Learn How to Clean a Car’s Headliner (& When Not To)

With car headliners, you need to take the gentle approach. Don't worry, we'll show you how.

Published August 4, 2023
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Man cleaning car's headliner

When hot summer days roll around and it's the perfect time to do a deep cleaning on your car, you probably attack the grates and the little nooks and crannies underneath your seats. What you probably don't think about is your headliner.

The car headliner (aka the stuff on your ceiling) doesn't need to be cleaned all-too often, but when it comes time to, you need to know how to clean it properly. Otherwise, you might get a surprise thwack from some loose ceiling fabric.

How to Clean the Headliners in Your Car

Chances are if you're trying to figure out how to clean your car headliner, something really unexpected has happened and you're in a messy bind. Depending on what kind of mess you're trying to clean up, there's a quick fix for you.

How to Clean Water-Stained Headliners

If there's been a leak and some water that went through your headliner and stained, you can treat it with a microfiber towel and an all-purpose auto cleaner. As Rakeem's Detailing on TikTok explains, simply spray the microfiber towel with the cleaner, wrap it around your fist, and rub your first into the stain back and forth. You should start to notice it clearing up after a few minutes.

@rakeemsdetailing Do you have water spots on your headliner?? Here’s the easiest way to clean it.. 1. Wrap microfiber rag around fist 2. All purpose cleaner 3. Scrub away Save & share if this helps! #cardetailing #detailingcars #autodetailing #detailersofinstagram #detailer #mobiledetail #headlinercleaning #carcleaning #cleaningcars #sacramento #saccardetailing #detailingworld #detailingboost #professionaldetailing original sound - Rakeem’sDetailing

How to Clean Dirty or Dingy Headliners

If you've bought a used car and the headliner has seem some better days, you can give it some new life in a few steps.

Applying upholstery foam to the headliner of a passenger car

Materials You'll Need

  • Soft drill brush and a drill
  • Auto interior cleaner
  • Microfiber towels
  • Upholstery cleaner or steam cleaner with a vacuum nozzle


  1. Spray the headliner down with the automotive upholstery interior cleaner.
  2. Take a very soft drill brush attached to a drill and run it along the fabric. Make sure you press very lightly so as to not disconnect the fabric from the backing.
  3. Take an upholstery vacuum nozzle attached to an upholstery cleaner or steam cleaner and suck up the excess water, also being careful not to press too hard or push and pull too much.
  4. If there's any leftover dampness, blot away with a microfiber towel.
Quick Tip

Drill brush attachments are pretty cheap and easy to find, but if you don't have a power drill, you can always use a nylon brush instead. Just be mindful that you won't get as deep of a clean without that level of rotation.

Cleaning Stains on Your Car's Ceiling

Sometimes there might just be a small spot on your car's headliner that needs cleaned. Things like soda, coffee, and other beverage can be common culprits that soil your car's ceiling. Dirty smudges and fingerprints can also show up on the headliner.

To get rid of stains, you can apply an auto upholstery cleaner just to that area and gently clean according to the instructions, or try a homemade solution:

  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ cup vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon dish soap, laundry detergent, or baby soap

Spray the solution lightly on the stain and gently clean with a microfiber pad or cloth. Blot with a clean, damp cloth. A Mr. Clean Magic Eraser can also work on small stained areas.

Quick Tip

Spot shot instant carpet cleaner isn't just for carpets; it might help you get unidentified stains out of car upholstery and even headliners. Do a spot test first. Only apply a small amount and then blot gently.

Deodorizing Your Car's Headliner

If you are cleaning your whole car and think your ceiling needs a bit of freshening up (and anyone who's ever hauled a kid's hockey gear around all season knows that smells can get in the strangest places), there are a few simple things you can do.

  • Mist (don't soak) it gently with a product like Odoban that's designed to eliminate odors.
  • Leave a small bowl of vinegar in the vehicle overnight to eliminate odors.
  • Once the headliner is clean and dry, try an odor bomb to get rid of lingering odors.

How Often Should You Clean a Car Headliner?

Unless you're flipping your car on the weekend or spraying canned cheese with reckless abandon, there shouldn't be a reason to clean your headliner often. A light dusting is one thing, but a full-on scrubbing clean should only be done in extreme circumstances.

Many car headliners are layers of fabric backed onto a piece of foam that's connected to the roof. It doesn't take too much to pull the fabric loose from the foam, and have it start sagging. So, you're not doing something wrong if you never cleaned a car headliner in any of the cars you've owned.

What Can You Do if the Fabric Comes Loose?

If you're putting too much pressure or you're cleaning it too often, the headliner fabric might break free from the foam and start to sag. To keep your passengers from getting blinded by the hanging fabric, you can pin it back in place with headliner tacks. Just find the right color tack to match your ceiling and punch it right into place where the sag's the worst.

Cleaning Headliners Takes a Gentle Hand

Car headliners need a delicate touch, or they'll give up on you. But, if you know how to clean a headliner properly, you shouldn't make those rookie mistakes that lead to roofs full of headliner tacks. From water stains to general grime, you can rejuvenate your headliner in 30 minutes or less.

Learn How to Clean a Car’s Headliner (& When Not To)