How to Clean a Car Headliner and Enjoy a Clean, Odor-Free Car

Written by

Bruce Sonnier


Marcus Dutton

how to clean a car headliner

The car ceiling, called the car’s headliner, is a part often neglected in car interior cleaning. Eventually, the headliner would collect dirt and stains that make your car appear older. It would also absorb odors and smoke that can make driving unpleasant.

Cleaning the headliner should be included in your semi-annual or annual car detailing. Doing it yourself can save the money you’d spend to have it done by a professional detailer. How to clean a car headliner would depend on the condition of your headliner.

Minor stains may only require wiping with a fabric cleaner and cloth. Tougher or bigger stains accompanied by odor require spraying the entire surface of the headliner and gently rubbing it. And an extremely filthy headliner needs to be cleaned with a steam cleaner.

Although there are different methods in cleaning a vehicle headliner, they should all be done gently to avoid damage.


What You Will Need to Follow This Tutorial


The cleaning products needed for cleaning a headliner would vary from just a simple microfiber cloth to a big cleaning machine that is the steam cleaner. Find out what tools you would need below:

1. Microfiber Cloth

Whether you’re going to just gently rub a few spots or clean the entire surface of the car roof, you will be needing a microfiber cloth. In spot cleaning, this would be used in loosening debris and wiping away stains. In surface cleaning, this would come in handy for removing excess moisture after the entire headliner has been gently scrubbed.

2. Soft-Bristled Brush

A soft brush would be required in all methods of cleaning a headliner. It would be used for removing loose debris in spot cleaning, scrubbing the entire headliner in surface cleaning, and scrubbing after steam cleaning in deep cleaning. So whatever cleaning process you will be doing, make sure to prepare a soft-bristled brush.

3. Car Headliner Cleaner

The cleaner you need depends on the kind of stained area you have in your headliner. For water based stains like soda and coffee, a general upholstery cleaner would work. Or you may also make a DIY general cleaning solution using warm water, white vinegar, and liquid soap.

For oil-based stains like grease, ink, crayon, and makeup, you may use alcohol and lacquer thinner.

4. Spray Bottle

Car cleaning solutions come in two types, which are either concentrated or ready-to-use. If your car upholstery cleaner is concentrated, you will need a separate spray bottle to dilute your cleaning solution.

5. Steam Cleaner

If your headliner is extremely filthy and stinky, you would need a steam cleaner. A steam cleaner is capable of getting rid of tough stains and bad odors through the hot steam induced with the cleaning solution it emits.

6. Vacuum Cleaner

Apart from the steam cleaner and soft-bristled brush, you would also need a vacuum cleaner to collect some of the debris you brushed out when deep cleaning.

7. Fans

It’s very important to dry the headliner completely after doing a deep clean, as when the headliner has been soaked for too long, it may destroy the glue and detach the headliner from cars as well as cause the growth of mold and mildew. A couple of fans would be helpful when drying the headliner after a deep clean.

Step by Step Instructions


There are three different methods of cleaning a headliner. And it is the condition of your headliner that determines the best way to clean car headliner for you.

The first method is the spot clean, which should be done if your headliner isn’t that dirty and only has minor stains.

The second method is the surface clean, which would be required if the spot clean didn’t work or if your headliner had more stains and started to have bad smells.

The third method, the deep clean should only be done when your headliner is extremely filthy and has too much odor stuck on it.

Although it is necessary to do a deep clean when your headliner is extremely filthy and stinky, it also poses the risk of destroying the headliner if done wrong. Excess heat and moisture may melt the headliner’s glue and make it sag and cause mold and mildew. So it should only be the last resort and be done with caution.

Just follow a few simple steps for the required method for your headliner. You can find them below:

Spot Clean

Step 1: Remove Loose Debris With a Microfiber Cloth or Soft-Bristled Brush

You can remove the visible loose debris on the headliner by gently wiping it away with a microfiber cloth or brushing it out with a soft-bristled brush. Just be careful not to rub in the visible dirt deeper into the headliner’s fabric. Gently dab or scrub until all loose debris is removed.

Step 2: Wipe the Stain With a Microfiber Cloth Sprayed With Upholstery Cleaner

Turn your microfiber cloth over and spray upholstery cleaner on it, lightly saturating a small portion of the cloth. Then with the wet portion of the cloth, gently wipe the stain.

