How to Remove Sunscreen From a Car Interior: 3 Best Methods

Sunscreen might be great for your skin, but it isn’t something you want to get on your car’s vinyl or leather upholstery. This protective liquid can easily stain your car’s interior and is especially apparent in dark colors, resulting in unseemly streaks and splotches that can make your car’s interior appear messy. Even worse, most sunscreens are waterproof or water-resistant, so you can’t just wipe them away. So, how can you remove sunscreen from a car interior?

The best way to remove sunscreen from a car interior is to apply a small amount of white vinegar or rubbing alcohol to the sunscreen, scrub it into the fabric using a non-abrasive sponge, and then let it soak for about three minutes before wiping it away with a towel. This is a reliable method, but there are alternatives you can try, particularly for carpets.

In this article, we’ll discuss several methods for removing sunscreen from a car interior that are guaranteed to work without causing further damage to your car’s carpets or upholstery. In addition to providing a step-by-step guide for this process, we’ll discuss why sunscreen stains car interiors and how this can help you better determine what cleaning products to use.

Why Does Sunscreen Stain Car Interiors?

Before we get into the best methods for removing sunscreen from car interiors, it’s good to know why this happens, so you can use the most effective cleaning methods the first time and can avoid future stains altogether.

There are two primary reasons why sunscreen frequently stains fabrics and other materials like those found in car interiors.

The first is that sunscreen is an overtly oily substance, making it particularly difficult to lift or break down. The second reason is that most sunscreens contain a chemical called avobenzone that absorbs ultraviolet light. Because this chemical reacts with iron found in hard water, it can leave behind a harsh orange or rust-colored stain.

Knowing this information is important because it indicates what not to do when removing sunscreen stains from your car’s interior, and that’s using water. Not only will the water not dissolve the oils in the sunscreen that are causing the lingering splotches and streaks, but it will also cause a reaction with the avobenzone that will worsen the stain.

There’s also the fact that most sunscreens are either waterproof or water-resistant in order to be more effective and long-lasting against sweat, rain, and water-based activities like swimming. As a result, they’re specifically designed to withstand the effects of water, so rushing for your dish soap and warm water is going to be ineffective at best and damaging at worst.

Do All Sunscreens Stain?

The tricky part about sunscreens and staining is that the stains are caused by oils and avobenzone, which are both relatively common and vital elements necessary for sunscreens to be effective.

Sunscreens need oils because they are a fatty ingredient that gives the substance a liquid or creamy consistency; otherwise, it would be a powder that doesn’t absorb into the skin as well. The avobenzone is important for skin protection because of its ability to absorb ultraviolet rays. Without these two components, the effectiveness and comfortability of sunscreens usually suffer. However, there is a way to find sunscreens with a lower potential to stain.

The best sunscreens that are less likely to stain your car’s interior are those with zinc oxide formulas. This mineral-based formula rarely contains avobenzone, so the odds of it causing significant staining are immediately reduced.

They’re also less oily than other sunscreens, making them much easier to clean. There’s no guarantee that these types of sunscreens are 100% stain-free, but they’re less likely than most you’d buy. So, a great way to prevent future stains on your car upholstery and even your clothes and other fabrics is to switch to one of these “non-staining” sunscreens.

Best Methods for Removing Sunscreen From Car Interiors

Now that you know why sunscreens often stain car interiors and what materials not to use on them (i.e., water), let’s get into how you can remove these pesky stains from your nice car seats and carpets.

The most effective methods for removing sunscreen from car interiors are to use products such as:

  • White vinegar or rubbing alcohol
  • Degreaser
  • Baking soda

The product you choose will slightly alter your method, but for the most part, you’ll scrub these products into the stain, allow it to soak for several minutes, and then wipe or scrape it away.

Using these products to remove sunscreen stains from car interiors is relatively straightforward, but there are some things you’ll want to know before you start pouring rubbing alcohol or baking soda onto your leather seats. Therefore, to help, we’re going to discuss each method in a bit more detail.

Some things to note before we move on is that the darker your car’s interior, the harder it will be to completely remove all signs of sunscreen, as it will starkly contrast these colors. Additionally, if you use a particularly strong waterproof sunscreen, you might have to repeat these methods three, four, or even five times before the sunscreen is completely removed because these tend to be much more resistant.  

White Vinegar or Rubbing Alcohol

White vinegar and rubbing alcohol are both popular cleaning agents that are effective at disintegrating oil-based substances and are cheap methods for cleaning your car’s interior since they are common household items.

To remove sunscreen stains using these agents, you’ll want to spray or pour a moderate amount of the agents onto the sunscreen stain (enough to wet the material without drenching it). The next step depends on what material your interior is made of.

Leather Interior

If you have leather seats, you’ll want to use a non-abrasive sponge to scrub the vinegar or alcohol into the seats and then immediately wipe it away with a microfiber towel. Because leather is a natural ingredient, harsh chemicals or substances like vinegar and alcohol can actually dry out and damage it if left lingering on the material too long.

