How To Steam Clean Carpeting Naturally

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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.

How to Steam Clean Carpets Naturally

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.

Infographic of steps to steam clean or shampoo carpetsPin

Helpful Steam Cleaning Tips

For the best results, keep the following tips in mind when steam cleaning or shampooing your carpets:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Allow the carpet to dry completely: Walking on a wet carpet can cause new stains and damage the fibers. 
  4. 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.

See my favorite floor cleaning products.

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.

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40 Comments

  1. Hi there. I’m new to the website and have just become obsessed with reading all these posts on cleaning! I became a mum at a young age – the age of 19 – and both me and my partner never really had much interest in cleaning. In fact, we lacked motivation to clean as much as we should! Now i’m 25 though, I’ve been getting into healthier cleaning habits. However i’m also on a tight budget but have noticed that my carpets are getting duller. Would you recommend getting a steam cleaner? The appeal of steam cleaning my bathroom and hard floor is strong but I really just don’t know what steam cleaner to go for – or even what to look for! Love your reviews and how-to’s – they’ve really motivated AND my partner into loving our home more!

  2. I love your tips! I arrived here after googling a specific question: could I save money by buying a bargain brand spray cleaner then using only your near boiling water tip to clean my carpets as opposed to buying the expensive bissell formula? Or is that inadvisable?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I don’t use the expensive formula, though I would never recommend adding a spray cleaner to a carpet cleaning machine. Try the instructions in the blog post and I think you’ll be pleased.

  3. I have an off-white area rug thar sits on a rubber pad on top of bamboo floors. Just the areas where we sit are dirty. Rather then having to send the whole rug out for cleaning (it’s only a year old), I would like to steam clean only the area that’s dirty. I am concerned, however about soaking through the pad and possibly ruining the wood beneath. Can you make any suggestions on how to clean this area?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Maybe take it outside to do?

  4. Followed your directions to the letter, and my carpet looks brand new. Thank you.

  5. Molly Lord-Garrettson says:

    Thank you so much! This worked wonders. I am so pleased to find a Bronner’s solution.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  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. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 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!

  17. 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?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome!

  18. 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.

  19. 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