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How can I Clean Painted Walls?

By Bethany Keene
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

Safety Precautions

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.

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Discussion Comments
By gtechs0011 — On Jul 14, 2014

Being in the painting and interior wall cleaning industry for over 15 years, I will tell you what not to use.

1. Anything that is acidic. Why? Because paint quality is reduced and it actually destroys the pigmentation of the paints color and the structure of the paint is degraded.

2. Gumption. Because everyone knows or should know that gumption is like putting mud on a wall and grinding it in to get rid of the marks. What is left after the fact well let me tell you it sticks out like a sore thumb. What you're actually doing is ripping the surface of the paint to create an even bigger problem.

I have walked into many a resort motel room and have seen the damage  caused by gumption and it's not a good look. They have not only destroyed the look of the paint, but have also destroyed the quality and integrity where it is actually a permanent eyesore.  

3. Chux magic blocks. Well, what do you get when you use a waste product on a painted surface? Yes, that's right: shiny spots that are worse than the mark because not only do you see the shiny spot looking straight at it, but you can see it from the side when you walk into a room. Light reflection makes it look twice as bad and it's a definite no-no. Again, the paint has been totally destroyed.

4. There are certain other acidic chemicals on the market that are not much better and they all claim to be the best  or do a better job than the others. Trust me when I say we have tried them all.

5. The worst thing we have heard so far is people using bleach on their interior painted walls. This is a major no. The last thing you want to do is actually discolor the painted walls and totally dry out the paint which in the end will deteriorate the paint quality in such a big way that you will notice it in the next 6 to 12 months where your paint has a slight chalky feel when you rub your hands across the surface and it leaves a powder residue on your hands. That tells us one thing: paint quality breakdown.

What's the worst thing about interior walls within our homes and businesses? There are some horrible creatures and growths on your interior walls -- things like fungi, bacteria, nicotine, industrial pollution, insect killer over spray, grease, virucides and grime just to mention a few, so there are  many things that can affect your lungs, health etc.

The only chemical that you should use on your interior walls is our very soft, non-acidic wall disinfectant/detergent. Also use a plastic scourer lightly. That actually helps get the grease and most of the marks off the paint without destroying it. Hope this helps.

By anon114044 — On Sep 27, 2010

If you start at the top first you can get drips that run through the accumulated dirt further down the wall and when you get to clean that part of the wall you nearly always have 'drip' marks that are nigh on impossible to remove.

This was really noticeable in the days before smoking was banned in restaurants and pubs. I had a decorating business and one of my clients was a restaurateur.

By anon105771 — On Aug 22, 2010

Re starting at the bottom of the wall:

I figured this would be entirely reversed. if you clean the bottom, and then the top. the runoff from the top will drip downwards regardless, but also re-dirty what you've already cleaned.

By anon71258 — On Mar 17, 2010

What is the best way to remove toothpaste splatters from satin paint? Sounds strange, but even after wiping with gentle cleaner, they pop right back up upon drying. Thanks for any tips.

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