How to Clean Upholstered Furniture the Right Way

Plus, learn more about upholstery codes, which will help you determine which cleaning products to use when cleaning your couches, headboards, and chairs.

blue upholstered chairs in beautiful home
Photo: poligonchik / GETTY IMAGES

Whether you need to remove a stain from a fabric headboard or muddy paw prints from a linen couch, it's important to clean your upholstered furniture carefully. Each textile type requires specific care, which means one upholstery cleaner might not work for every piece in your home. And if you don't use the right products, you run the risk of insufficiently cleaning—or worse, damaging—the fabric.

To identify the best formulas and methods for the job, first look to your upholstery's labels, which are often marked with a code (W, S, W/S, and X); they indicate which cleaning solution is safe to use. To help you understand what these codes mean (and how to use them to clean upholstery the right way), we tapped two cleaning experts for their best tips.

How Often to Clean Upholstered Furniture

Since dust mites, pet dander, and allergens naturally accumulate on our upholstered furniture over time, it's important to give each piece a routine clean, says Jennifer Parnell, the co-founder of Humble Suds, a line of non-toxic, plant-based cleaning products. She suggests vacuuming your upholstered furniture at least once a month and deep cleaning once or twice each year to "wipe away germs, dust, dander, and dirt."

With regular cleaning and maintenance—including dry brushing and vacuuming—you will be able to extend the lifespan of your furniture, says Kathy Cohoon, the director of franchise operations of Two Maids.

The Upholstery Codes

Upholstered items typically have a code system that helps you identify the right type of cleaning product to use, says Cohoon. So, before you start cleaning your upholstery, you'll need to locate your furniture's code, which can be found on the piece's label.

Code W

If you see Code W, then you can use water to clean the upholstery. "This means the upholstery can be spot cleaned with water or water-based cleaner," says Cohoon. "This does not mean the item is machine washable."

Code S

Code S stands for solvents, which are powerful cleaning agents like acetone and methanol that break up oil-based messes. In this instance, Cohoon recommends enlisting a professional dry cleaner for help. "Spot clean areas with a dry cleaning product and leave major stains or annual deep cleaning to the pros," she says.  

Code W/S

Both water-based cleaners and dry cleaning solvents are suitable for upholstery marked with this code. Pro tip: Perform a spot test to decide which is the better choice, says Cohoon. "For combination pieces, it is best to leave the job to a professional dry cleaner to avoid damaging the fabric," she says.  

Code X

Avoid using any liquids or solvents if you spot this code. "Basically, Code X means the fabric is not able to be cleaned with liquids—so no water-based solutions or dry cleaning solvents," says Cohoon. "For these pieces, it is best to vacuum or brush with a soft bristle dry cleaning brush often."

How to Clean Upholstered Furniture

Round up the cleaning supplies below before you begin refreshing your upholstered furniture. 

Materials You'll Need

  • Vacuum
  • Cleaning brush
  • Upholstery cleaner or gentle laundry detergent
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Steam cleaner

Here are Cohoon's best tips for cleaning upholstery: 

  1. If possible, remove covers and cushions off of the upholstered furniture. Machine wash if it’s recommended by the manufacturer. 
  2. Vacuum the furniture, including cushions. Use a ruler or small cleaning brush to move stuck hair or debris caught in crevices. 
  3. Identify the right upholstery cleaner for your piece by checking its upholstery code; depending on the label, you might be able to use a gentle laundry detergent and warm water mixture to deep clean and boost freshness. Always spot test with the cleaning solution to avoid color damage. 
  4. Once you vacuum and test, apply a small amount of the solution to the couch in small sections using a soft microfiber cloth and soak up excess moisture with another cloth. 
  5. Allow the upholstery to air-dry (turning on a ceiling or box fan can help speed up the process, says Cohoon).
  6. To deep clean upholstery, use a handheld steamer to lift dirt and debris, Cohoon says.  

How to Remove Stains From Upholstered Furniture

Make sure to check your upholstery’s code when treating stains, as well, to figure out what cleaning agent can be used safely. 

Materials You'll Need

  • Microfiber towel
  • Solvent
  • Vinegar
  • Paper towel
  • Distilled water

Follow Parnell's steps to remove stains from upholstery:

1. Blot fresh stains with a microfiber towel to remove as much as possible. 

2. If the stain is oil-based and a solvent can be used, apply a small amount based on the solvent directions. 

3. Allow the spot to fully dry before applying more to see if the stain will lift and ensure the solvent doesn’t make it worse. 

4. If the stain is water-based, blot it as much as possible. If you can use a solvent on the fabric, dilute a paper towel in vinegar and blot the stain. 

5. Continue by applying distilled water to the stain and blot the area. Repeat as necessary.  

How to Care for Upholstered Furniture

Take these steps to keep your upholstered furniture in the best condition over time. 

Prevent Stains

The best way to prevent stains from setting in is by pre-treating them with upholstery cleaners or using a furniture cover in the first place. Otherwise, be mindful about what you eat or drink on a piece of upholstery (oil and wine stains are harder to get out), says Parnell. "However, accidents do happen and the best way to remove a stain is to act fast in blotting as much of it up as possible," she says. "[Treat] the stain per instructions based on the code listed on the furniture."

Check Manufacturer Instructions

As always, make sure to check the fabric and any manufacturer warnings before cleaning upholstered furniture, says Cohoon. "Always remember to spot test any type of cleaning method on upholstery, as some steam and liquid techniques can damage fabric or coloring," she says. "To avoid any potential damage or color fasting, be sure to read care instructions and abide by cleaning codes." When in doubt, consult a professional to clean upholstery. 

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