How to Clean a Leather Steering Wheel

People wash their hands 8.6 times a day on average. Steering wheels are a different story.

A majority of drivers NEVER wash their steering wheels. Imagine how dirty your hands would be if you never washed them!

For leather steering wheels, this is a big problem. Because leather has “pores,” it absorbs dirt and grime much more quickly and deeply than steering wheels with harder surfaces like wood, vinyl or plastic.

If this is an issue for you, don’t worry. We walk through everything you need to know about how to clean a leather steering wheel.

How Dirty is the Average Steering Wheel?

Research shows that the average steering wheel has 600-700 potentially harmful germs per square inch.

For some perspective, that is between 4X and 9X times the number of germs on the average public toilet seat. (Source: CBS News and Fox News).

How do steering wheels get so covered in germs? It’s not all that surprising when you think about it.

  • Germs land on the steering wheels when people sneeze.
  • 70% of people eat while driving and 83% drink beverages while driving.
  • Many people have occupations that get their hands very dirty (repairs, landscaping, etc.).
  • Human hands are naturally oily, and very few people wash their hands before driving.

Is this a severe health threat? It would be an overstatement to say the threat is severe. Otherwise people would be dropping like flies.

However, virtually all medical professionals would agree that you are better off keeping your steering wheel clean.

Doing so not only makes your car look better, it will marginally help prevent colds, stomach issues AND protect your family.

How to Clean a Leather Steering Wheel

The best approach depends in part on how dirty your steering wheel is.

Normal Cleaning Process

If your steering wheel is not too dirty, cleaning it is easy. Just follow this 3-step process:

  1. Wipe off any dust or other surface debris with a clean cloth. I generally prefer a microfiber towel, but any nonabrasive cloth will work fine. Prepping the steering wheel in this way will ensure that any leather cleaner you use will be more effective.
  2. Use a cleaner designed for leather. This can either be an all-purpose car interior cleaner or a leather-specific product. I prefer an odorless cleaner that leaves no residue. Car Guys Premium Super Cleaner is one of the best on the market and my personal “go to” product. Simply spray the cleaner onto a microfiber cloth. I find the “pinch method” works best. Drape the cloth across the top of the steering wheel and wrap your hand around the wheel. Move the cloth in a clockwise and then counter-clockwise direction until the top part of the wheel is clean. Repeat on the lower half of the wheel.
  3. A leather conditioner will not only keep your steering wheel cleaner for longer, it will also protect from UV radiation . Leather has pores which are open after cleaning. Without a barrier of protection, those pores will quickly absorb anything on your hands. Chemical Guys has a conditioner we like a lot.

Here is a video from Chemical Guys that provides a good demonstration of the technique.

“Sticky” Wheel Cleaning Process

It is not unusual for leather steering wheels to get very sticky usually due to spilled soft drinks or grabbing the steering wheel with unusually dirty hands (e.g., oil residue).

How do you clean a sticky leather steering wheel? It is basically the same approach as above with a few extra steps.

First, fill a bowl with water and add a few drops of mild dish soap. Agitate the water until there is a large amount of soapy foam on the water. Be sure to use enough soap to get a relatively large amount of foam.

Dip a microfiber cloth into the foam but NOT the water…the cloth should be mildly damp at most. Rub the sticky parts with the cloth until clean. Note: a soft brush designed for leather will work as well.  You may have to repeat the process a few times to get fully clean.

Once the sticky areas are clean, use the normal process outlined above.

How to Maintain a Clean Look

There are a few steps you can take to maintain a clean steering wheel.

  1. Wash your hands before driving when possible, especially after eating or working with oily / sticky materials.
  2. Use pre-packaged quick wipes to remove any grime before it has a chance to build up. There are a few different types of wipes that are suitable to use on leather.
  3. Make a habit of wiping down the steering wheel. Wipes are cheap and it takes less than a minute to clean most steering wheels. Those are hardly insurmountable barriers. Keep the wipes near the driver’s seat, and before long using them will become second nature.

Cleaning Frequency

While this is a matter of opinion, we have found an approach that works very well.

Our point of view is that you should use pre-packaged wipes every few days, or as soon as you notice any buildup of dirt or grime.

