Like most maintenance formulas for marine applications, there’s a great deal of mystery to the chemistry inside the bottle. What are the distinctions between a vinyl cleaner, a cleaner/restorer and a vinyl protectant?
Further, there’s more than a little mystery to the manufacturing of the vinyl itself. Some are made with protective coatings that seal the pores and stop stains on the surface, making them relatively easy to wipe off. Some vinyl fabrics have more porous surfaces, nodding, perhaps, to comfort on a hot, sticky day.
Our Guinea Pigs We used three seafaring beanbag chairs that had seen much duty as stowaway seating for offshore fishing trips, outdoor seating on summer nights and as dog beds for our TV-watching canines. These sported ground-in dog tracks, blue stains from wet denim jeans, ballpoint pen ink and label print transferred from a bottle of cleaner. (We never got that out.)
How We Tested
The first products we tested were in the category of detailers or cleaner/protectant sprays. And, to be blunt, on our heavily soiled beanbag chairs they didn’t fare as well as first-line cleaners. So, we made a couple of calls, the first to Star brite, one of the world’s largest brands and bottlers of marine maintenance chemicals. They guided us toward a series of products ranging from an all-purpose marine cleaner to vinyl protectant. Next, we called Meguiar’s, a prominent manufacturer of car, RV and marine maintenance products, for its advice about cleaning vinyl.
We were doing it wrong.
Vinyl care is a combination of process and products. The theory is to use the mildest product that works. Detailers and cleaner/restorers are usually best on well-maintained vinyl. If your boat’s vinyl has been weathering for weeks or months, you’ll need more-aggressive vinyl cleaners or all-purpose marine cleaners. According to one company, Simple Green, 409 or similar spray cleaners are OK for the initial cleaning because they don’t have ammonia or bleach, chemicals that are destructive to vinyl. Use bleach or ammonia only as a last-ditch effort before reupholstering. Marine-cleaner manufacturers label products for specific purposes like cleaning or protecting vinyl so you can choose with confidence.
Read Next: Canvas Care
So, our test became a proving ground for both process and products. Here’s what we did:
- Using a medium-bristle brush and the vinyl cleaner and restorers, we washed each beanbag and noted the results.
- Using the same brush, we used the vinyl cleaners and noted the results. Stubborn stains received more attention.
- We marked the vinyl with a ballpoint pen, usually the most difficult stain to remove. Then we tried to clean it off.
- We sprayed vinyl protectants and rubbed them in with bare hands, so as not to absorb the protectant with a cloth. After drying overnight (not required on the label), we buffed the protectant off. Then we returned to the evil ballpoint pen to mark the bags and see if we could clean it off.
Meguiar’s Marine APC – Cleaner
This all-purpose marine cleaner is safe for fiberglass and vinyl. It’s more robust than cleaners specifically designed for vinyl, yet it includes no chemicals harmful to vinyl. We sprayed it on, lightly brushed it in with a medium-bristle brush, then waited a few minutes before wiping it off.
Results: It removed all grease spots and dirt but would not remove black spots left by spiders at the docks. (Star brite’s Spider and Bird Stain Remover is ideal for that job — we’ve tested it.) It nearly, but not completely, removed the ink streak.
Precautions: Use this product only after a milder vinyl-specific cleaner or interior detailer fails. If a detailer gets the job done, that’s best because it doesn’t affect fabric protectants and adds a little more dirt, stain and UV protection.
After Use: Rinse, dry and always follow up this cleaner with a protectant to rejuvenate the vinyl’s inherent coatings and to help prevent future stains and sun damage.
Cost: $15 per pint; meguiarsonline.com; amazon.com
Star brite Ultimate Xtreme Clean – Cleaner
We used this after the detailing products proved too mild to tackle dirt and grease. Its aroma reminded us of Simple Green or 409, and its efficacy removed what the detailers could not. The spray cleaner has no harmful chemicals and no protectants. It would also be appropriate to wash a boat after a day on the salt, hosing, spraying, brushing and rinsing.
Results: This got our vinyl back to its original color, and it wiped off easily with both a T-shirt rag and microfiber towel. It did not remove the spider stains, and it had little impact on our ink stain.
Precautions: Unless it’s clearly a hazmat scene, start with a detailer because, like any detergent, this will remove any protectants you’ve already applied and take the vinyl all the way back to its original form.
After Use: Always rinse and dry the vinyl and add a protectant afterward to boost the vinyl’s manufactured surface.
Cost: $6.49; amazon.com; starbrite.com
Star brite Ultimate Vinyl Clean – Cleaner
We trusted this product due to its label and Star brite’s reputation for making duty-specific products that do no harm. This was a good cleaner for vinyl, but the label also recommended it for leather, plastic and rubber, the latter making it ideal for hatch seals and windshield moldings. Its aroma was soapier than the Xtreme Clean and wiped off with a dry rag.
Results: This would be our go-to product 90 percent of the time. The stubborn dirt came off completely, and all but the most stubborn grease stains were knocked out of the picture.
Precautions: Thanks to the trusted reputation of Star brite’s labeling, we had little to fear from taking these stains to the cleaners, so to speak.
After Use: Re-treat your vinyl with a protectant. Star brite recommends its Ultimate Vinyl Guard with PTEF — a product we tested later with great results. We wiped it on with bare hands, allowed it to dry, then wiped it dry with a soft cloth for a deep, protective sheen.
