A steam cleaner on a turquiose shag carpet

How To Steam Clean Carpeting Naturally

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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 we often call it “steam cleaning,” it’s not steam: it’s hot water and soap, otherwise known in the trade as the hot water extraction method. Best of all, you can steam clean your carpet naturally and when you’re done it’ll look — and smell — almost new.

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.

Step 2: Dust and vacuum thoroughly.

Carpet cleaners can get clogged if there is too much debris or pet hair on the floor. So, clean the baseboards and vacuum around the base of walls then wall to wall.

Step 3: Pretreat stains.

Hot water can set stains and drive them into the pad. Then they’ll reappear days later through a process known as wicking. So, grab a white rag and treat any stains you find..

  • Pet urine stains: Blot with equal parts water and white vinegar.
  • Grease and oil stains: Rub in some baking soda and wait a few minutes, then wipe the area with soapy water. Blot.
  • Ink stains: Blot with rubbing alcohol.

Step 4: Mix a DIY carpet-cleaning solution.

Fill the machine’s cleaning tank just shy of the fill line with hot (but not boiling) water. Now, add one tablespoon of Castile soap for every quart of water you used, or 1/4 cup for every gallon.

Step 5: Work slowly, wall to wall.

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 even more slowly to remove as much water as possible.

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.

Now, rinse out that dirty tank and refill the clean one with a 50-50 mix of distilled white vinegar and very hot water. Then go over the carpet wall to wall again, but this time you don’t need to rinse.

This step leverages vinegar’s acetic acid to neutralize the soap residue while also dissolving oil, dirt, and grime. It even helps kill lingering allergens and deodorize 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.

But 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.

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 good. Steam cleaning carpets too often can wear them out quickly. 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 synthetic carpets. It’s not a good choice for wool because the fibers are delicate when they’re wet.

Is this safe on vintage or wool carpets?

You should always contact professionals for help cleaning vintage items. It’s smart to do it with wool carpets, too, because heat and carpet cleaning machines can harm their fibers.

Can I steam clean area rugs?

Yes, but spot check first. If you’re good to go after that, it’s best to do it outside so it doesn’t trap moisture under the area rug. If you must do it indoors, protect the floor beneath it with blankets and remove them as soon as you’re done.

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.

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, or just clean sofa stains by hand.

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40 Comments

  1. I have a question regarding the Dr. Bronner cleaner. When I look for that product, all of them have a ‘scent’ such as Almond, Lavender, etc. Are any of those OK or should I continue to look for one without a scent? This my first time to your site, and I’m intrigued and impressed by the natural products you use and the methods (and frankly, the organization) that you recommend. I have had a house cleaner for the past 5 years and she recently left. I’m retired now and have decided to do it myself. I’m a tad rusty to say the least and looking for excellent results in minimal time! lol I AM retired after all! Thanks so much

  2. Esther Romero says:

    I have a bissel machine where the water and detergent containers are separate, no mixing needed. When you say you use 1 tbls. of Dr. Bonner’s soap for every quart of water, are you mixing them? I’m assuming I would simply fill my detergent container full with either the soap or the vinegar and allow the machine to mix them, as per the operating instructions?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yes, my machine has one dispenser that hot water and soap go into. You should always follow your machine’s instructions.

    2. Thanks for a great, well-written article! I didn’t have any trouble at all understand your directions and I totally plan on steam-cleaning my carpets today using all of your advice. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂

    3. DO you think it is ok to FILL cleaner part with the Dr Bronners soap?? Won’t get carpet too soapy?? I also have a Bissell.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome!

  3. Can I use my Bissell steam cleaner to clean rugs on top of engineered hard wood floors? Love the tip about putting down foil so you don’t have to move big pieces of furniture. Thanks bunches!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I really wouldn’t recommend it. Engineered wood is sensitive to moisture, and I’d worry that the Bissel wouldn’t dry the rug enough to prevent warping the floor. Maybe move the rug to a patio to steam clean?

  4. Bernadette Morgan says:

    Very helpful post! I’m almost done with my fall cleaning and home and needed good advice on how to clean my carpets. Tips in this post are nice and quite useful. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Nettie Hubbard says:

    Amazing tips! For me as a mother it’s very important to know more cleaning ways. Thank you for sharing how to maintain the carpets!

  6. Any tips on how to get those black filtration lines to disappear from the perimeters of wall to wall carpets? I just moved into a house where the rugs are in pretty good condition except for those grimy black lines. It’s hard to get carpet cleaners close enough to the baseboards to get that area clean.

