How to Clean Walls Without Damaging Paint or Wallpaper
Want to rid your walls of pesky marks and buildup? Learn how to clean walls simply and safely with these expert cleaning tips.
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
Consider yourself a diligent deep cleaner? You already know how to make your home sparkle—how to clean your kitchen, how to clean your bathroom, how to clean baseboards and how to clean windows—but have you learned how to clean walls? And did you even know you were supposed to?
If you haven’t been washing your walls, you’re not alone. But just like every other surface in your home, walls can get dirty with pesky marks, fingerprints, grime and buildup. Walls are some of the largest surfaces in the home, and if they’re dingy, the space can feel dull. So while it doesn’t have to be on your daily cleaning checklist, washing walls should be on your regular cleaning schedule.
“Painted walls require special care to clean them without damaging the surface,” says Leanne Stapf, chief operating officer at The Cleaning Authority. And luckily, this doesn’t require a paint job. So grab your cleaning supplies, follow these tips and freshen up those long-neglected walls.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more cleaning, travel, tech, humor and fun facts all week long.
How often should you clean your walls?
You avoided these paint color pitfalls, but your walls are still looking dingy. Neglect can add up. You want to clean painted walls before dirt accumulates, says Hector Corado, a salesperson for Dunn-Edwards Paints. “Dust, dirt and germs build up, and without regular cleaning, particles can become embedded in the paint.” If you’re keeping up with more consistent wall-cleaning habits (see below), then thorough wall-washing should only be necessary once a year.
- Daily: Wipe splatters before they dry and remove any fresh marks, such as crayon scribbles, pen marks or visible dirt from pets.
- Weekly: Remove smudges, fingerprints and scuffs from high-touch zones around doorknobs and light switches.
- Monthly: Dust the walls to prevent buildup.
- Yearly: Clean the walls using an expert-approved method specific to the type of paint finish you have. If needed, apply touch-up paint.
Do different paint finishes require different care?
Not all walls can be cleaned with the same solution or method. Some walls require a more delicate touch, while others can stand a little deeper treatment. Even if you’ve chosen the perfect paint color based on your zodiac sign, you’ll want to identify the finish next, which is key to understanding how to clean walls without removing the paint or damaging the surface.
To identify the paint finish on your walls, professional painter Tila Lee suggests using this quick reference guide: Place a light source near the wall. Stand with your shoulder against the wall and look down toward the light source. Which of the below best describes the finish you see?
- Flat or matte: There will be very little shine (like a chalkboard). This paint finish is less common.
- Semi-gloss: There will be a lot of shine (like a glossy apple). This is a more durable paint finish, often found on doors and trim.
- Eggshell: This is somewhere in between flat and semi-gloss (like the shell of an egg). Lee says most walls in the home have an eggshell finish.
How to clean walls
Preparation is important. Remove wall decor and photo frames and slide furniture out of the way, so you have access to the whole wall. Always dust first—removing the fine coat of dust might just be all you need to make your walls look brand new again. If they still require cleaning, dusting first will at least ensure you don’t have a sludgy mess on your hands (dust plus water), says Stapf.
You’ll always want to choose the cleaning technique based on the type of paint finish, not based on how dirty the wall has become. But no matter the finish, Stapf says three things are not negotiable: First, you always want to use as little water as possible and apply gentle pressure (or risk burnishing and creating shiny spots). While there are plenty of things you shouldn’t clean with water, walls are not one of them. Second, always spot test your method in an inconspicuous area. And third, never use harsh products.
How to clean walls with a flat or matte finish
Directions: Spritz the microfiber towel with just enough water to make it slightly damp. Work in manageable sections, applying the gentlest pressure, wiping the surface in a circular motion. Allow the surface to air-dry.
Pro tip: Never spray the wall directly. Only spray the microfiber towel. (And make sure you’re washing the microfiber towels properly to preserve their cleaning power.)
How to clean walls with a semi-gloss or glossy finish
- 1 two-quart cleaning bucket
- 2 microfiber cleaning cloths
- 1 teaspoon clear (dye-free) dish liquid
- 1 spray bottle
- Lukewarm tap water
Directions: In the bucket, add the dish liquid to 1 quart of water. Swish a microfiber cloth around in the water and wring it out until it is damp (not wet). Using a circular pattern, wipe the surface with very little pressure. Rinse out the cloth after every few feet of cleaning. Remove any lingering soapy residue by spritzing the second cloth (your rinse towel) with water. Then move your hand across the wall with the rinse towel.
Pro tip: Don’t skip the rinsing step. Leaving cleaning solution behind can attract dust and dirt more quickly.
