Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert, advice columnist and author of the New York Times bestselling book,My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag… And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha. Her flagship column, “Ask a Clean Person”, debuted in 2011. Here on Lifehacker, we’ve launched a new iteration of it, focusing on parenting and all the messes it brings.
I have a question about cleaning upholstery fabric – how can you do it without leaving water stains? I had a few small spots on my couch pre-baby, now I have a load after three months with my beautiful, barfy daughter!
I had my couch professionally cleaned once, and while it looked better right after the cleaning, the water stains are still there… when it’s humid they become really visible, and when the air is dry they are less noticeable. Any advice? Or do I have to put a plastic cover on my couch like my grandma? Thanks in advance!
This question made my Clean Person Spidey sense go ping ping ping! I have some thoughts on what happened to leave behind those stains, and in the course of explaining those thoughts, I can also help you guys figure out what to do about vomit and other similar protein stains on couches and other upholstered furniture. So let’s get right to it!
Problem 1: You’re leaving behind cleaning solution
The first Spidey sense ping I got was this: I suspect that what caused the discoloration to the fabric wasn’t caused by water, but rather by residue from the cleaning solution used to treat the vomit stains. I’m going to completely level with you and say that the fabric may be a goner if that’s the case, especially because professional cleaning didn’t solve the problem.
BUT! On the other hand, the professional cleaning did help which suggests that the couch just may require another pass or two with an upholstery cleaning machine to reverse the damage.
Given that, and given that your kiddo is probably going to make a few more similar messes in her lifetime, it may make sense to buy a portable upholstery and carpet cleaner such as the Little Green Machine rather than hiring a professional again.
If you’re going to stick with foaming or spray upholstery cleaners, such as the Bissell or Vanish products, instead of using a machine, just make several passes over the area with clean water and a rag to ensure all the cleaning residue is removed from the upholstery.
Problem 2: You’re not using the right stain remover
The next Spidey sense ping I got was this: The puke, which is acidic and can have a bleaching effect on fabrics, caused colour loss because you didn’t use the right kind of stain remover and traces of the vomit lingered.
When it comes to handling throw-up stains, always reach for an enzyme-based stain treatment, because vomit is a protein stain, and enzymatic stain removers are The Thing for protein stains. With particularly stubborn stains, you may want to use an upholstery brush in conjunction with the stain remover to really work it into the fibres (a nail brush or old toothbrush will also work – I use a nail brush kind of like this one when I need to step up my stain removal game).
Problem 3: Your couch has needs and wants
Here’s a fun fact about couches: They come with a secret code. (It isn’t actually all that secret.) This is where the third Spidey sense ping came in – it’s possible, though not likely in the letter writer’s scenario, that the cleaning agent used disagreed with the couch itself.
The secret (“secret”) code is designed to tell you how the couch would prefer to be cleaned; the care tag, which is usually sewn onto the underside of the seat, will contain the code information in the form of a letter or letters:
- W = Wet/water cleaning only
- S = Dry solvent cleaning only
- SW = Dry solvent and/or wet cleaning
- X = Professional cleaning or vacuuming only
W- and SW-code couches are the easiest to manage, cleaning-wise – you can basically use any kind of water-based or solvent-based stain remover on those.
S-code couches need to be cleaned with solvents, which can be a little hard to find, but hardware and home improvement stores will carry them. They’re often unbranded, so definitely ask a salesperson for help if you can’t locate the type of product you’re looking for. When working with dry solvents, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and make sure you’re working in a well ventilated area. An upholstery brush is also a good tool to use with solvents, and you should also be aware that they work best when used sparingly.
If you’re a parent or pet-owner with an X-code couch I admire your commitment to interior design but man, you’re gonna spend a fortune on professional cleaning, my friend!