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Spring Cleaning Day 19: Deep Clean Your Couch

A contemporary living room with a couch covered in pillows.
WorldWide/Shutterstock

Your living room couch gets a lot of use and, over the last year, it’s likely seen quite a bit more wear and tear than normal. Let’s get it clean.

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What You Need to Deep Clean Your Couch

For today’s cleaning tutorial, we’re going to assume that you’re not cleaning a couch in a seldom-used room that sees guests only a few times a year at holiday parties. We’re assuming you’re tackling the couch (and maybe chairs, too!) in the most frequently used living space in your home.

That means you’re dealing with daily use, the buildup of skin oil, maybe some food stains or crumbs (hey, we don’t judge), and all the wear and tear that comes along with a piece of furniture getting significant use.

With that in mind, the following list of supplies covers everything you need to seriously refresh your couch.

Most of the above items will seem familiar to you if you already followed along with our mattress deep cleaning guide. The principles behind cleaning a mattress and cleaning a couch are quite similar.

Dyson Ball Multi Floor 2

The powerful suction, long hose, and attachments are perfect for cleaning your couch.

While the above items will cover most cleaning situations, there are some additional deep cleaning tools you may wish to have if you are dealing with particularly intense staining (especially stains caused by pets).

Removing really stubborn stains without calling in a professional cleaning company requires laying down more cleaning solution—but absolutely soaking your couch with cleaner is a recipe for disaster. That’s where having an upholstery cleaning machine on hand is a lifesaver.

If you’ll only be dealing with smaller stains and only on your couch or other pieces of furniture here or there, then it’s probably wise to go with a portable option like the venerable Bissel “Little Green” Cleaning Machine.

Bissel Little Green Cleaning Machine

It's compact but powerful enough to tackle big stains.

The space-saving little cleaner is a great fit for people in apartments or those who don’t need a device that can tackle large rugs and carpets.

For those who would like the ability to not just suction up a stain on the couch but also tackle the big messes pets and kids can make on rugs and carpets, an upright machine like the Bissel ProHeat 2X Revolution is worth its weight in gold.

Bissell ProHeat 2X Revolution

From pet accidents to your toddler pouring juice all over the couch, this cleaner will make short work of it.

We especially love the ProHeat 2X because the design of the lower assembly is absolutely brilliant: You can easily, without tools, take the entire front guard apart to get hair and obstructions out.

How to Deep Clean Your Couch

A modern living room with a grey couch covered in colorful pillows.
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

When it comes to deep cleaning your couch, there are three stages of cleaning: pre-cleaning, dry cleaning, and wet cleaning.

Everyone will need to pre-clean, some people will find that dry cleaning is sufficient, and for serious stains wet cleaning is in order. We suggest you review all three sections, but if you’re wrestling with visible staining, you may wish to jump right from pre-cleaning your couch to wet cleaning.

Spot Test All Cleaners

Before we dive into cleaning, though, it’s important to match your cleaning method with the materials you’re cleaning. While we’ve never, knock on wood, run into a situation where we’ve paired a cleaner with the absolute wrong fabric type and been left with streaks, stains, or discoloration, it’s absolutely worth doing a spot test.

Some couches actually have a little swatch of extra fabric sewn into one of the internal seams under the cushions just for this purpose. (No really! We promise! That weird little “couch appendix” flap you’ve always wondered about is there expressly for you test cleaners on.)

Barring that, you can spot test a cleaner on a portion of the couch that isn’t visible. Some good “invisible” spots to test include the back edge of the cushions and areas of the side and back of the couch that are covered by the cushions when the couch is put together.

We purposely picked cleaning powders and solutions that are gentle enough for practically any material, but it always pays to test and play it safe.

How to Pre-Clean Your Couch Before Deep Cleaning

Pre-cleaning looks a whole lot like the regular quick touchup cleaning you’d do if you weren’t in a stain and odor-busting sort of mood.

  1. If you have pets, start by brushing the couch surfaces with the fabric lint brush to remove pet fur.
  2. Follow the de-furring brushing routine by vacuuming the couch with the hose and the upholstery (or flat stair) tool. Vacuum all surfaces thoroughly.
  3. Lift or remove the cushion and vacuum beneath them and in all crevices using the crevice tool.
  4. For dust and debris in the seams of the couch, it can help to lightly beat the surface, using your hand like a rug beater, to knock debris free from the seam. Lightly brushing with your nylon or horsehair cleaning brush can help here too.

How to “Dry” Clean Your Couch

Most of the time “dry cleaning” refers to sending garments, linens, or draperies off to a dry cleaning facility where they can be cleaned with a water-free chemical solution. In the context we’re working with here, dry cleaning means using bone-dry powders to absorb stains and odors.

For this step, you can use baking soda or, for dirtier or more odorous couches, you can use a dry carpet and upholstery cleaning powder. Both will work, but the dry carpet powder will feature some additional benefits, such as better moisture absorption, cleaning agents that break down stains, and a fragrance to give the furniture it is applied to a fresher scent.