  7. Wow, your post on steam cleaning the carpets really touches all the important parts. I am a professional cleaner and operate the heavy professional carpet steam cleaners each day. The process you describe will work perfectly for every household and I recommend to do it once or even twice a year – during the spring cleaning and before the winter. Deep cleaning the carpets before the colder months will minimize the dirt build-up after and it will be a lot faster and easier to clean them the next spring. I also use a finishing product called Scotchgard which protects carpets from future stains.

  8. I have a runner in my foyer that’s made of wall to wall carpet. Steam cleaned it as my dogs tend to soil it. It still smells like urine which is disgusting. Thinking of steam cleaning the backing hoping it would eliminate the odors. Is it possible to do that without damaging the carpet?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Steaming the back of the runner could, indeed, ruin it. The backing is typically where carpet fibers are glued into place; the high heat of the steam can ruin this glue. Try these methods for cleaning pet stains instead.

  9. Your information was so very helpful. Your posts answered all my questions: the black lines near the baseboard; what if my carpet really doesn’t get clean the first time – when should I go over it again; and can I use a cleaning rinse with vinegar:). Thanks so much!

  10. I just finished cleaning my carpets and I wish I had found you sooner! Great tips! They will be put to good use next time. The vinegar and water is genius. I bet it cleans out the machine and keeps it working longer, too. Can’t wait to read more of your blogs! From one house wife to another, thanks for your advice!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Thanks, Tricia! I love how the vinegar-water mix really lifts away stains and kills odors without leaving behind a residue that attracts more dirt. Just be sure to use the right proportion or you could damage your machine.

  11. Long story is, I moved into a new apartment, in new city with carpeting, My pet Boston Terrier is still adjusting to the new environment, and has been urinating in the apartment. There are no visible, pet stains, as I have tried to clean up the “deposits” after coming home from work. Bought UV flashlight to find the missed invisible but odiferous deposits and ending up finding all types of old stains in carpet that had to have come from previous tenant(s) and what has to be a cleaning trail of spots from previous steam clean. Goal = to clean carpet to remove smell that I can detect, and want to clean it to a level my dog cannot detect. My planned MO is:
    1. Vacuum thoroughly (after covering furniture legs with foil
    2. Pre treat bright uv areas with ???
    – Dawn & water mix.
    – Dawn, borax, H2Peroxide & water mix?
    – Or Iron method with 1:3 Vinegar Water?
    – Prefer not to use ammonia (not pet friendly).
    3. Finish with 2 step general steam carpet clean method?
    – Should I top damp carpet after steaming with Baking soda to further neutralize
    4. Vacuum after allowing to dry overnight

    I am at my wit’s end with the smell, and am tempted to just pour essential oils all over. I feel I am making things complicated, and looking for the most thorough but simplified method based on your experience.

    Thanks!

  12. We live in a rental home, carpets were in pretty bad shape to begin with. I have a Kirby with shampoo option which I have used, but not much success. Looking at buying a cleaner but not wanting to spend a ton. Do you think I should go over the carpet several times, or do it once & wait until it is completely dry and try again later?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Ugh, the Kirby Sentra with the shampoo attachment. Shauna, I have one of those, too, and I’ll be honest: I don’t think it does a very good job of shampooing carpets. Kirbys have brilliant suction when vacuuming, but they just don’t shampoo a carpet as thoroughly as a dedicated carpet shampooer. That’s why, even before my Kirby died (don’t get me started about how they failed to honor their warranty), I bought that carpet shampoo machine listed in this blog post. That said, if you do want to keep using the Kirby, I think you should let the carpet dry between each attempt. Even though Kirbys don’t put out much water (one of the reasons they don’t work as well), too many passes will get your carpet padding and subfloor damp, and that leads to mold and mildew that is almost impossible to get rid of from a carpet.

  13. Hi,

    Thank you for your very helpful article. Could you please clarify for me whether I should be doing step 1 in both directions on the carpet followed by step 2 in both directions? Does one cleaning then consist of 4 passes over the carpet? Finally could I do step 1 on one day and step 2 the next day?

    Thanks again!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Since we don’t want to oversaturate the carpet, step 1 and 2 are only in one direction. (It’s the vacuuming that gets done in both directions.) You can certainly do both step 1 one day and step 2 the next if you like. Best of luck!

  14. If the carpet cleaner uses 12 cups of clean water, how much dirty water should you get back in the return basin? I am concerned my shampooer is not sucking up enough water. I know a certain percent of water will remain in the carpet, but what percent is that? Right now it takes 12 cups to fill and when I dump the dirty water there is only 2 cups. I am worrying that too much water is being left in the carpets and causing damage or mold.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      There’s really no way to answer this, Chris, since every machine is different. It does seem that you should get more than 2 cups of water out after putting down 12 cups. I’d suggest following the manufacturer’s instructions on cleaning your machine. I know when pet hair and carpet fibers clog the intake valves on mine I stop getting as much water out as I should.

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