In terms of a more thorough cleaning, we suggest every month at a minimum. As we noted above, even a full cleaning only takes a few minutes if you have the right materials.

That is a small expenditure of $ and time to keep something clean that your hands come into contact with several times each day.

Alternatives

While it is true that any steering wheel can be cleaned, sometimes that is not good enough. For people with messy jobs (and hands), keeping a clean steering wheel is next to impossible.

In other cases, steering wheels may be too scratched or faded. You can clean them, but they still won’t look good.

At that point, it is time to start looking at the best steering wheel covers. These affordable car accessories are both easy to install and affordable. They can be replaced as often as needed.

Mopar Steering Wheel Cover

Conclusion

Most people clean their steering wheels very rarely, if at all. Leather steering wheels are especially prone to getting dirty because the pores in the leather absorb basically everything.

Regularly cleaning your steering wheel will not only make it look better but also keep you and your family safer. Steering wheels are magnets for germs.

Hopefully this guide on how to clean a leather steering wheel has provided you with all the information you need for a clean look AND peace of mind.

Frequently Asked Question (FAQs)

What are the best leather cleaners?

There are several good ones on the market. Leading products are:

  • Car Guys Premium Super Cleaner
  • Chemical Guys Leather Cleaner
  • Kevian Clean Leather Cleaner
  • Leather Honey Leather Cleaner
  • Meguiar’s Gold Class
  • Tri Nova Leather Cleaner.

Do these products work on fake leather (i.e., leatherette)?

Most of these will work well on fake leather. HOWEVER, always do two things first. Read the manufacturer’s instructions to see if they provide any guidance. Secondly, clean a small area first (about the size of a quarter) to see how it works before attempting to clean the entire steering wheel.

What should I look for in a good leather conditioner?

Good attributes for conditioners to have include:

  • Neutral pH balance to maintain the integrity of the leather
  • Top notch UV protection
  • No residual residue or “slippery” feeling after applying
  • Odorless, or if scented, something that smells good and not like chemicals.

Do most leather cleaners have UV protection?

Leather cleaners do not have any UV protection. That is what leather conditioners are for (read the manufacturer’s description to be sure). If you park outside, steering wheels are exposed to UV radiation. Leather will absolutely fade and crack, so some UV protection is important.

Do pre-packaged leather quick wipes actually clean leather?

They do, but they are best suited for maintaining a clean steering wheel between more thorough cleanings. A benefit of using wipes regularly is that you can extend the time between cleanings.

Will leather conditioners and leather wipes make the steering wheel feel slippery?

That used to be a problem several years ago with cheap products like old Armor All. However, both cleaners and protectants have improved dramatically in the last 20 years as technology has advanced.

The best brands leave no residue. They are also odorless or pleasant smelling if a scent is used.

How long must the leather cleaner and conditioner soak or “cure?”

Not long at all. Just spray it on and wipe. Once the steering wheel is clean, repeat the same process with the conditioner. No soaking is required.

What if the leather is very old or cracked?

If your steering wheel leather is old or cracked, a leather conditioner can work wonders. It does depend on how big the cracks are and the general condition of the leather. In many cases a fully or near-fully restored look is possible. Just remember to be very gentle in the cleaning process while the leather is still brittle.

Do combined leather cleaners and conditioners works as well?

Some companies offer a combined product in the same bottle. In our opinion, you get better results using a separate leather cleaner and conditioner. That “better results” are a deeper and longer lasting clean due. This is due in part to the layer of protection bonding with the leather more deeply. I will say that a select few of the combined products get very good reviews, but we still prefer separate applications. See Chemical Guys Sprayable Leather Cleaner and Conditioner in One as an example.

Will these products remove smell from leather?

They do remove smells as the grime and other debris are removed from the pores of the leather. Usually the resulting smell is either odorless or a “new leather” scent. If for some reason an odor lingers, you can always try rubbing a dryer sheet across the leather. Many of these products (like Febreze) have ingredients that actually eliminate odors.

Are any special products required for beige or other light colored leathers?

No, not really. These products are aimed at the car market, and beige is one of the big 3 interior colors along with grey and black.

You may have to repeat the process a few times as beige shows dirt and grime easier. What might pass as clean on black leather will not on beige.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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