Get your carpets clean without harsh chemicals. Learn how to naturally steam clean your carpet and remove tough stains with this step-by-step guide.
The term “carpet steam cleaning” is misleading. Steam happens when water reaches around 202°F / 100°C, a temperature that’s hot enough to melt the adhesive that keeps your carpet fibers attached to the backing. That temperature can also damage the adhesives in subflooring. So, although homeowners call it “steam cleaning,” professionals refer to it as the hot water extraction method to distinguish it from the dry chemical compounds used by some carpet cleaning services. Best of all, it’s a method you can replicate at home to remove grime, allergens, and stains from your carpet with the following steps.
Before You Begin
Inspect for loose fibers: Examine your carpet for loose fibers before steam cleaning to prevent damage to the flooring and the machine. Trim loose or frayed fibers with scissors to prevent them from getting caught in the steam cleaner’s roller brush.
Test for colorfastness: Apply a small amount to the surface and wait five minutes, then blot it with an undyed, damp rag. Blot again with a fresh, dry cloth, and check both rags to ensure the color is not transferring. Once the area is dry, inspect it for any signs of damage, such as color transfer or fading. If you notice any damage, do not use the product or method.
Equipment and Materials
- Carpet steam cleaning machine or shampooer
- Hot water
- Castile soap or preferred cleaning solution
- Distilled white vinegar (optional)
- Fans (optional)
Steps to Steam Clean Your Carpet
It’s best to wait for warm, dry weather to steam clean your carpets, so you can open your widows and speed up the drying process. If you must do this during the winter, run your home’s heater but turn off humidifiers until the carpets are completely dry.
Step 1: Clear the floor.
Pick up toys, pet beds, and other items from the floor. Move small furnishings to another room so they’re out of your way and don’t get wet. To protect the legs of sofas or tables you can’t move, slide a square of aluminum foil beneath their legs. This will help protect them from water or cleaning solution that may seep through the carpet.
Step 2: Dust and vacuum thoroughly.
Carpet cleaners can get clogged if there is too much debris or pet hair on the floor. To prevent this, start by cleaning your baseboards, since carpet cleaning can make dust fall onto the floor. Then, use the crevice attachment on your vacuum to clean around the base of walls and any furniture you don’t plan to move. Finally, vacuum properly wall to wall. This will ensure there is no loose dirt or debris on your carpets.
Step 3: Pretreat stains.
Before steam cleaning your carpets, it’s important to remove any existing carpet stains, including black lines at the edges of your carpet. This step is necessary because heat can make stains harder to remove. Steam cleaners can also force the grime deeper into the carpet pad, causing the stain to reappear a few days later through a process known as wicking. Here are some methods to remove common carpet stains:
- Coffee and tea stains: Mix equal parts white vinegar and water and apply to the stain with a clean cloth. Blot the stain with the cloth until the stain is lifted.
- Red wine stains: Sprinkle salt on the stain and let it sit for a few minutes. Then, pour club soda on the stain and blot with a clean cloth until the stain is lifted.
- Pet urine stains: Mix equal parts water and white vinegar and apply to the stain with a clean cloth. Blot the stain with the cloth until the stain is lifted. Repeat as necessary.
- Grease and oil stains: Sprinkle baking soda on the stain and let it sit for a few minutes. Then, apply a small amount of dish soap to the stain and scrub with a soft-bristled brush. Blot the stain with a clean cloth until the stain is lifted.
- Ink stains: Apply rubbing alcohol to the stain with a clean cloth and blot the stain until it’s lifted.
Use a white rag to clean carpet stains, so you don’t transfer dye from the cloth to the floor.
Step 4: Mix a DIY carpet-cleaning solution.
Use hot water and Castile soap to make a homemade carpet cleaner. To prepare it, fill the machine’s cleaning tank just shy of the capacity fill line with hot (but not boiling) water. Next, add one tablespoon of Castile soap for every quart of water used, or 1/4 cup for every gallon. If your machine is still under warranty, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on which cleaning solution to use.
Step 5: Work slowly, wall to wall.
