How to Clean a Car Headliner

Hand wash of car headlamp. Hands in disposable gloves scrub the headliner
Learn how to easily clean a car headliner. Tomasz Majchrowicz / Getty Images

When was the last time you even looked at your car headliner? It’s possible you’ve noted its existence, but have never really examined it, much less cleaned it. Some headliners go years before they’re cleaned, if at all, but then the damage is already done. Cleaning your headliner should be part of your annual or semi-annual car detailing, and when you learn how to clean a car headliner, you’ll see it’s not particularly difficult.

Marks and stains on your headliner can make your car seem older than it really is. It easily collects odors from food, pets, or tobacco. Because of the way the headliner is constructed, it requires special care to remove stains and odors.

The headliner is generally constructed in three layers, which give it form and beauty, but also make it somewhat fragile. The base layer is a molded pressboard, usually wood fibers or fiberglass. Glued to the base is usually a thin foam layer. Finally, the layer you can see and touch is glued to the foam, usually cloth, vinyl, or some other textile. The headliner also has openings for the dome light, sunroof, or overhead console.

car sunroof
When cleaning the interior of your car, don’t forget to look up. jpgfactory / Getty Images

In any of the steps needed to clean your headliner, the most important aspect is to be gentle. If the headliner is damaged during cleaning, or the stains are simply too stubborn, replacing the headliner might be a better option.

Spot Clean

For minor stains, a minor cloth, soft brush, and upholstery cleaner may be sufficient to remove them. The most important aspect to this cleaning step is to avoid saturating the headliner, which can loosen the glue holding it all together. You might need a specific cleaner, depending on the stain. Alcohol and lacquer thinner work well on oil-based stains, like ink, crayon, grease, and makeup. General upholstery cleaners work on water-based stains, like soda and coffee. You can even make your own general cleaner with white vinegar, liquid soap, and warm water.

First, use the dry cloth or soft brush to brush away any loose soil without rubbing the dirt deeper. Then, apply the upholstery cleaner to the cloth, dabbing the stain to moisten it without saturating it. This should start dissolving the stain so you can remove it with a dry section of the cloth, gently rubbing the stained area.

Surface Clean

Applying upholstery foam to the headliner of a passenger car.
Applying upholstery foam to the headliner of a passenger car. Tomasz Majchrowicz / Getty Images

For more general cleaning of the entire headliner, use a foaming upholstery cleaner and soft brush. Without saturating the headliner, spray the entire headliner—aerosols tend to work best—paying special attention to notably dirty areas. After letting the upholstery cleaner work into the surface soils, use the soft brush to lightly clean the surface of the headliner.

The trick here is to let the upholstery cleaner work, as this will limit the collateral damage that can come from overzealous spraying and scrubbing. You can always try again if the first time isn’t acceptably clean, but the gentler you are the more likely your headliner will survive. Allow plenty of time for drying before putting your car away.

Deep Clean

Deep-cleaning your car headliner is reserved for extremely dirty headliners and ones that have absorbed too much odor. It is also the most likely to ruin the headliner, which is why it should be considered a last resort. If the headliner starts to separate, you might have to fix a sagging headliner before it obstructs your visibility. For deep-cleaning your car headliner, use a steam cleaner and upholstery cleaning solution.

Minibus interior textile ceiling chemical cleaning with professionally extraction method. Early spring cleaning or regular clean up.
FotoDuets / Getty Images

When using a steam cleaner, be sure to not saturate the headliner, as this can lead to failure of the glue holding it together. Work small sections at a time, spraying on solution and vacuuming up the remainder. Fabric steamers can also be used this way, pretreating with upholstery cleaner and steaming, then brushing and vacuuming.

When deep cleaning, be sure to allow for thorough drying time. Leaving your doors and windows open helps, as do fans. This will give the glue a chance to dry out before it fails and prevents mold and mildew growth.

Aside from aesthetics, your car headliner does much to reduce road noise and insulate you from the cold and heat. Unfortunately, it also collects odors and stains. If you know how to clean a car headliner, you can restore the look of your ride and even help your car smell fresher. Indeed, a little effort goes a long way.