Regardless of which you choose, you should use a mesh strainer to apply the powder to create consistent coverage across all surfaces. Applying by hand is messy and inconsistent.

  1. Using your mesh strainer, gently shake the powder over the surface of your couch. Do your best to evenly coat every surface.
  2. Gently brush the powder using your cleaning brush so that the powder is worked into the fabric and the seams of the couch. Use short strokes and lift the brush frequently so you’re not just snow-plowing the powder across the couch.
  3. Wait for 20-30 minutes. If the couch has a particularly strong odor, you might wish to leave it longer.
  4. Vacuum the couch thoroughly to remove the powder. When you think you’re done, give it another pass. To determine if you’ve really sucked up all the residual powder, pat the surfaces of the couch firmly with your hand to see if any powder puffs up or your hand has a chalky texture.

For couches that don’t have distinctly visible staining and just need a freshening up, the broad powder-everywhere approach is often sufficient.

How to Wet Clean Your Couch

A person using an upholstery cleaning machine on their couch.
Megaflopp/Shutterstock

When it comes to using fluids to clean your couch, there are two approaches. You can use a surface approach to cleaning sections that require special attention (such as a single couch cushion that got stained up), or you can clean the entire couch, cushions, and all.

If you have the time and the tools to do so, it is wise to clean the entire couch using the same method. This ensures both uniform removal of dirt, dust, and stains (so one particular cushion doesn’t look suspiciously brighter and cleaner than the rest) and it ensures that any changes to the fabric or texture of the couch are consistent across the entire thing so, again, nothing stands out.

There are a few things to keep in mind when cleaning your couch with a solution. First and foremost, use as little cleaning solution as you can to accomplish the task at hand. Saturating your couch is a recipe for disaster as it takes ages to dry out (and may mildew in the process of doing so), and a heavily saturated couch will smell of cleaning solution for a long time.

Second—and if you want the biggest pro tip in the entire guide this is it right here—always, always, clean the whole section where the stain is. If the stain is on the front of the pillow, you clean the whole pillow face. If it is on the top of a cushion, you clean the whole panel of fabric, seam to seam, of that cushion. The stain is on the back of the couch? You clean the whole back.

Tip: To avoid water spots and stain rings, always clean the entire section of whatever portion of the couch you are cleaning, even if the stain is small.

Why? You clean this way because if you clean just the literal spot where the stain is you almost always end up with a ring. The solution itself, the cleaning agents in the solution, and the remanents of the soil will migrate to the edge of the damp area and dry. This results in a very clean center spot, a ring, and the space beyond the cleaning area that is untouched.

Only by cleaning the entire “panel” (whatever the boundary of that particular area might be) will you avoid this. This way the solution will dry on the visual edge of the pillow/cushion/couch and won’t stand out. It doesn’t matter if you are using a spray bottle and a cleaning brush or a full upholstery cleaning machine—your technique should be edge-to-edge, panel-by-panel, always.

Those helpful (and hard-earned!) tips out of the way, here’s how to wet clean your couch.

  1. Fill your spray bottle with lukewarm water, a few drops of dish soap, and a quarter cup of vinegar. If using an upholstery machine, fill it with warm water and the manufacturer recommended cleaning solution (or the enzymatic cleaner we recommended above).
  2. Using either the spray bottle or the spray attachment on your upholstery cleaner, lightly spray the surface in a consistent pattern to evenly dampen it. Remember, you want total coverage on each panel/section of the couch. Resist the urge to overfocus your efforts on specific stains or marks.
  3. Use your cleaning brush to lightly brush over the fabric and massage the cleaning solution into the upholstery.
  4. If you have used a manual spray bottle, you will need to leave the couch to dry.
  5. If using an upholstery cleaning machine, you can use the “rinse” function if available or simply empty the tank and replace the cleaning solution with warm clean water to perform a second pass with clean water. Use the suction hose to suck up as much moisture as possible from the cushions and couch.
  6. Standing up the cushions instead of leaving them flat and pushed against the adjacent fabric and speed the drying time.
  7. Any additional drying enhancers, such as running the ceiling fan, pointing a box fan towards the couch, or opening the windows on a dry breezy day, are always helpful.
  8. After wet cleaning when the fabric is completely dry, it is useful to give the couch a thorough vacuuming to fluff and soften the fibers of the couch.

When wet cleaning your couch, it is common for the couch to have a smell (both that of damp fabric and of the cleaner itself), but it should dissipate shortly.


We’ve deep cleaned enough furniture, couches included, in our day to know how much effort you just sunk into freshening up your couch. So we’ll assure you it was totally worth it and tomorrow when you’re lounging on your couch (quite possibly because your back is sore from cleaning it), you’ll think “Wow, this smells amazing!” and be happy you labored over it today.

As always, you can follow along on our Spring Cleaning Challenge landing page or get the lessons, along with all our other great content, delivered right to your inbox!

Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Editor in Chief of LifeSavvy. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at LifeSavvy, Review Geek, How-To Geek, and Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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