachment to clean these surfaces to prevent damage.

However, do not use carpet shampoo on leather! Leather requires specialty care, such as leather lotions or specially-formulated leather cleaners. Additionally, you shouldn’t use carpet shampoo on vinyl or plastic surfaces, including the center console, dashboard, or door panels.

No Expensive Equipment Required

Carpet cleaners can be expensive, but they make the job a lot easier. However, they’re not necessary. In fact, you don’t need any costly equipment to shampoo a vehicle’s carpet and upholstery–you can use a scrub brush and spray-on cleaner.

For carpet scrubbing brushes, I recommend the MR. SIGA Multi-Purpose Brush. The no-slip grip on each side of the brush makes it easier to clean carpets and upholstery without the brush sliding out of your hands.

As an environmentally friendly cleaning option, I recommend Earthworm Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner. This enzyme-based cleaning solution is approved by the Carpet & Rug Institute and is safe for use around kids and pets. It’s fragrance-free and works on most colorfast materials.

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Readily Available

When using a carpet cleaner as opposed to the manual method, you should have no trouble finding a device. Carpet shampooing machines are available for purchase or rent at most hardware stores. You can find carpet shampoo solutions in most department stores, and there are dozens of shampoos available for use in the machines.

Agitation Provides a Deep Clean

When using a scrub brush or carpet cleaner to wash your vehicle’s carpet, the bristles of the brush sink deep into the carpet and rustle the fibers around, or agitate, to detach soil and other debris. The movement of the bristles against the carpet also helps remove deep stains and grime.

How To Shampoo a Car’s Interior

Here’s how to shampoo a vehicle’s interior:

  1. Remove loose items from the vehicle. This includes floor mats, personal belongings, and trash.
  2. Vacuum the carpets, mats, and upholstery. Thoroughly vacuum to remove any dirt, dust, or other debris. Vacuum in different directions to completely loosen any dirt in the carpet to make for easier cleaning.
  3. Shampoo the mats first. If using the manual method, mix your carpet solution in a spray bottle (if necessary) according to the instructions. Lightly spray the mats and use a scrub brush to scrub the mats using circular motions. When using a carpet cleaner, use the upholstery attachment to go over the mats. Use a wet vac to go over the mats and remove excess moisture. Set the mats aside to dry in front of a fan or in the sun.
  4. Clean the seats and upholstery. For manual cleaning, spray the cleaner onto a damp (not wet) microfiber cloth. Use the cloth to gently scrub the seats and other upholstery using circular motions. When using a carpet cleaner, use the upholstery attachment to clean these surfaces. Use a wet vac to remove any excess moisture.
  5. Shampoo the carpets. Clean the carpets the same way you cleaned the mats–lightly spray the cleaning solution onto the surface and scrub with the scrub brush. Use the upholstery or vehicle-cleaning attachment to scrub the carpet when using a carpet cleaner, and then use a wet vac to suck up any leftover water.
    Let the vehicle dry. Disconnect the battery (to prevent it from dying) and open the doors and windows to let the vehicle air dry. You can place fans around the vehicle, too, if you want to speed up the drying process.

What Is Steam Cleaning?

Steam cleaning

Steam cleaning uses heated water and high pressure to clean carpets. The hot steam is released by the machine’s nozzle at a very fast speed, which helps remove stains, gunk, and debris.

Steam cleaners are available for purchase or rent. You may also hire a professional steam cleaning company. These companies often use truck-mounted steam cleaners with high amounts of pressure and suction for maximum efficiency.

How Does Steam Cleaning Work?

A steam cleaner contains a heating element and a water tank. After putting water into the tank, the heating element heats the water until it becomes steam. Pressure in the system forces the water vapor through the cleaning nozzle, sending steam deep into the carpet and upholstery fibers.

The combination of hot water vapor and pressure loosens dirt and debris. The particles are then sucked up with an attached vacuum hose. Heat is highly effective for cleaning, and it can remove odor-causing bacteria and other pathogens without the use of chemicals.

Benefits of Car Steam Cleaning

Steam cleaning can get rid of dirt, stubborn stains, and allergens and even kill bugs (i.e., fleas, roaches, etc.) and their eggs.

