Remove Stubborn Old Stains From Upholstery Like A Genius

Stains on highly trafficked furniture are almost inevitable. They are usually highly visible too: you want to clean them properly. There isn’t one method for all, and the wrong approach can make a stain worse. In this article, we’ll go over common upholstery stains and how to clean them.

The History of Stains

Coffee, alcohol, juice, candy, cola, crayons, ice cream, ink—knowing what kind of stain you have is key to cleaning it successfully.

Fortunately, most stains respond to a few basic treatments that use commonly available products


The universal solvent.


An alkaline cleaning agent that works on acidic stains.


The alcohol in clear vodka can act as a solvent for oily stains. Of course, don’t use colored vodka, which could make its own stain.

Fast guide of cleaning stains

Common Guidelines


One general recommendation is for before a stain happens: keep the upholstery clean. Simple vacuuming is the easiest way to reduce dirt that can stain an area after a spill or cleanup.

Thoroughly clean any crevices or folds where dirt collects. Use your vacuum’s upholstery attachment to go deep.

Remove pet hair that might be left over after vacuuming. Brush or tape off as much hair as possible to keep it from becoming embedded in the fabric.

Tipping Point – What to Do First

The critical time for stain removal is the moments after it happens. Quickly blotting a stain offers the best chance for an easy and complete restoration.

When initially blotting, press the stain without rubbing or brushing. Move from the outer edge inward to minimize coverage.

Warning : Always pretest the fabric before cleaning. Apply your solution to a spot that isn’t visible with the same material as the stain, to make sure it doesn’t change the color or cause other damage.

The Stain Family

Most upholstery stains fall into one of three groups:

Food and Beverages

This is the most common stain on upholstery, and one of the easiest to remove. A few food stains need special treatment, but most respond to simple soap and water.

Grease & Oil

These dark spots don’t go away on their own. They attract dirt and bugs if left without treatment, and grow darker as they age.
If you have a large spill, soaking up the oil is the first task: you don’t want it to spread. Blot and clean from the outside in.

Wine & Berries

These delicious foods leave behind fluorescent splotches you can see from the mailbox, and their acidity makes them a bit unique. You’ll wear out trying to soap these stains away. Instead, white vinegar is the magic ingredient.

Seeking professional Help

You need to know your limits. Some dyed or custom fabrics need special attention, as do antique materials. If you have a highly valued item, please seek the experience of a professional to clean it.

Know Your Fabric

A wide variety of fabrics are used for upholstery, ranging from natural to synthetic. The material stained determines the most effective treatment.

The easiest way to find out the right method of cleaning your upholstery is to check the tag attached. The tag should have a special fabric cleaning care code listed:

  • W: The fabric can be cleaned with water-based detergent.
  • S: Clean with a water-free product, like a dry cleaning solvent.
  • WS: May be cleaned with either a water-based or water-free cleaner.
  • X: Must be professionally cleaned. You can brush or vacuum it, but you must pay for stain treatment.

Pro Tip:
Look for the “WS” tag when buying furniture–the best choice for keeping it clean in the future.

General Stain Cleaning

Most upholstery stains come from food and beverage spills, and may include a mix of oily residues.

Food & Beverage Stains

These are usually the easiest stains to get rid of, because most respond to simple soap and water.

Pro Tip:
A solution of a tablespoon of liquid dish washing soap mixed with two cups of water usually does the trick.
Warm water helps loosen and lift some food stains, but dairy are protein-rich foods that curdle in heated water, potentially darkening the stain. Use cool water with dairy mishaps, and any dried stain you don’t know the origins of.
Soaking a food/beverage stain with an enzyme detergent can do wonders, as it helps food particles loosen and release. The worst thing you can do to these stains is dry them with heat—this tends to set the stain more permanently.

Oil Stains

Pro Tip:
The strategy for removing an oily stain is to draw out as much oil as possible. Sprinkle the stain with baking soda or cornstarch, then pat it gently onto the oil surface. Wait for 15 minutes. Vacuum up the soda or starch and dab clear vodka on the area. Blot the area with a damp towel, and repeat until the stain is gone.

You can also use dish soap and gently rub it in with an old toothbrush. Blot it dry; repeat until clean.

Wine and Berries

There are a few good remedies for these vivid stains.

Pro Tip:
One quick thing to try, if you have some sparkling water, is to sprinkle it onto the stain and dry the spot gently with a cloth

For wine stains, if the above doesn’t work for you, try mixing a half-teaspoon of laundry soap and a half-tablespoon of vinegar with 2 cups of cold water. Wet the stain, let it sit a moment, and blot it dry with a towel. Repeat as needed, and rinse with water to finish.

For berries and other fruit stains, mix one-half tablespoon of white vinegar with a third of a cup of rubbing alcohol and sprinkle it onto the stain. Blot the area dry, and repeat as needed.

10 Special Upholstery Stains

Some stains respond better to unique treatments. Here are specific remedies for the most common upholstery stains.

