How to Clean an Upholstered Couch—and Remove Tough Stains

Here's the right way to refresh a sofa so it looks brand new.

white upholstered sofa in living room
Photo: Getty Images

We have a theory that the comfier the couch, the more use it gets—and the more dirt it inevitably collects. And yes, this goes for even the best kid- and pet-friendly sofas. The good news is that learning how to clean an upholstered couch isn't as complicated as you might think, and you may be able to handle the process yourself without calling in a professional.

An upholstered couch is one that's covered in fabric, and there are many types. Cotton is the most common option, but couches can be covered in linen, rayon, velvet, chenille, microfiber, and more. Debra Johnson, the home cleaning expert at Merry Maids, shares her best tips for how to clean an upholstered couch and remove those set-in stains.

How Often to Clean an Upholstered Couch

For general upkeep, clean your upholstered couch twice a year. But get to spills and stains fast. The sooner you start to treat stains, the better, so they won't have time to set. While it may be tempting to ignore a spill that happens while guests are over or while you're in the middle of a TV show, it's best to start treating the stain right away.

Considerations Before You Get Started

Read the tag on your couch to determine whether or not you can use water, if it's vacuum-only, or if only a dry cleaning solvent can be used. "Sometimes, even using water on the wrong fabric can leave a stain," warns Johnson. You may think your couch is stain-resistant microfiber—a plush, manmade material crafted from polyester and nylon—but confirming before you start cleaning is a good idea.

What You Need:

  • Vacuum with a crevice attachment
  • Lint roller (optional)
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Spray bottle
  • Clean cloth
  • Baking soda

How to Clean an Upholstered Couch With Your Washing Machine and Water or Rubbing Alcohol

Step 1: Vacuum Beneath Cushions

  • If the cushions are removable on your sofa, put them aside and vacuum underneath them. Use the crevice attachment to get crumbs that collect along the seams and corners of the couch. Vacuum the cushions and replace them.
  • When you want to quick-clean crumbs and fur from your sofa, run a lint roller along the surface of each cushion. It will pick up debris with just a few swipes.

Step 2: Clean With Water or a Solvent

  • If the care tag has a "W": This means you can clean the sofa with water. If the cushion covers are removable, take them off and clean them in the washing machine, following the water temperature and drying instructions on the care tag. Most cushions will recommend air-drying to avoid shrinking.
  • If the care tag has an "S": This means your upholstered sofa should be cleaned with a solvent, such as rubbing alcohol. Instead of cleaning with water, mist the surface with rubbing alcohol poured into a spray bottle, then blot the surface with a clean cloth to remove dirt. Test in an out-of-the-way spot first, such as the underside of a cushion, to make sure it won't affect the dyes.

Step 3: Vacuum Again

Once the upholstery has fully dried, you can use a vacuum to help lift the fibers so the just-cleaned area doesn't look matted.

How to Treat Stains on an Upholstered Couch With Water and Vinegar

Dab, don't rub. "Start out by dabbing the stain or spill to remove any moisture," says Johnson. "Then dab with water, working from the outside in so you're not spreading the stain. You can use a combo of one cup water to 1/4 cup white vinegar and a few drops of dish soap to help remove a stain, too," says Johnson.

How to Remove Oil Stains From an Upholstered Couch

Step 1: Remove Excess Oil ASAP

If you're lucky enough to catch the stain when it's still wet, use a rag to wipe away the oil before it seeps into the upholstery.

Step 2: Sprinkle With Baking Soda

"If it's an oil-based stain, cover it with baking soda and let it sit," says Johnson. Give the baking soda 10-15 minutes to work.

Step 3: Vacuum

"Vacuum any excess baking soda," says Johnson. "If the stain is still there, dab it with a damp microfiber cloth." You may have to repeat this process before the stain is completely gone.

How to Clean a Microfiber Couch

A microfiber couch is a type of upholstered couch that many people prefer because it's resistant to stains. But it still needs regular cleaning.

Step 1: Vacuum

Use your vacuum's hose attachment to clean out dirt, debris, and crumbs behind and under the couch cushions. Get in the crevices, along the armrests, and along the back of the couch as well.

Step 2: Apply Soap and Water

Mix ½ cup of liquid dish soap into 2 cups of warm water in a large bowl or bucket. (Double or triple the measurements if you have a large couch.) Dip a soft-bristled brush into the suds, apply it to the fabric, and gently scrub in a circular motion until you've washed the whole surface. Aim to lightly lift the dirt and dust without oversaturating the microfiber.

Step 3: Wipe With Cloth

Dampen a microfiber cloth with water and uniformly wipe the surface, cleaning off the soap. Try to be consistent with your pressure. Oversaturating a section can lead to water rings.

Step 4: Dry

Air dry the couch completely before sitting on it. If you've removed the cushions, allow them to dry before replacing them in the couch.

Step 5: Vacuum Again

Once the upholstery has fully dried, running over it with a vacuum will restore the proper texture.

How to Freshen Up the Scent

Here are three ways to make your couch smell better.

  • Sprinkle a thin layer of baking soda on the fabric. Let sit for an hour or overnight, then vacuum thoroughly to remove the powder. Avoid this method on dark-colored couches.
  • Vacuum the couch. Then use a handheld upholstery steam cleaner, which kills germs that produce odors. Pass the steamer over each section of the couch in wide strokes.
  • In a spray bottle, mix a solution of equal parts cleaning vinegar and water. Add some lemon or orange rinds or a few drops of essential oil. Spray the entire sofa, and let it dry completely.
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