If your home or apartment was built between the 1950s and 1980s, there’s a good chance you have popcorn ceilings. This type of textured finish was a design staple for decades, thanks to its ability to muffle noise and hide imperfections. But despite their practical benefits, popcorn ceilings have become passé, partly because they’re so tricky to keep clean. The rough bumps can trap dust and dirt, making your ceiling look drab. And wiping or scrubbing a popcorn ceiling can cause the texture to crumble, which can be frustrating and unsightly — and potentially even dangerous.
Not sure how to clean popcorn ceilings without making an even bigger mess? You’re not alone, so we asked the experts to share their best strategies.
How to Clean Popcorn Ceilings Safely
First things first: Before you consider how to clean popcorn ceilings, you need to know what the popcorn texture is made of. Some older popcorn ceilings may contain asbestos, and inhaling the fibers can cause lung damage or cancer. In 1978, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned spray-applied surfacing materials containing asbestos — but some builders continued to use products they had in back stock, so if your home was built before the early 1980s, it’s worth finding out if your popcorn ceiling contains asbestos.
“If you suspect there is asbestos in your popcorn ceiling, organize a laboratory test ASAP,” advises Aaron Christensen, resident cleaning expert at the house cleaning service Homeaglow. “Asbestos is toxic, and to avoid exposure risk, you’ll need to hire a professional to carry out the test.” You can search for accredited asbestos testing labs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology database.
You’ll also need to take extra precautions if you see visible mold on your popcorn ceiling. “If there’s mold growth, don’t clean it by dry brushing, as it can release mold spores into the air,” cautions Will Cotter, owner of FreshSpace Cleaning. “First, find out where it’s coming from — a leaky roof, plumbing issue, or poor ventilation. Fixing the source is crucial, or the mold will likely return.” (Click through for The 5 Things *Never* To Do When You Find Mold on The Ceiling + The One Easy Fix.)
How to Clean Popcorn Ceilings
Popcorn ceiling material may resemble plaster or stucco, but the material is often made with polystyrene, which is similar to Styrofoam. This material may crumble if it’s cleaned too aggressively, or it may dissolve if it gets too wet.
“Popcorn ceilings can get soggy if you use too much water,” Cotter says. “Your cloth or sponge should be just damp enough to do the job without saturating the ceiling.”
For wiping down areas that need extra attention, Cotter suggests using a microfiber cloth or duster. If you need to use a cleaning solution, he adds, opt for a mild one. “You can DIY by mixing a few drops of dish soap with warm water,” he says. “Dampen a cloth or sponge — but don’t soak it — and gently dab or wipe the affected areas.”
There’s also one simple step you can take to make your job easier: Before you start cleaning, turn off your ceiling fan. “Dust tends to accumulate on fan blades, and if the fan is on during cleaning, it can spread dust and debris,” Cotter says. (If your ceiling fan is dusty, click through for tips on how to clean a ceiling fan in 30 seconds.)
How to Get Stains off a Popcorn Ceiling
Dirt, pollen, cooking oil, water, mildew, and cigarette smoke are just a few of the things that can stain a popcorn ceiling. These types of stains require a little more TLC, but it’s still possible to clean your popcorn ceiling without damaging the texture.
“If you’re working with stains, use spray-on treatments, and do not rub,” Christensen says. “When applying the spray, avoid being heavy-handed. Too much moisture can cause the textured pieces to get damp and soggy and fall off.” If you go overboard with the spray — it happens! — Christensen suggests opening a window and turning on a fan to speed up the drying process.
The best cleaner for popcorn ceilings depends on the type of stain.
Grease or smoke: “Use dish soap and warm water,” Christensen says. “Spray on and very gently wipe off with a sponge.”
Water stains: Mix bleach with water and spray over the stain. Start with a milder solution (one part bleach to four or five parts water). If that doesn’t lift the stain, try a stronger solution. Be sure to avoid saturating the ceiling, since this can cause the material to dissolve.
Stubborn stains: “I like commercial products that have the ingredient oxalic acid,” Christensen says.
If all else fails: “You’ll have to paint over the stain,” Christensen says. “Go for an oil-based, stain-blocking primer followed by acrylic paint.”
How to Maintain a Popcorn Ceiling
Any time you clean a popcorn ceiling, there’s a chance you’ll damage the material or knock a few of the “bumps” loose. So the best way to maintain your popcorn ceiling is to limit often you have to clean it in the first place. (Pro tip: The same is true for cleaning a shag rug.)
“Use preventative measures,” Christensen says. “Look around your environment and find your potential pollutants, then mitigate their impact! For example, if you’re cooking, install an overhead exhaust fan to suck up the smoke and grease. If you’re a smoker, avoid getting the smoke near the popcorn ceiling.”
Of course, some pollutants, like dust, are unavoidable. Regular dusting is crucial, because over time, built-up dust on your ceiling can cause a grayish discoloration called ghosting.
“Start with a monthly dusting routine,” Cotter says. “If your home seems to collect dust like a magnet, consider doing this more often.” He recommends using a soft-bristled brush to gently coax dust and cobwebs off the ceiling without damaging its texture. If you’d rather not use a stepladder, Cotter suggests attaching the brush to a painter’s pole.
“If you want to speed things up, a vacuum cleaner with a brush attachment can be a lifesaver,” he adds. Wear a dust mask and goggles while cleaning, and consider investing in an air purifier with a HEPA filter to reduce dust in the air.
For even more cleaning tips, click through the links below!