How to Clean Your Walls and Ceilings

Light, routine cleaning of your walls and ceilings will keep them looking fresh and delay the need for a major cleaning.

Generally, walls and ceilings are painted with either latex or alkyd paint. Latex, a water-base paint, is easy to wash after it has "cured" or set for a period of time. Alkyd, or oil-base paint, is durable and washable. Both types come in four finishes: flat (for walls and ceilings), satin (for doors and trim), semigloss (for walls), and gloss (for kitchen and bathroom walls and woodwork). You can clean painted walls with all-purpose cleaners.

We'll examine more than just painted surfaces in this article. From plaster to tile, we'll hit on a variety of surface types.

A Cleaner for Painted Walls and Ceilings
Here's a homemade solution that can get the dirt off painted walls and ceilings:
  • Mix 1⁄2 cup vinegar, 1 cup clear ammonia, 1⁄4 cup baking soda, and 1 gallon warm water. Caution: Wear rubber gloves, and work in a well-ventilated area when using this powerful solution.
  • Apply to the wall with a sponge, and rinse with clear water. If your walls have a rough texture, use old nylon stockings or socks rather than a sponge because they won't tear and leave difficult-to-remove bits on the surface.


Most painted ceiling surfaces are washable, but some ceilings, especially the acoustic type, need special treatment. Remove cobwebs from all ceilings monthly, or as needed, with a vacuum brush attachment or a long-handle mop. Wash or clean ceilings first if you are cleaning the whole room. Do not allow drips to run down walls. Protect furniture and floors with drop cloths or newspaper while you clean. Use a sponge mop to clean ceilings so you won't need a ladder.

Acoustic Finish

This rough sound-absorbing finish is often used in new construction and remodeling. While it is relatively cheap and quick to apply, spray-on acoustic finishes cannot be cleaned. When the ceiling becomes dirty, the best thing to do is to vacuum it using a brush attachment, and then respray it.

Ceiling Tile

Vinyl-coated ceiling tile can be cleaned with an all-purpose cleaning solution. Nonwashable tiles can be spot-cleaned with special products available at hardware stores. When an overall cleaning is needed, the tiles may be painted. There's no need for special paint.


Decorative plaster ceilings -- as opposed to flat, painted plaster ceilings -- are really not cleanable because of the unpainted surface and deep texture. When a plaster ceiling becomes dirty, the best treatment is to vacuum it carefully, using a brush attachment.

Now we move on to walls, which are tougher to maintain because they generally take more abuse.


Walls require more routine cleaning than ceilings, mainly because it's a lot easier for fingerprints, crayon marks, and scuff marks to land on them. Using a brush attachment, vacuum walls when you clean the room. Go behind pictures and mirrors with the small brush attachment. Remove cobwebs monthly or as needed.

Cleaning Brick Walls
A brick wall requires little attention. A solution of hot water and all-purpose cleaner can be used to clean accumulated dirt and stains from the surface. If the mortar between the bricks is especially dirty, add chlorine bleach to the cleaning solution.

When you vacuum, be careful not to press cobwebs against the wall. When you're ready to wash the wall, use an all-purpose cleaner for cleaning washable walls. Test the product to make sure it does not harm your wall covering by washing an inconspicuous place first.

Here are some additional suggestions:
  • Wash walls from the bottom to the top, overlapping the cleaned areas to prevent streaks.
  • To prevent water from running down your arm when washing walls, make a bracelet from a sponge or washcloth held in place with a thick rubber band.
  • Lift crayon marks off a painted wall by rubbing them carefully with a cloth or sponge dampened with mineral spirits or lighter fluid. Remove any shine by sponging lightly with hot water.
  • To remove transparent tape from a wall without marring the paint or wallpaper, use a warm iron. Through a protective cloth, press the tape to soften and loosen its adhesive backing.
  • Remove smudges while they are fresh, but do not scrub with much pressure or use synthetic scouring pads or abrasive cleansers.
  • To clean textured walls, old nylon stockings are better than sponges or cloths because they won't tear and leave difficult-to-remove bits and pieces on the surface.
  • Slight smoke stains above a fireplace opening are quickly removed with abrasive cleanser. Scrub the powder into the moistened brick and then rinse well with clear water to make sure that no white residue remains. If cleaning changes the color of the brick, even out the color by rubbing another brick of the same color over the discolored surface.
Special Wall Tiles

Decorative tile: Self-sticking decorator tiles, which are often vinyl-coated, are grease- and stain-resistant. A quick wipe with a sponge dipped in an all-purpose cleaning solution is usually all that is needed to keep them fresh and bright.

