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How to Clean Carpet the Right Way, According to a Cleaning Expert

Don't just vacuum: Remove tricky stains with this step-by-step guide.

Sad but true: Coffee stains, wine spills, muddy paws and footprints on your carpets and rugs are simply a part of life. Sure, there are ways you can try your best to prevent these messes in the first place — asking guests to take their shoes off or buying a stain-resistant carpet, for example — but your best bet is knowing how to get rid of them before they happen so you can spring into action when they do.

While regular vacuuming removes dust and ground-in dirt and helps keep your carpet from looking dingy and matted, spots and stains are something that even the best vacuum can't handle. Calling in a professional to remedy these mishaps is costly or you could invest in an upright or portable carpet cleaning appliance. But here, Carolyn Forté, Executive Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab, explains how to successfully remove the most common stains from carpet, including red wine spills, food stains and pet messes using traditional carpet stain removers and household cleaning products — some of which you probably already have on hand.

For most stains, follow these instructions to clean your carpet:

  1. Take two empty spray bottles, and fill one with cold water. In the other, mix 1/4 teaspoon mild dishwashing liquid, like Dawn Ultra Dishwashing Liquid Dish Soap, and 1 cup warm water.
  2. Spray the detergent solution onto an absorbent cloth (not the carpet — you don't want to wet it too much), and dab (don't rub!) it on the spot. As the stain dissolves, blot with a clean section of cloth. Keep applying and blotting until the stain is gone.
  3. Spray another cloth with the cold water, and dab the area to completely rinse the detergent solution from the carpet, then blot again with a dry cloth.
  4. Pile a stack of paper towels on the wet spot, and place a heavy vase or pot on top. "Overnight, the towels will soak up any residual stain deep in the carpet. In the morning, fluff the fibers with your fingers and allow it to air-dry," says Forté.
  5. If the stain remains, repeat these steps or try a targeted carpet stain remover that claims to remove the specific type of stain you have.

    How to Remove Pet Stains From Carpet

    No matter how cute your four-legged friend is, the poop and urine stains he leaves behind certainly aren't. To remove pet stains, use a carpet cleaner containing enzymes, like Bissell Professional Pet Stain and Odor Removing Formula. It not only erases the stain, but destroys odor-causing bacteria to prevent your pet from soiling the same spot over and over again. After applying the cleaner, work it gently into the pile with a clean, damp cloth, blotting as you go until no further stain comes up. Rinse the area thoroughly with a clean, damp cloth — mist it with clean water, if needed — blot and cover the area with a damp cloth for up to 12 hours to give the enzymes in the formula more time to work. Remove the cloth, fluff the pile and air dry.

    How to Remove Red Wine Stains From Carpet

    When your glass of cabernet takes a tumble, try your best to first blot as much spilled wine as possible, even standing on absorbent cloths if necessary. Then, saturate the stain with Wine Away Red Wine Stain Remover and let sit for up to five minutes. Blot the area with a clean cloth until the stain is completely gone and remove any residue with a damp cloth. According to Forté, "Wine Away was the easiest to rinse and the least damaging to carpets of all the red wine stain removers in our test."

    How to Remove Coffee Stains From Carpet

    Hot liquids soak into carpets faster than cold ones, so act quickly to blot up as much of the coffee as you can, then sponge the area with cool water and blot again. Mix 1/4 teaspoon of liquid dish soap, 1 tablespoon of white vinegar and 1 cup of warm water. Using a clean, white cloth, sponge the stain with the mixture, applying a little bit at a time and blotting frequently with a dry cloth until the stain disappears. Add one or two more drops of dish liquid to the vinegar/water mix, if needed. Sponge with cold water to rinse and blot dry. Follow with the paper towel tip in step 4 above to absorb as much liquid as possible.

    a closeup of a hand using a blue soapy cloth to clean pink carpet
    wakilaGetty Images

    How to Refresh Carpet With Baking Soda

    Sometimes all a dingy, matted carpet needs is a little pick-me-up. To remove odors and revive trouble spots, lightly sprinkle on baking soda and work it into a pile with a soft brush. Let it sit for 15 -30 minutes before vacuuming. Start with a new vacuum bag or an empty canister and clean filter to make sure your vacuum’s suction is at its best to pick up the fine powder from the carpet.

    How to Maintain the Carpet in Your Home

    • Focus on high-traffic areas. In between heavy-duty cleanings, hit any dingy areas of your carpet with a powdered or foam carpet cleaner, like Resolve High Traffic Carpet Foam or Arm & Hammer Pet Fresh Dry Carpet Cleaner. Apply it according to the package directions, then vacuum.
    • Keep dirt where it belongs (outside). Your best bet: Try implementing a no-shoes-in-the-house rule. Stow extra slippers or flip-flops next to a shoe rack near your door, and encourage family members to make the switch inside. Stash a broom or rechargeable stick vacuum in a closet near the entryway to collect dirt before it makes its way to your carpet. If you also place doormats outside your door, it gives guests a place to wipe their feet before they go inside.
    • De-grit doormats regularly. Interior doormats can only stop dirt from being tracked inside if they're clean. If the care tag allows, toss mats into the washing machine on the gentle cycle on warm, and tumble-dry low or air dry. If you're short on time, vacuum the front and back of the mat to loosen any embedded dirt, even if it's rubber or plastic. Then flip the mat over, and vacuum up the grit that came out. For a quick refresh, take the mat outside for a good shake.

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