How to Clean a Sofa or Couch

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As one of the more visible and often-used pieces of furniture in your home, it’s good to know how to clean a sofa and remove stains to keep it looking good.

The following guide explains how to eliminate stains on both fabric and leather sofas by deep-cleaning. You’ll also find out how to perform lighter, regular cleanings to keep your sofa or couch looking and smelling fresh all the time.

How to Clean a Sofa or Couch

Clean white sofa in minimalist living room

Step One: Vacuum to Eliminate Odors, Dirt, and Pet Hair

The first step in cleaning a sofa — or any upholstered furniture, for that matter — is to vacuum it thoroughly. Doing this well will eliminate dust and surface odors, and prepares the surface for the spot treatment of stains.

  • Remove all throw pillows and cushions from the sofa.
  • Sprinkle the entire sofa and all cushions with baking soda. Pat the powder in lightly with your hand, so it has a chance to bond with moisture and odor-causing substances. Wait 15 minutes, then proceed with the next step.
  • Use your vacuum’s crevice tool around the base of the seating platform to remove crumbs and other debris.
  • Switch to the vacuum’s upholstery attachment and go over the seating platform, arms, sides, and back of your sofa.
  • Continue using the upholstery attachment to vacuum all surfaces of the cushions.

Step Two: Get Rid of Sofa Stains

Before treating food spills and other stains on your sofa, it’s essential to check your manufacturer’s instructions. Some stain-removal methods are not suitable for certain fabrics and can cause damage. Always spot test before proceeding! The instructions below are specifically for fabric sofas. There are different steps to clean artificial leather sofas and furniture.

Check the Codes

If there’s not a label beneath the cushions, try unzipping them and checking inside for a cleaning label. The following explains what upholstery cleaning codes mean.

  • W – This code calls for a “water-based cleaner,” such as laundry detergent or dish soap combined with water. You can also use a commercial non-solvent upholstery shampoo.
  • S – This code indicates you must only use a water-free, chemical-based solvent or dry-cleaning product. Cleaning with a water-based solution may cause spots or damage the fabric.
  • WS – This code indicates you can use either a water-based cleaner or a solvent-based cleaner.
  • X – You should not use any form of cleaner. Only vacuuming or softly brushing the fabric is safe.

The sofa stain-removal instructions below are only for sofas bearing labels which say W or WS. For S fabrics, use a commercial solvent-based cleaner. (Here is one from Sprayway that works well.)

Food and Grease Stains

Mix 2 cups of warm (not hot) water with 1/4 teaspoon of a grease-cutting liquid dish detergent like Dawn Original (or Fairy in the UK).

  1. Dampen the corner of a clean microfiber cloth with this mixture and dab at the stain.
  2. Do not rub or saturate the area.
  3. Rotate the cloth as needed, so you’re always working with a clean spot as you lift the stain.
  4. Once the food stain is off your couch upholstery, wipe the area with a clean, damp cloth then pat it dry.

Ink Stains

Use plain isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol* and a clean, white cloth to remove ink stains from sofa fabrics.

  1. Dab the area to transfer the ink from your sofa to the cloth. Do NOT rub!
  2. As the stain lifts, dampen a new area of your cleaning cloth and continue to dab at the spot. Repeat until the stain is gone.
  3. Get a clean cloth lightly damp with plain water and wipe the area you just cleaned. Pat it dry.

* This is known as “surgical spirits” in the UK.

Pet Stains and Other “Accidents”

Whether your pet had an accident on the sofa, or your child did, the methods below will eliminate the stain and odor from W or SW fabrics.

Urine: If it’s still fresh, press a dry cloth against the spot to soak up as much liquid as possible.

  1. Mix equal parts distilled white vinegar and warm water.
  2. Using a clean cloth, dab this mixture on to the spot to neutralize the odor.
  3. Wait 5 minutes, then pat the area dry with a fresh towel.

Continue cleaning other sofa stains using the appropriate method, then move onto Step Three: Launder or Steam Clean (below).

Poop or Vomit: Use a paper plate to scrape up as much of the mess as possible and discard it in the trash.

  1. Stir 1 tablespoon of baking soda, 2 tablespoons of oxygenated color-safe bleach (like Oxiclean), and 1 teaspoon of liquid dish detergent into 2 cups of warm water.
  2. Using a clean cloth, dab the mixture onto the soiled area. Use fresh rags as needed, so you’re continually working with a clean one to lift the mess.
  3. Pat the area dry with a fresh towel.
  4. Once the stain is gone, go over the area with a new cloth lightly dampened with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol* to kill germs. Let this air dry.

Step Three: Launder or Steam Clean

Treating individual stains before laundering or steam cleaning your sofa keeps the heat from these processes from making the stains permanent. So, once you’re satisfied you’ve removed all stains, it’s time to deep-clean the rest of the upholstery.

Use the Washer if You Can

If your manufacturer’s label allows it, you can remove the cushion covers and launder them in your washing machine. Check to see if the covering of the rest of the sofa is removable, too. If it is, it’s a good idea to launder it, also, so the fabric wears evenly.

To launder sofa cushion covers, add no more than two at a time to your machine. Use a cold wash and rinse cycle, and an enzyme-based detergent specifically designed for cold water cleaning. Either air-dry or tumble the covers on low heat, then put them back on the cushions.

If you cannot remove the covering from the back of the sofa to launder it at this time, you can steam clean it using the following steps.

How to Steam Clean a Sofa

Always read your machine’s manual before using it. If you do not have the manual, look it up online.

  • Use warm (not hot) water and a low-foam upholstery shampoo in the tank.
  • Work slowly, in overlapping sections. Do not press the upholstery attachment into the fabric too hard, or you may damage both the sofa and your machine.
  • Do not saturate your sofa — that can cause mold or mildew, and even warp the frame. If you aren’t satisfied with the initial result, allow your couch to completely dry, then steam clean it again.
  • If your steam cleaner’s upholstery attachment also extracts water, do several light passes in one direction then repeat at a right-angle for maximum moisture removal.

Once you’ve finished, pat the entire sofa dry with fresh towels then aim a fan at it to speed up drying. Good ventilation and air circulation will keep your couch from developing a musty smell.

Step Four: Vacuum a Second Time

Once your sofa is fully dry, you should vacuum it one more time.

Although it may seem like overkill, this second vacuuming will lift the fabric’s nap, so your sofa feels soft and comfortable — not crunchy from laundering.

How to Clean a Leather Sofa

To clean a leather sofa, vacuum all of its surfaces with a dust brush attachment. Before removing stains, spot test an inconspicuous area for colorfastness and wait until it’s dry to decide.

Food or pet stains: Use warm water with a small amount of mild dish detergent to dab the spot, then immediately buff the area dry.

Ink stains: Use the ink-removal method described above, then immediately pat the area dry.

Once you’ve treated stains, condition the leather using a product like Leather Master to protect against future stains and keep your sofa supple.

How Often Should You Clean a Sofa or Couch?

Daily: Straighten cushions and treat fresh spills before they have a chance to become actual stains.

Weekly: Sprinkle baking soda on the cushions, then vacuum and flip them as part of your regular cleaning routine. If you have a lot of pets or small children, you might want to vacuum cushions twice a week.

Monthly: Remove all cushions and vacuum your sofa’s seating platform, crevices, sides, and back. Take cushions outside to beat more dust out of them if the weather is nice.

Twice a year: Spring and autumn are good times to give your entire sofa the full deep-cleaning treatment. If you have a particularly busy household, you might want to do this every season.

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