Ask Woodiwiss: how do I safely clean dust and grease off my walls?

“Oh, what’s that?” You wonder as the light shines just right on the hallway wall. Kneeling down you see what looks like a smudge, but how’d it get there? It’s clear, but it’s hard to tell on a painted wall.

Walking to the kitchen for a damp paper towel you see another spot. This time it’s on the dining room wall at about the same height. “Another one. What the heck is that?” 

Walking back to the hallway you gently rub the noticeable smudge. A large wet spot is visible on the wall. “That’ll dry and be fine,” you think, on your way to repeat the process in the dining room. “Cleaning walls always makes me nervous,” you say to yourself.

The dining room spot seems larger, but it’s hard to tell. You start scrubbing a little with a fresh, clean damp cloth. This one seems stickier somehow. “Is that from grease? How do I clean grease? Do people notice if I’m not cleaning walls?”

Getting down on your hands and knees, the dog walks over and immediately sneezes at the same height as the smudge. “Oh. That’s where that came from.”

How to clean painted walls

Grease stains will build up on the kitchen walls and dining room. Scruff marks are inevitable in tight spaces and by the doors where everyone takes off their shoes or puts on bags and jackets. 

The bathroom walls suffer intense humidity, making dust cling to the walls. The kids will take a fresh crayon or marker to a wall either by accident or just not knowing any better at least once. And sometimes the dog sneezes. In other words, life happens.

There are ways to wash walls of stubborn stains and cooking grease, but you have to know what kind of paint is on your wall. 

Know your wall’s paint

  • Flat finishes, common with eggshell paints, are the most fragile. The paint will rub off if you scrub with too much pressure.
  • Semigloss and high gloss paint are more durable. They’re best suited for kitchens and bathrooms and are usually durable enough to stand up to a little extra elbow grease. They are, however, more susceptible to scratches.
  • You can clean latex and oil-based painted walls with warm water and a mild degreaser like vinegar or dish soap. Latex painted walls and oil-based paint can usually withstand some harsh chemicals, like wall cleaning agents you might find at the hardware store.

Before you start wall cleaning

  • Start by dusting. There’s a surprising amount of dust that can cling to walls, so use your vacuum cleaner to hoover it up or use a dusting tool like a Swiffer or microfiber cloth.
  • If your walls are really grimy, prepare to wash the whole wall and not just a small spot. You might notice the “clean” area if you spot clean—like when you scrub a stubborn stain on the carpet for a while.
  • Try to wash down walls on a nice day so you can open the windows. It’ll help them dry faster. 
  • Always test an inconspicuous area in the corner behind a piece of furniture or out of the way. Especially on textured walls.
  • You might need a mop or handle to reach tall areas.

Deep cleaning walls with soaps and erasers

Sometimes water won’t cut it and clean walls require a more robust cleaning solution.

  1. Start with warm water, a damp cloth, and lightly dabbing at spots. Keep a second bucket of clean water nearby to rinse your sponge or cloth. It shouldn’t be dripping wet when you apply the sponge or cloth to the wall.
  2. If that doesn’t work, move on to warm water, a soft cloth, and a mild degreaser like dish detergent. Make sure it’s dye-free, since dyes can leave colors on the wall. Let it sit a few minutes to break down a grease stain.
  3. White vinegar is also a helpful cleaner. A teaspoon of dish soap, 1/4 teaspoon of white vinegar, and one quart of water works well.
  4. If that doesn’t work, clean wall stains with one of those magic eraser sponges—but not on textured walls and always test this someplace tucked away first. Eraser sponges are made of melamine and can damage paint if you scrub too hard or are unsure what kind of paint you have. Never use a melamine sponge like magic erasers on untreated wood or high-gloss paints. It’ll strip the gloss right off and leave a noticeable flat spot.

A magic eraser works best on scuff marks. Grease stains usually dissolve with soap and water under a soft sponge or brush. 

Avoid harsh chemicals like rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. You can make a baking soda paste for permanent marker stains or really stubborn scuffs. 

Work through the walls in sections and in a methodical, circular motion. You don’t want to watch it all air dry and realize you forgot a big spot later.

More pro tips on wall cleaning:

  • Excess water can be hard to control when using a sponge or rag. So put some warm water with your hand or dish soap in a spray bottle, then spray a fine mist over the wall. 
  • Cleaning the walls is a much bigger job than cleaning the dishes. Protect your hands by wearing rubber gloves since you might be in it for a while.
  • Discard dirty cleaning tools quickly. Always have a fresh, clean rag or clean sponge handy. Kitchen walls will require fresh sponges because removing grease stains adds up shockingly fast in there.
  • Don’t forget to clean your light switches, too. They get a lot of touches during the day and are likely the “dullest”-looking spots on the wall.
  • New paint that needs cleaning from a mark or stain is probably the easiest to clean, but if it’s not working and you have some extra leftover paint in the garage, just paint over it again. You can get away with that when it’s less than six months old.

A new coat of paint is the ultimate way to clean walls

You know what’s really clean? Freshly painted walls.

If you’re looking for the ultimate way to remove stains, a fresh coat of paint is one way to go. Call (925) 595-3081 or email for a free quote in the East Bay area. It’s the easiest way to clean painted walls without actually doing any of the work.

We can also help you choose the right kind of paint and show you how to clean those fresh painted walls before the next time the dog sneezes.