There are several different ways to clean painted walls, depending on what what kind of paint you have and what you're trying to remove, but a dusting cloth and a bit of water are usually all you need to get started. It’s important to figure out what type of paint you’re dealing with before beginning, since some withstand cleaning better than others; from there, it’s mostly a matter of identifying the areas to be washed and testing out different methods. Knowing when to stop is also important. Not all stains or blemishes can be removed, and some cleaning products can actually really damage your walls. Spending a little bit of time making a plan before you begin can make the whole process much smoother.
Dusting and Preventative Care
In most cases, the easiest way to clean and care for painted walls requires little more than a dust cloth or vacuum attachment. Most people notice dust accumulating on flat surfaces like counter tops, picture frames, and window ledges, but it can also collect on the vertical surface of walls. Dust builds slowly and is often all but undetectable from a distance. Going over painted surfaces with a damp cloth or vacuum cleaner dusting attachment can make a big difference in only a little bit of time, and it may be all a room needs to look fresh and clean again.
It’s usually best to begin dusting walls from the top down, letting gravity help particles fall loose. Pushing dust up from the bottom can leave streaks or cause dirt to accumulate. Working in small, local areas can also prevent the dust from spreading around and helps make sure you don’t miss anything. Even if it doesn’t look like you’re doing much up close, skipping portions of a wall can actually make things appear dirtier because of how much the newly-cleaned areas will stand out once you take a step back.
Discerning Paint Type and Spot-Testing
Before you begin to actually scrub at your walls, it’s important to figure out what sort of paint you are working with. Many paints are designed to be washable, but not all are. The most durable are usually marketed as “semi-gloss” or enamel-based, but anything that is labeled eggshell, satin, or latex needs a little bit more care. If you’re not sure what type of paint is on your walls, you can usually make a good guess by looking at it carefully in various lights. Paint that is shiny or glossy is usually in the more durable category; anything that looks duller or has a flat finish is likely latex-based.
Spot-testing a small area is a good idea regardless of paint type. Most home improvement experts recommend nothing more than warm water and a sponge to clean painted walls, at least at first. Start with an inconspicuous area, like a corner or down at the baseboards. Run the sponge over the paint briefly, then wait for it to dry. If things look fine after an hour or so, move on to treating the whole wall; if, however, the water has left stains or drip marks, it’s probably best to stop.
Warm Water Scrub
In most cases, you should wash your walls using the reverse motion used for dusting — that is, starting at the bottom and working up. This prevents dirty water from dripping and collecting on the floor. You can also reduce the number of drips by using a sponge that is damp but not soaking wet, moving it in a gentle circular motion, and finishing off by patting the area dry with a clean cloth or rag.
Most experts recommend cleaning the entire wall once you start, particularly if it’s been a long time since the paint was cleaned. Just as with dusting, even if things don’t look particularly dirty, cleaning one area will often make it look noticeably different. Unless you’re only trying to remove a specific blemish, it’s usually best to clean the entire surface to keep things looking uniform.
More Abrasive Alternatives
Trying to get stains or marks off of paint can be more challenging than simply cleaning your walls to keep them maintained. Warm water can sometimes remove marks, but not always. It can be tempting to bring out an arsenal of cleaning supplies, but starting with the most gentle option available then slowly working up to harsher alternatives is usually the best way to protect your paint. Start by adding a bit of dish soap to your water, then work up from there.
Many home improvement stores sell professional-grade paint cleaners and stain removal products that you may want to try next, though it’s usually possible to make similar solutions with common household items. Mixing small amounts of vinegar, baking soda, and ammonia in water can provide more punch than soap alone, and particularly tough stains can sometimes be removed with a “paste” made of baking soda and water. Toothpaste sometimes also works in a pinch, and some people swear by lighter fluid, particularly when it comes to wax-based stains like crayon marks. It’s usually a good idea to test out any possible treatments on an inconspicuous area before using them over big patches of paint, just in case there’s a bad reaction.
Despite their name, “all-purpose” cleaners are not usually suitable for painted walls. Similarly, standard household sprays and scrubs should usually be kept for counter tops and sinks unless they have been specifically recommended or designated for walls. If you are in doubt about whether or not a chemical will work, test a small area or ask a professional for advice.
When Nothing Seems to Work
Unfortunately, not all stains can be removed from all paints. You may find yourself trying to work harder, either by scrubbing again and again or using progressively harsher chemicals, but this is not always the best course of action. Being overly rough with your walls might damage the paint or even remove it. When nothing seems to be working, you may need to call in a professional. Simply painting over the blemish is also an option in many cases, though this may mean that you have to re-paint the entire wall to get a consistent look.
Most paint manufacturers recommend waiting about a week after painting to clean your walls to be sure that everything has had enough time to dry properly. Particularly when you’re using chemicals, it’s also important to work in a well-ventilated area or at least to keep the doors and windows open to make sure you have fresh air. Wearing gloves and protective clothing can also help shield your skin from any chemicals or harsh cleansers.