How to Clean Popcorn Ceilings Without Creating More of a Mess

Here's what to do when your popcorn ceiling harbors dust, cobwebs, mold, or mildew.

Textured ceilings, commonly known as popcorn ceilings, were popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. They have come in and out of fashion, and are currently seeing a revival among homeowners who have rediscovered this low-cost, sound-muffling, imperfection-hiding, easy-to-apply ceiling covering.

However, popcorn ceilings have some drawbacks. The delicate material crumbles easily, making cleaning the textured surface a dusty mess. And because of its texture, the material is a magnet for dirt, dust, cobwebs, pollen, smoke, and even mildew, meaning these types of ceilings need to be cleaned more frequently than flat-surfaced ceilings. This guide will help you address two ways of cleaning a popcorn ceiling—dusting and stain removal—as well as provide guidelines for doing so safely and (relatively!) mess-free.

Cleaning supplies on rug
Jay Wilde

Before Getting Started: What to Know About Popcorn Ceilings

Textured ceilings created by spraying a styrofoam and stucco mix, called popcorn or cottage cheese ceilings, were a popular choice in 20th-century American homes. In addition to their eye-catching look, popcorn ceilings were an inexpensive way to provide sound insulation and mask building imperfections.

Popcorn ceilings have a bad reputation because of the toxicity of their original fabrication: Prior to 1978 they typically contained asbestos, a known carcinogen that is now banned in the United States. If your home was built after 1978, when asbestos was banned, its popcorn ceiling should not contain asbestos. However, because existing stock remained available to builders, it's possible that popcorn ceilings installed in homes in the 1980s may contain asbestos. If your home was built prior to 1990, consider having your popcorn ceiling tested for asbestos before attempting to clean it.

How to Clean a Popcorn Ceiling Safely

First and foremost, it is critical that you ensure your popcorn ceiling does not contain asbestos before attempting to clean it.

Once you've established that the material is asbestos-free, there are other safety considerations to bear in mind when cleaning a popcorn ceiling. Popcorn ceilings are more delicate than traditional ceilings, and the textured bumps that give them their "popcorn" or "cottage cheese" appearance can break off easily. This is especially true during cleaning, which is likely to cause ceiling particles to shower the area below—and the person doing the cleaning.

To avoid a mess, and to keep yourself safe while cleaning a popcorn ceiling, it is important to do these three prep steps:

  • Move furniture out of the room or cover it with plastic sheets, tarps, or drop cloths to protect it from dust and debris.
  • Cover the entire room, including the floor and any furniture that remains in place, with plastic sheets, tarps, or drop cloths to protect it from dust and debris.
  • Wear protective gear, including a dust mask, safety goggles, work gloves, and long sleeves to protect your eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin from any debris.

How to Dust a Popcorn Ceiling

At least once a year, a popcorn ceiling should be dusted using one of three methods to remove dirt, cobwebs, and other environmental soils that can make it look dirty and dingy.

What You Need

  • Plastic sheets, tarps, or drop cloths
  • Dust mask
  • Safety goggles
  • Work gloves
  • Vacuum with dusting attachment, long-handled duster, or long-handled sticky roller

1. Vacuum the Ceiling

Vacuuming will be the best choice for most people when it comes to cleaning a popcorn ceiling of dust, cobwebs, and other environmental soils that lend it a dingy appearance. Fit your vacuum cleaner with its brush attachment and, working in sections, give the ceiling gentle passes with it to avoid disturbing the texture and causing it to break off. A benefit of vacuuming is that the machine will suck up loosened debris, leaving less of it on everything below.

2. Clean with a Duster

A long-handled feather or microfiber duster can also be used to clean a popcorn ceiling. This method is particularly suited to smaller jobs, like removing a cobweb, but it can also be used for all-over cleaning.

When selecting the right duster for the job, opt for a reusable duster made of feathers or microfiber over disposable ones made of nylon or polyester, which can catch, tear, and become stuck on the textured ceiling.

3. Clean with a Sticky Roller

Sticky rollers can also be used to remove dust and cobwebs from a popcorn ceiling. Long-handled or jumbo-size sticky rollers can help to make this method faster and less taxing than using a standard lint roller.

How to Remove Stains from a Popcorn Ceiling

Because of its texture, popcorn ceilings are easily stained by residue from grease, smoke, and environmental pollutants like dust and pollen. They are also prone to mold and mildew growth. A mild cleaning solution of dish soap and water will clean most stains from popcorn ceilings, though a mild bleach solution may be needed in the case of mold and mildew staining.

When cleaning a stained popcorn ceiling, begin by dusting it using the above method. Then, test an inconspicuous area with the cleaning solution appropriate to the stain to ensure it won't cause damage. The popcorn texture can be sensitive to water, and over-exposure can cause it to dissolve.

What You Need

  • Plastic sheets, tarps, or drop cloths
  • Dust mask
  • Safety goggles
  • Work gloves
  • Spray bottle
  • Sponge
  • Dish soap or bleach

1. Use Dish Soap Solution

To clean a popcorn ceiling stained by grease, smoke, or environmental pollutants, combine 1 tsp. dish soap with 1 quart of warm water in a spray bottle. Spray the dish soap solution onto the stains, being careful not to soak or saturate the popcorn material, as excessive exposure moisture can cause it to dissolve.

Gently dab at the stains using a sponge, then allow the ceiling to dry overnight. If you live in a damp climate, or if you are experiencing wet or humid weather, set up fans in the room to help speed up drying time.

2. Mix a Bleach Solution

To clean mold or mildew stains from a popcorn ceiling, combine one part bleach with four parts water in a spray bottle. Mist the stains with the bleach solution and dab them gently with a sponge, being careful not to soak or saturate the popcorn material, as excessive exposure to moisture can cause it to dissolve. If the stains remain after a few hours, make a stronger bleach solution and repeat the process.

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