Clean Those Wall Coverings Rather Than Replace Them Clean Those Wall Coverings Rather Than Replace Them

We're in the New Millennium

Twenty-five years ago, most wallpapers were "washable," meaning that the ink would not run if you wet it lightly. Then came vinyl coated, vinyl acrylic, solid sheet vinyl, laminated vinyl, etc. Most wallcoverings are labeled "non-washable," "washable" or "scrubbable." If your paper wasn't labeled, but you have a small piece, take it to a wallpaper dealer and ask them what they would recommend. Or test an inconspicuous area (as behind furniture) by wiping it with a damp cloth; if the wallpaper does not change in color or appearance, it probably can be safely cleaned as a washable wallpaper. Always test any cleaning method in an inconspicuous spot before trying in on a wall open to view.

Vacuum off dust frequently. Don't let paper get too dirty before cleaning it. Remove dust periodically by brushing gently downward from the ceiling with a vacuum cleaner wall brush, which does the best job, or a long handled soft brush, a clean cloth tied around broom or mop. Remember to change the cloth when it gets soiled to prevent streaks. If cobwebs are present lift them up with the brush because they may cause streaks when brushed down. If your wallcovering is flocked, use only the vacuum dusting brush attachment to clean as it prevents matting or shedding. If the ceiling is papered, dust it first.

Washable Papers

"Washable" papers usually have a plastic coating. Clean with a damp cloth or sponge; use water sparingly and do not get them wet.

  • Make a sudsy solution of a mild white detergent (hand dish washing liquid) in cool water in one bucket, and cool rinse water in a second bucket.
  • First clean the ceiling, whether papered or painted.
  • Then clean the walls from the bottom up, very gently wiping overlapping areas in circular motion, first with a damp sudsy sponge, then with a damp rinsing sponge.
  • Pat gently with a clean soft cloth or bath towel to remove any surface moisture.
  • If any area has to be re-washed to remove soil, let it dry completely before washing again.
  • Some foam cleaners may be used, but only if directions on their label say they can.

"Scrubbable" Wallcoverings

Wallcoverings labeled "scrubbable" are vinyl or vinyl-impregnated paper. They can be scrubbed with a foam cleanser or all-purpose detergent, using a sponge or soft cloth, and rinsed with clean sponge or cloth. Do not use any abrasive liquid cleaners nor any scouring powders nor any other abrasives, as these could scratch the vinyl finish. These wallcoverings are more practical for rooms that get lots of use. Foam cleaners are normally used as follows

  1. Spray a four-foot square area, holding the can about 8 inches from surface.
  2. Wipe off foam and soil with a clean damp sponge.
  3. Wipe area with a rinsing sponge, and gently pat dry with clean towel.

Fabric and Textile Wallcoverings

Some are vinyl-coated and easy to wash. Others, like burlap or grass cloth, are very hard to clean when stained. You might try wiping lightly with a sponge dampened in suds and water; testing first in an inconspicuous spot to be sure the water won't stain the covering. Best method is to follow directions provided by the manufacturer of that covering, or ask a dealer for a cleaner recommended for that wallcovering.

We recommend you dust occasionally with a clean cloth or vacuum to remove loose dirt. If you can wash spots and stains use a sponge or soft bristle brush soaked in a mild detergent or soap solution. Rinse well. If you really have a trouble spot, add two or three tablespoons of bleach. Use the non-chlorine type for delicate fabrics. Rinse with plenty of clear water and dry with an absorbent towel to prevent streaking.

Non-washable Papers

Buy commercial wallpaper cleaner, (a putty like material). Rub it over the surface, following directions on the product exactly. Always test first a on place usually not seen, such as behind furniture, to see how it affects paper and that it does not streak. Vacuum or brush off any bits of cleaner that have clung to the wall.

Spots and Stains

Finger Marks, Smudges, and Pencil Marks: Rub gently with art gum or commercial wallpaper cleaner. On washable paper, wipe with damp sponge, or sudsy sponge and then damp sponge if needed to remove mark.

Grease Spots: Hold a clean white blotter or several white paper towels over the spot and press with a warm iron until the grease is absorbed by towels. If grease still remains, apply a paste spot remover and brush it off after it dries to a powder. If washable paper you may be able to wipe off with a sudsy sponge, followed by damp sponge.

Crayon: (You have to remove both wax/grease and color.) If thick amount left, scrape off excess with table knife. Use a warm iron and white paper towel method as under "grease spots." For non-washable papers, try paste spot remover as under "grease spots," or wipe gently with a cloth moistened with denatured alcohol or spot remover; these are flammable and the vapors are toxic, so be sure there is no flame, spark, or pilot light in area and have plenty of ventilation. Do not clean walls by this method! Use only on small spots. For washable papers, use sudsy sponge after lifting grease. Do not smear the residue. Make certain you only buy washable crayons for children, however do not let them write on walls!


This article has been contributed in part by Michigan State University Extension.

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