Metal tile: Metal tile can be wiped clean with a cloth dampened in an all-purpose cleaner and then buffed with a soft cloth.

Mirror tile: These wall tiles, whether clear or smoked, are cleaned in the same way as wall mirrors. Use glass cleaner on a paper towel or piece of newspaper to quickly remove spots and spatters. Do not use soap on mirror tile; it will streak and leave a film.

Some walls have coverings. In the next section, we'll find out how to clean wallcoverings.


Paper wallcoverings are considered nonwashable and require special cleaning techniques. Many wallcoverings are made of washable vinyl. Some manufacturers caution against using ammonia on these products, so be sure to check the instructions or test the cleaning product you plan to use in an inconspicuous area or on a leftover piece.

Sponge washable wallcoverings and some vinyl coverings with a mild detergent. To find out how much elbow grease your paper can take, first work on a scrap.

Lift grease stains from washable wallpaper with a paste made of cornstarch and water. Alternately, rub dry borax over the stains.

To remove a grease spot from nonwashable wallpaper, place a blotter over the spot and press it with a moderately hot iron. The blotter will soak up the grease.

Recipes for Cleaning Vinyl Wallcoverings
Here are two mixtures that can make it easier to clean vinyl wallcoverings.
  1. Mix 1⁄2 cup vinegar and 1 quart water, and gently apply to the surface with a sponge. Caution: Wear rubber gloves. Don't use too much moisture; it could seep under the seams and loosen the backing.
  2. Make a detergent to clean vinyl wallcoverings with a minimum of moisture. Mix 1⁄4 cup dishwashing liquid with 1 cup warm water in a mixing bowl, and beat the mixture to a stiff foam with an eggbeater. Working in a small area, dip a sponge into the foam and apply it to the wall to loosen dirt. Rinse the detergent with a sponge dipped in clear water and squeezed dry.

To remove crayon marks on wallpaper, rub carefully with a dry, soap-filled, fine-grade steel-wool pad; or use a wad of white paper towel moistened with dry-cleaning solvent and delicately sponge the surface. Carefully blot to prevent the solvent from spreading and discoloring the paper.

Smudges, finger marks, and pencil marks can be removed from the surface of papered walls by very gently rubbing the spots with an art gum eraser.

Clean nonwashable wallpaper with rye bread. Make a fist-size wad of bread, and rub it across discolorations and dirt.

We'll finish up this article by focusing on wood, a staple in many basements and family rooms.

Wood Paneling and Woodwork

Wood paneling can have a natural, stain, oil, or wax finish. Routine care requires occasional vacuuming with a brush attachment. Never use water to clean wood paneling. Many commercial oil and wax finishes are available. For the best results, follow the manufacturer's instructions.


Woodwork is either painted, stained, or left natural with an oil or varnish finish. Like walls, it benefits from a regular cleaning routine. Here's how you should approach that routine:
  • Vacuum or dust woodwork regularly.
  • Keep a small container of matching paint or stain handy to touch up nicks and scratches.
  • Wash the doors and window frames from the bottom up.

    Cleaning woodwork involves using polish or wood cleaner.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Polish or wood cleaner can work wonders on your woodwork.

  • Clean woodwork with a wood cleaner or polish. Do not use water-base cleaners on stained or natural woodwork except for light touch-ups that you buff quickly. Spray the cleaner on a cloth instead of directly on the wood.
  • Many commercial oil and wax finishes are available. Follow the manufacturer's instructions.
As you've seen in this article, cleaning walls and ceilings isn't a difficult job. The most important thing is to make sure you do it regularly.