Most carpet steam cleaners release the cleaning solution as you push forward and extract it as you pull it back. So, push the machine forward slowly so its brushes can “scrub” the carpet as it lays down the carpet cleaning solution. Then drag the cleaner back to remove as much water as possible. Leaving too much moisture behind will lead to mold and mildew, along with their odors. Work in overlapping strokes, going wall to wall. Empty the dirty water tank as needed, and refill the cleaning solution before it cools.
Step 6: Mix a rinsing solution.
Empty the clean water tank for the second go through and refill it with a 50-50 mix of distilled white vinegar and very hot water. (Do not use apple cider vinegar, which contains pectins that may attract household pests.) Vinegar’s acetic acid neutralizes and removes soap while also dissolving oil, dirt, and grime. It can also help kill lingering allergens and deodorize your carpet. You do not need to rinse it again after this step, and doing so may over-saturate your carpet.
Step 7: Let it dry.
To dry your carpets faster, you can open your windows if it’s warm outside. Running fans can also help. Even with good air circulation, wait for 8 to 12 hours before putting furniture back in place. Just because the carpet feels dry to the touch does not mean that the pad underneath has dried completely.
Helpful Steam Cleaning Tips
For the best results, keep the following tips in mind when steam cleaning or shampooing your carpets:
- Use hot water: Hot water dissolves dirt and stains more effectively than cold. But avoid boiling water, since this can damage the adhesives used to hold carpet fibers in place.
- Use the right amount of cleaning solution: Using too much cleaning solution will leave a residue which attracts more dirt, while using too little won’t clean your carpet well. Measure precisely, even with DIY carpet cleaning solutions like the one above.
- Allow the carpet to dry completely: Walking on a wet carpet can cause new stains and damage the fibers.
- Don’t over-saturate the carpet: Less is more in steam cleaning your carpet. Using too much water or cleaning solution can cause moisture to seep down into the padding, which can lead to mold and mildew growth.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are the questions I’m most often asked about this task. If you have one that I haven’t addressed, please leave it in the comments. Your question may be helpful to others!
How often should you steam clean carpets?
For most homes, once a year is the minimum recommended frequency for steam cleaning carpets. Late spring is a good time since the weather is usually warm enough to open windows to speed up the drying process. If you have pets or kids, it can be tempting to shampoo carpets even more often, but doing so can actually shorten the lifespan of your carpet. A better approach is to spot-treat carpet stains as they occur and aim to steam clean your carpets twice a year.
Can I steam clean all types of carpets?
Steam cleaning is a safe and effective way to clean most types of carpets. However, it’s important to always check the manufacturer’s instructions first, as some carpets may be more sensitive to high temperatures. Certain carpets may be more prone to shrinking or discoloration.
Is this safe on vintage or wool carpets?
Professional treatment is necessary for vintage or wool carpets because mechanical cleaners can harm their fibers. Wear and tear can weaken fibers in vintage carpets and make them more susceptible to damage. Wool carpets, made from natural fibers, need special care to avoid shrinkage or other types of harm.
Can I steam clean area rugs?
To steam clean area rugs, start by doing a spot test in an inconspicuous area to ensure that the cleaning solution won’t cause damage or discoloration. Once you’re ready to proceed, it’s best to take the area rug outside and clean it on a patio or driveway, where it can air dry in a well-ventilated area. This also helps prevent moisture from getting trapped beneath the rug, which could damage your floors.
Is Castile soap good to use on carpets?
Castile soap is oil-based. This makes it perfect for getting rid of oil-based stains in high-traffic areas of your carpet, which are often caused by city grime from shoes. The principle of “like dissolves like” means that Castile soap is effective at breaking down these types of stains. Castile soap can clean many things in your home, so it’s worth the purchase. You must follow Castile soap with a rinsing step, so follow the method precisely.
Can I use this on upholstery?
You can use this method on some upholstery fabrics. First, check the fabric label to see if there is a W code, which means the fabric is washable. Then do a spot test using the steps as described. Finally, use a carpet cleaner with a nozzle or attachment specifically for upholstery and couches. Alternatively, clean sofa stains by hand.