Cost: $8.52 per pint; amazon.com
Lucas Oil Interior Detailer – Cleaner/Protectant/Detailer
Lucas Oil produces spray-on auto and marine waxes, detailers, and tire- and trim-shine products. The company packages its detailer with its marine wax in kits, and so we took it to the task of cleaning our test beanbag. This is the go-to product for a wipe down after a day of boating to make sure sand, dirt and sunscreen are removed from the vinyl.
Results: It did well on ground-in dirt, and most stains and smudges. We sprayed it on, brushed it in, and let it stand a few minutes before wiping down. It removed all but the toughest grease but only lightened the ink stain. It left a nice, soft sheen.
Precautions: The best thing about a detailer is it has surfactants ideal for moderate cleaning and applies UV protection to enhance the protective film on your vinyl. If you don’t need extreme protection, the job is done.
After Use: It worked nearly as well as a full vinyl cleaner, but included protectants. We would recommend frequent re-treating after boating.
Cost: $11 for 24 ounces; amazon.com, lucasoil.com
Meguiar’s Vinyl and Rubber Cleaner and Protectant – Cleaner/Protectant/Detailer
We were out of beanbags when we got to this product, so we pulled a gnatty, white vinyl seat out of my Glastron, and sprayed and brushed the cleaner lightly to get it into the tuck-and-roll ribbing and seams. Our job took only a few minutes to complete, then we wiped it dry.
Results: We were pleasantly surprised at how well it took away a few small black marks, brown stains, and dust and dirt. It dried with a handsome, lighter sheen and wouldn’t restain with ink — the ballpoint pen failed to transfer ink to the surface.
Precautions: For a light-maintenance wipe down and go, it’s OK, but with our heavy dirt, it was better to rinse the seat with a light spray to hose away dirt rather than risk wiping it into the grain and pores of the vinyl.
After Use: We tried Lucas Tire and Trim Protectant, and it had good results. Star brite’s Ultimate Vinyl Guard appears to add a heavier, more visible protective layer, so the choice is dependent on your preferences.
Cost: $18 per pint; westmarine.com; amazon.com
Star brite Ultimate Vinyl Guard – Protectant
This was our favorite protectant. Star brite uses PTEF, an acronym for a polymer coating that leaves durable UV protection on the vinyl surface. We’ve found this additive improved the efficacy of all its products. Star brite’s Deck Cleaner with PTEF left a coating that protected against future stains (for more info, go to boatingmag.com/deck-cleaner). We sprayed it on and wiped it in with our bare hands to completely coat the surfaces and avoid absorbing it in a rag.
Results: The next day there was a high-gloss sheen to the surface. It was slightly tacky, so we buffed it lightly with a rag, and the results were a clear sheen and supple feel. After treatment, we couldn’t get ink to transfer to it from a ballpoint pen. It wouldn’t stick.
Precautions: This product leaves a heavier film, so it could be applied with a cloth if a less noticeable sheen was preferred.
After Use: We preferred the heavier coating of a hand application followed by a light buffing with a cloth after a period of drying.
Cost: $10 per pint; amazon.com
Lucas Tire and Trim Shine – Protectant
This one is off-label for vinyl seating, but because the product had similar properties to Meguiar’s Vinyl and Rubber 57, we called Lucas Oil. The company’s concern was it might make the seats slippery. Our tests indicated otherwise. We sprayed it on and wiped it in with bare hands, letting it dry overnight. We buffed it off the next day.
Results: We found the buffed finish was more subdued than other protectants, leaving a barely visible sheen on the fabric, which we liked. For many boaters, this look could well be an advantage.
Precautions: It’s not labeled for marine vinyl, but we noted that other vinyl protectants were also suggested for use on rubber, tires and trim. And the label indicates it provides UV protection as well. I keep it handy in my boat.
After Use: Its lighter sheen didn’t require buffing, and it was surprisingly less tacky without it. You’ll need to conduct your own tests to arrive at your preference.
Cost: $8.50 for 24 ounces; mylucasoil.com; amazon.com
Meguiar’s Ultimate Detailer – Detailer
Designed specifically for marine fiberglass, the detailer is touted to use a “hydrophobic polymer technology” that repels water after removing “dirt, grime and fresh contaminants.” It has a sort of polymer aroma to it followed by a fruity smell.
Results: We used it on our truck and epoxy-painted runabout, and it worked well just spraying it on and wiping it off. While some spray detailers leave streaks, this one did not. We followed up with a light water spray and found it did repel water.
Precautions: The label makes no claim of UV protection, so be sure there is a good coating of wax on the fiberglass. The label says the detailer won’t remove it.
After Use: The beauty of spray detailers is when you’re done, you’re done. But you’ll still want a serious wax coating twice a year — this is a great touch-up.
Cost: $13 for 24 ounces; meguiarsdirect.com; amazon.com
Household Cleaners We also used Mean Green and Star brite’s Super Orange cleaners. Both were all-purpose cleaners without ammonia or bleach and had the muscle to lift the greasiest spots on our beanbags. Super Orange’s label says it won’t remove existing wax, making it ideal for a boat’s gelcoat as well.
Results: Both knocked down the grease, dirt and ground-in stains with a single, gentle, brushed-on application. They also did well on the ink, though didn’t completely erase it.
Precautions: As with all the cleaners, don’t mix them with other cleaning chemicals, and it would be wise to rinse the surfaces before spraying the cleaner to avoid interaction with other chemical residue.
After Use: You still need a protectant to keep up the UV protection and reduce future stains.
Cost: $3 to $6