How to clean walls with an eggshell finish
- 2 cleaning buckets
- 2 microfiber cleaning cloths
- 1 teaspoon all-purpose cleaner
- Lukewarm tap water
Directions: In one bucket, add the cleaner and 1 quart of lukewarm tap water. Fill the second bucket halfway with water. Dip one microfiber cloth in the bucket with the cleaning solution, then wring it until nearly dry. Work in small areas and rinse out the cloth after every few feet of cleaning. Once finished, dampen the second cloth with plain water in the second bucket (wring it until it’s nearly dry) and gently glide it across the wall to wipe away any residue.
Pro tip: For a freshly painted wall, wait at least six to eight weeks for the paint to fully cure before washing it.
How to clean walls with latex paint
According to Corado, the type of paint (latex, oil-based, acrylic) will most often determine the amount of pressure that will be used and the harshness of the product it can withstand. (Unlike cleaning grout, for instance, walls require much more delicate cleaning solutions.) The type of paint will be written on the can, but if you can’t identify it, assume you are dealing with latex paint, the most common interior paint type. It’s water-based and the least durable of the three, so use gentle motions, and use water and cleaning solutions sparingly.
How to clean walls with oil-based paint
Oil-based paint is the most durable of the three paint types, and if the finish is semi-gloss or glossy, it can hold up to a firmer touch when cleaning. You’ll see this type of paint most often on trimwork.
How to clean walls with an acrylic paint
Acrylic paint is a chemical-based paint, and while it is more durable than latex paint, caution should still be used when cleaning.
How to clean wallpaper
Wallpaper is back in a big way, from classic patterns to textured wallcoverings. And while it’s not paint, it still needs cleaning. Like painted walls, regular dusting with a long-handled duster is a must. Once a year, go for a deeper clean, and always adhere to the manufacturer’s directions.
- 1 cleaning bucket
- 2 tablespoons clear (dye-free) dish liquid
- Soft (dye-free) cleaning sponge
- 1 microfiber cleaning cloth
Fill the bucket with 1 quart of water and add the soap. Swish the sponge into the soapy water. Wring it out until it’s just slightly damp. Using up-and-down strokes to avoid catching the seams, wipe the paper. Finish by hand-drying with a clean microfiber cloth.
Pro tip: The paper will lift if you use too much water, so be sure the soft sponge is only slightly damp. Be extra cautious around the seams.
The best products to clean walls
Removing writing, scuffs and tough stains on walls
Wondering how to clean walls with stains and scuffs? While a damp, soft sponge or microfiber cleaning cloth are the best products to clean walls, sometimes heavily trafficked zones need a little extra attention. Some solutions are already in your pantry, and others might cut your cleaning time in half, so consider giving these a try.
Best for scuffs, a slice of white bread can be repeatedly pressed over the mark until it disappears.
Art gum eraser
Gently rub the spot with the damp wipe, then allow the surface to air-dry. This is ideal for food splatters and cosmetic smears, which are best dealt with right when they happen.
This is definitely one of those unexpected uses for toothpaste. To remove marks from wallpaper, squirt a dab of non-gel toothpaste on a dry microfiber cloth to buff the spot lightly. Follow with a new, damp microfiber cloth to wipe clean. Then buff dry with another new, dry microfiber cloth.
Mr. Clean Magic Eraser Sheets
A newer version of the popular Magic Eraser, these eraser sheets work for scuffs of unknown origin. Dampen then wring out the sheet. Fold it to allow for precision pinpointing of the spot and use the lightest of touches, allowing the gentle abrasive to remove the mark. Just be careful on certain paint finishes. Glossy and semi-gloss walls are surfaces you should never clean with a Magic Eraser (it can remove the finish and make the wall look dull and uneven).
Cleaning walls with a mop
The O-Cedar Spin Mop is one of the top-selling cleaning products on Amazon. The retractable handle telescopes to 48 inches, and the spin feature on the bucket wrings the mop out, so you can control the amount of moisture in the mop head. One viral TikToker, Danielle Bonney (known as @momthatlovestoclean on TikTok), swears by the mop to clean walls.
- O-Cedar Spin Mop
- 1/2 gallon water
- 1 teaspoon Tide powdered laundry detergent
- 1/2 cap Gain liquid detergent
Directions: Bonney says to mix the water, Tide and Gain in the bucket. Dip the mop head in the laundry detergent solution, then use the spinner to get it almost dry. Wash the walls using up-and-down motions before allowing them to air-dry.
Mistakes to avoid when cleaning your walls
- Using bleach to clean walls. Bleach will damage the finish by, well, bleaching it. Here are some other things you should never clean with bleach.
- Forgetting to test the solution. Always spot-test the method or solution in an inconspicuous area before you tackle a larger surface.
- Choosing dyed sponges. These can deposit color as you clean, causing stains.
- Painting over mold or mildew. Moist areas like laundry rooms, bathrooms or basements might see mold or mildew on walls. Cleaning mold is not the same as just cleaning a dirty wall. Be sure to fully remove the growth and consult a professional if necessary—or if the area is larger than four square feet. Here are some cleaning solutions to remove mold and mildew from any surface.