Since you’re only removing a minor stain, you must only work the car ceiling cleaner onto the headliner’s surface. There’s no need to let the cleaner saturate through.

Step 3: Remove Excess Moisture, Let Dry Completely, and Check the Stain

After you’ve wiped the stain, remove the excess moisture on the spot you worked on by blotting it with the clean, dry portion of your microfiber cloth. Then wait for the damp area to fully dry and check whether the stain has been totally removed.

Surface Clean

Step 1: Spray the Upholstery Cleaner Evenly on the Entire Headliner

The best cleaner for this method would be an aerosol upholstery cleaner. This type of cleaner works with a foaming action, which effectively breaks up the trapped dirt below the headliner’s surface.

Evenly spray the aerosol upholstery cleaner all over the headliner, but try not to saturate it. You must pay special attention to very dirty areas, edges, and crevices surrounding the lights, overhead console, and sunroof.

Step 2: Let the Cleaner Sit

Let the cleaner work on the stains by leaving it on the headliner to sit. You must do this in accordance with the amount of time specified in the product’s instructions. This helps prevent damage from too much spraying and scrubbing.

The gentler you work on your headliner, the less likely it would get damaged. You can always redo the process if you still aren’t satisfied with the cleaning result.

Step 3: Gently Scrub the Entire Headliner With a Soft-Bristled Brush

Using a soft-bristled brush, gently scrub the entire headliner clean. Make sure that you work on every part of the headliner to achieve an even clean. If you fail to brush every section, it may be noticeable after the car dries.

Step 4: Let the Headliner Completely Dry

If necessary, you may use a microfiber towel to remove excess moisture on the headliner. Then let it air dry. Depending on how damp it is, drying it may take an hour or two.

Step 5: Repeat Steps One to Four if the Stains Still Remain

Tough stains may require a second cleaning. However, if the second cleaning still doesn’t result in a clean headliner, you would have to deep clean the headliner of your car.

Deep Clean

Step 1: Pour in the Upholstery Cleaner and Water in the Steam Cleaner

You have to prepare the steam cleaner for use, pouring in the car interior roof cleaner and water as per the instructions of the steam cleaner. You must also check if the steam cleaner requires the use of a particular cleaning solution.

Step 2: Attach the Appropriate Steam Cleaner Attachment

You would next attach the appropriate attachment for the job on the steam cleaner. It would ideally be small and non-abrasive.

Step 3: Let the Steam Cleaner Heat Up

Turn the steam cleaner on and wait for it to heat up. The time it takes for a steam cleaner to heat up depends on the model, so you may refer to the manual to know how long it takes for your steam cleaner to heat up.

Step 4: Pretreat the Headliner With the Cleaner and Steam, Then Brush and Vacuum

Once the steam cleaner has heated up, it’s time to work on the headliner. You would first pretreat the headliner with the cleaner-induced steam. Then you would scrub with a soft-bristled brush and vacuum the headliner.

When you steam clean, you should do it part by part and hold the steamer briefly onto one headliner part, just enough for eliminating odors & tough stains. You need to move quickly to prevent over-saturation in any area of the headliner.

The longer you hold the steamer on one part, the deeper the steam will penetrate, and the more the glue in the headliner will melt. This will likely lead to a sagging headliner.

Step 5: Let the Headliner Completely Dry

After deep cleaning your headliner, you should let it dry thoroughly so that the glue won’t fail and mold and mildew won’t grow. In order to do so, leave the windows and doors of your car open, and you may also use a couple of fans to aid in the drying.

Step 6: Run a Clean Hand Over the Headliner to Buff Out Tracks

After you clean the headliner in a car and dry it, you may notice some tracks left on it. You can easily get rid of them by running a clean hand over them, but only when the headliner has completely dried.


Knowing the different methods of how to clean a car headliner can help you keep your car clean and odor-free. It would also save you money, as there won’t be a need to send your car to a detailer. Just follow the steps required for whatever type of cleaning you need.

How did you find this tutorial? Share what you think in the comments. If you thought this was helpful, maybe you could also share this article to share some car knowledge with others.

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