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Why Do Car Steering Wheels Feel Sticky?

Jake Rossen
Steering wheels can feel gross.
Steering wheels can feel gross. / Valeria Agadzhanova/EyeEm via Getty Images
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You climb into your car, adjust your AC, drop your wallet into that aggravating space between the seat and the center console, curse, retrieve your wallet, and then get ready to drive off. But you notice the steering wheel feels kind of tacky—like flypaper. You don’t remember spilling any soda on it. So why does it seem sticky?

Lots of reasons. Steering wheels are often upholstered in faux leather or vinyl, both materials that can collect a lot of surface residue like sweat or oil from your hands, lotion, or food grease. While you may not feel like your hands are dirty at the time you notice the tackiness, it could be an accumulation from drive-thru trips of the past.

Actual leather is breathable, meaning it might not retain as much surface oil as synthetics. But that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from that sticky feeling. When UV rays hit the leather, it can bring the oils in the fabric to the surface, creating a slippery feel. (Adhesives used to bond the leather can also bleed through.) It may even begin to crack, which could improve your grip, but isn’t visually appealing.

As you can probably guess, one easy solution is to clean the wheel. You can use a cleaning cloth meant for the wheel’s specific material, or a wet washcloth. If it’s leather, you may want to apply a conditioner, provided it’s suitable for a wheel. (Your car’s manual may also have advice for approved cleaning solutions.)

Alternately, you could go retro and grab a pair of driving gloves, which not only improve your grip on the wheel but prevent transfer of oils and other contaminants from your hands.

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