Here are some other benefits of steam cleaning:

Removes Deep Stains and Odors

Hot water vapor is a highly effective method for removing deep, old stains and odors from a vehicle’s interior. While heat typically causes set-in stains, if it’s high enough, it can lift the stains from the carpet fiber. The pressure dislodges dirt, oil, and stains, making them easier to suck up with the vacuum hose. Some commercial cleaning companies utilize agitation along with steam to remove even more dirt particles.

Eco-Friendly With No Chemicals Required

Since steam cleaners require no chemicals, they’re excellent options for the environmentally conscious and those sensitive to cleaning chemicals. However, keep in mind that some commercial cleaning companies do utilize chemicals for maximum efficiency. In addition to their eco-friendliness, the machines only use about a pint of water to clean an entire vehicle.

Steam Cleaners Are Versatile

People looking to use the steam cleaning method for washing their car’s carpet and upholstery need to purchase or rent dedicated equipment. On the other hand, they can hire a professional steam cleaning company for maximum cleanliness. While steam cleaners require the initial investment, the machine has many uses beyond a car–you can use it on home carpets or even for cleaning walls.

Safe for Use on Most Surfaces in a Vehicle

While you cannot use carpet shampoo to clean vinyl, plastic, or wood surfaces within a vehicle, you can usually use steam to remove dirt on these materials. Users can opt for different nozzles to break up dirt and grime in hard-to-reach areas, such as vents, footwells, and the small spaces between the center console and seats.

Fast Dry Time

Unlike carpet shampooing, the dry time for steam cleaning is much shorter. The machines use far less moisture than carpet cleaners.

You can further reduce dry time by using a wet vac or a microfiber drying cloth, such as the Chemical Guys Microfiber Drying Towel. Although the towel is made for drying the exterior of a vehicle, its absorbency makes it a great option for soaking up excess moisture from carpets and upholstery. It can hold up to a gallon of water and trap any dirt or debris left behind after cleaning.

First published on Sep 21, 2022 by

How To Shampoo a Car’s Interior

Here’s how to steam clean a carpet:

  1. Declutter the vehicle. Remove car mats, personal belongings, and trash.
  2. Vacuum. Start by vacuuming the car mats, upholstery, and carpets to loosen dirt and debris.
  3. Choose a dedicated attachment for carpet or upholstery. Refer to your manual to determine which one to use for upholstery and carpet cleaning.
  4. Use a low heat setting. Begin with low heat to prevent damage. If the carpet and upholstery tolerate it, you may gradually increase heat to remove stubborn stains.
  5. Clean other surfaces. If desired, you may use the steam cleaner to clean vinyl, plastic, and other surfaces within the vehicle. Choose the proper attachment beforehand. Also, you can switch to more narrow nozzles for small spaces, like in between seats or around buttons or vents.
  6. Allow the vehicle to dry. Steam cleaning doesn’t take as long to dry, so keep the doors open (with the battery disconnected) or use a microfiber drying towel to soak up any remaining moisture.

Shampoo vs. Steam Cleaning: Which Is Better?

Steam cleaning a car

Shampooing a vehicle’s carpets is best for light to moderate cleaning. Steam cleaning is ideal for highly soiled cars with old, stubborn stains or foul odors. Vehicles generally kept in good shape may benefit most from a quick shampoo.

Steam cleaning delivers efficient, high-quality results with little drying time, and it requires no harmful chemicals. However, the initial investment is quite high. Hiring a steam cleaning service may cost even more, especially if you require the service regularly. If you’re on a budget, it might be best to opt for carpet shampooing.

Shampooing delivers an efficient cleaning as well and tends to be less expensive than steam cleaning. Additionally, users can purchase eco-friendly cleaning solutions. However, shampooing may not be as effective at removing very old stains or stubborn smells, and it requires a longer dry time. If you need the vehicle cleaned in a shorter time period, steam cleaning might be your best option.


Dirt, debris, stains, and odors are pretty common in vehicles, especially if you’re an everyday driver. Our cars often become a “mini home” away from home, so foot traffic, grime, and dust accumulate over time, resulting in the need for deep cleaning.

Whether you’re deep cleaning your vehicle’s carpets with a carpet shampooer or steam cleaner, both remove germs and dirt. However, choosing between the two can be challenging–the choice usually comes down to the soil level.

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CarCareReport dot com first published this article on Sep 21, 2022..

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