Although most leather car interiors have a protective cover over them for longevity, you want to limit how long the vinegar and alcohol are on them. Once you’re sure the sunscreen has been removed, spray some warm water onto the area and dry completely to ensure all traces of vinegar or alcohol are removed as well.

Non-Leather Interior

If your car interior is made from a different material, like polyester, you’ll want to allow the vinegar or alcohol to soak into the fabric for about 3-5 minutes for the best results. You’ll repeat the same steps we mentioned before (i.e., spray and scrub), but instead of wiping the cleaning agents away immediately, you’ll give them more time to break up the sunscreen’s oils.

Some people find using a scrub brush on fabrics like polyester is more effective than a scrub pad, so consider opting for one of these instead. Afterward, wipe them away and determine if you need to repeat the process or if you can spray the area with water and dry it.

Degreaser

Arguably the most effective method for removing sunscreen stains from your car’s interior is to use a degreaser. This is a product many professional interior cleaning companies will use for quick, clean results. However, it isn’t usually something the everyday person has laying around, so it’s the more costly method on this list.

That being said, there are a number of car interior degreaser sprays you can purchase for anywhere from $5-$20, so it isn’t an overtly pricy investment, and if you live somewhere hot where you’re frequently applying sunscreen, you’ll likely use this spray frequently enough to justify the minimal cost.

One thing you have to be careful with degreasers is their terms of use. Many degreaser sprays you purchase that are specifically meant for car interiors can be used as is, but some, especially those you buy in jugs, might be too strong on their own and need to be diluted before use. So, before you purchase or start applying your degreaser of choice, read the company’s terms of use to make sure it’s safe to apply directly.

Again, when applying your cleaning agent, you only want enough to wet the material; you don’t want to drench or over saturate it as this could lead to damage and will seep into underlying materials, like seat cushions where it could take a long time to dry.

Removing sunscreen using the degreaser method will follow the same steps as the white vinegar or rubbing alcohol method. You’ll apply the cleaning agent, scrub it into the stain, allow it to sit or remove it immediately depending on the material, and then wipe the degreaser away and determine if you need to repeat the process or if you can rinse and dry the area.  

Baking Soda or Corn Starch

Baking soda is another common household item that is frequently used for cleaning. Usually, we recommend using this method for fresh stains on trickier car interior features, like the carpet.

If your sunscreen stain is brand-new, try to blot up as much of it as possible using a rag or paper towel and then immediately pour baking soda onto the affected area (enough to cover it). A reasonable alternative for baking soda if you don’t have any around is corn starch.

Use a brush to scrub the baking soda or corn starch deep into the fabric, and then allow it to sit for 15 minutes. These are absorbent substances that will ideally soak up the remaining sunscreen as it sits for easy removal. After the 15 minutes have passed, scrape or vacuum up the absorbent agent and see if the sunscreen is gone. If the sunscreen is still clearly present, repeat this process.

So, what if the sunscreen isn’t fresh? Don’t worry; you can still use baking soda or cornstarch to remove it. In these cases, we recommend mixing the absorbent agent with white vinegar (one part absorbent agent, two parts white vinegar) to create a thick, paste-like substance you’ll then scrub into the fabric. Allow it to sit for 3-5 minutes (or longer if it’s a tough carpet stain) before wiping it away to re-evaluate the stain.

Can I Use Soapy Water to Remove Sunscreen Stains?

Amidst all of these classic cleaning methods, you might have noticed that one fan-favorite is missing: the old-reliable soapy water. This is usually the go-to cleaning method for any mess or tough stain, so shouldn’t it be listed here as well?

While some sources will list soapy water as a method for removing sunscreen from car interiors, we don’t recommend it as your first choice. Using warm water mixed with a mild dish detergent can successfully remove sunscreen stains from car interiors because it effectively breaks down oils, but the water in this cleaning agent could react with the avobenzone and cause further discoloration and damage.

If you know for a fact that avobenzone is not an ingredient listed in your sunscreen, then using soapy water is a reasonable option for removing sunscreen stains from your car’s interior. However, if avobenzone is an ingredient, you’re probably better off choosing one of the methods mentioned previously first.

On the off chance that you’ve tried all of the other methods and the sunscreen stain is still present, you could resort to using soapy water as a last-ditch effort and hope there isn’t any avobenzone left to cause a reaction. The risk here is really up to you. Super tough stains will likely require numerous treatments no matter what method you use, so we recommend trying the others and repeating them at least a few times each before reaching for the dish soap.

Final Thoughts

No one likes to see a bunch of white splotches and streaks all over their car’s seats, carpets, and dashboard, but the answer isn’t to stop using sunscreen altogether. While removing sunscreen stains can be tricky, you can usually get rid of them completely using simple cleaning agents like white vinegar, rubbing alcohol, or baking soda.

If you have a particularly tough stain or you want a cleaning agent you can leave in your car to use at a moment’s notice, try opting for a car interior degreaser. Just remember to keep your car’s interior material in mind when applying these agents, and stay away from water until you’re sure the sunscreen is completely removed.

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