1. Removing Candy stains

There are a few tips to dealing with this crusty menace. Start by gently removing as much as possible, using a dull knife if necessary. Don’t try to pull the dried candy from the upholstered area because it can damage the fabric.

Wet the area with the general soap-and-water solution, and let it sit between applications to soak the left-over candy particles before blotting. Rinse with plain water.

If a stain remains, you can lightly moisten the fabric with 3% hydrogen to eliminate the organic material—but do a fabric test first.

2. Removing Coffee stains from the upholstery

Coffee stains can take a few cycles to completely clean, but the process is the same whether the coffee had cream or not. Mix the general soap solution using cool water, and alternate wetting the stain and blotting it with a clean towel. Use plain water to rinse the spot when it’s clean.

You can use dry cleaning solvent instead. Wet the stain with the solvent and dab it dry.

3. How to clean Crayon stains from the upholstery

These marks have a wax component that defies soapy water. The big guns are needed: dry cleaning solvent.

Start by removing as much crayon as possible without damaging the fabric. If the wax is soft, harden it with an ice cube wrapped in a plastic bag. Sponge the stain with the solvent, and blot with a clean absorbent towel.

4. How to clean Felt-Tip Marker from the upholstery

This one can be a heart-breaker. If it’s a permanent marker, it can’t be removed–and if you’re not sure, you’ll know soon enough. The cleaning process is a humdinger, too.

Add a tablespoon of white vinegar to the general soap and water solution, and wet the stain with the mixture. Let the solution sit for 30 minutes. Every five minutes, blot the area with a clean towel and rewet the stain. Finally, rinse the stain by sponging it with clean water and blotting it dry.

The next step is to dab rubbing alcohol onto the stain and blot it out. If there’s still a stain remnant, repeat the first step using a warm water mixture of a teaspoon of liquid detergent and a tablespoon of ammonia.

5. How to clean Fountain Pen Stains from the upholstery

These hardy stains need a little more than soap and water. If you’re dealing with black or blue ink, drop the nice-guy stuff and grab some dry cleaning solvent. Wet the area and blot it dry, repeating until the stain is lifted.

Red ink is touchy and quieter remedies can get better results. Mix a quart of warm water with a half teaspoon liquid dish soap and a tablespoon of ammonia. Apply it to the red stain and let it soak for 15 minutes, and gently blot dry. Repeat and rinse with plain warm water. Dab as dry as possible.

Next, make another mixture of a quart of warm water and a tablespoon of white vinegar. Wet the stain with this solution and wait 30 minutes before blotting and rinsing. If you need a final option, oxygen or colorfast bleach can be applied carefully and sponged clean–after doing a fabric test

6. How to Remove Ice Cream Stains

We all scream for ice cream when it’s all over the armrest. This is one of the easier cleanups; however: you can do the job with soap-and-water; just make sure the water is cool. If you’re so inclined, ice cream also cleans up with dry cleaning solvent.

7. How to Remove Makeup Stains

This stain does better with a combination approach. Begin by soaking the spot in a solution with a one-half teaspoon of liquid dish soap and a tablespoon of white vinegar mixed in a quart of warm water. Wait 15 minutes and rinse. Do for as long as the stain is getting cleaner, patting dry between cycles.

Apply to rubbing alcohol to the stain, moving from the center out. If the stain is still visible, wet the spot with a solution made of a quart of warm water and a tablespoon of enzyme presoak. Rinse with plain water.

8. How to Remove Milk Stains

This stain can be cleaned with the general soap solution. Just remember to use cold water. After the stain is clean, do an extra cycle of wetting and blotting to make sure.

Hot or very warm water can scald the proteins of the milk and make matters worse by darkening and setting the stain.

9. How to Clean Peanut Butter Stains

This is a surprisingly durable stain because there’s oil involved.

Begin by sprinkling the spot with cornstarch or baking soda to soak up the oil. Vacuum it off after 15 minutes and follow up using a dry cleaning solvent.

10. How to Clean Tomato Products Stains

Catsup, tomato juice, spaghetti sauce—these names bring fear when wrought by toddlers, but fortunately, the alarmingly bright stains of tomato-based foods look worse than they are.

They clean up with general soap-and-water and a few tricks. First, remove as much staining material as possible. Don’t press or rub the stain. Just pick out any removable pieces with a dull knife to avoid damaging the fabric.

As an optional pre-treatment to fade the stain—and sometimes remove it entirely—you can lightly wet the area with lemon juice and let it soak for 15 minutes. You can use white vinegar if the stain is on white or colorfast fabric. Proceed with a general soap-and-water cleaning, and let the area dry away from heat or direct sunlight.


Stains on upholstery pose some challenges. They are often in an awkward spot or an area without firm backing, and you can only clean the fabric on one side. Prevention is worth a gallon of soapy cure, but accidents happen.

We can’t prevent stains yet, but we’ve gotten better at cleaning them into oblivion. Soak up a spill asap, check your fabric’s care, and reference the best cleaning methods—you’ll soon master the ancient skill in which achieving absolutely nothing is the highest reward!