How to Clean Furniture

A person wiping down a black leather sofa with a blue microfiber cloth.

Furniture: you sit on it, sleep on it, and eat on it. Maybe your kids climb on it or your pets loll around on it. Maybe someone in your house even chews on it. (A baby, a dog, you; it’s not my place to judge.) Your relationship with your furniture, regardless of its specifics, is no doubt an intimate one, so it’s in your best interest to keep your furniture reasonably clean. But if it’s coated in synthetic chemical-based cleaning products, I would argue that it isn’t really clean at all. I mean, sure it looks shiny and smells good, but where’s the sense in spraying a neurotoxin on your coffee table just to wipe away a little dust?

Luckily, there are plenty of easy, inexpensive, and—yes—effective ways to clean your furniture without giving it a chemical bath. In most cases, you can make your own cleaning solutions from ingredients you already have around the house, instead of buying a specialized cleaner for everything you own. If you’re worried about damaging furniture you’ve invested money or sentiment in, forget about it. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I’m convinced that the idea of using a different cleaner for every little thing is mostly a marketing ploy. I’ve used many of the methods described below, and can vouch for them as a person who cares about her furniture. However, if you decide to use one of these solutions, take the time to test it in a small, hidden area of the furniture, just like you would with any other cleaning product.

Furniture Cleaning Tips

  1. wiping down wood furnitureCleaning wood furniture. Most of the time, the only equipment you need to clean wood furniture is a soft, dry rag for dusting. If the wood is still dull or dirty after dusting, drizzle about half a teaspoon of olive oil into a quarter-cup of apple cider vinegar (white vinegar for light-colored wood, or if that’s all you have on hand), gently swirl the two ingredients together, then dip the corner of a clean cloth in the solution and rub it into the wood. If this leaves a slight oily film behind, you can buff it away with a dry section of the cloth.
  2. using a rubber scraper on upholsteryCleaning upholstered furniture. Upholstery cleaning usually starts and ends with using a vacuum cleaner brush attachment to pick up loose hair, crumbs, and other debris. But if a piece of upholstered furniture is stained, aged, or funky enough to demand a more thorough cleaning, the key is to use as little water as possible. To accomplish this, pour ¼ cup dish soap into a mixing bowl with one cup of warm water, then use an electric mixer to beat the solution into a thick foam. Gently rub the suds onto the surface of the upholstery with a soft-bristled brush, then scrape them away with a rubber spatula and rinse by wiping with a slightly dampened cloth. Afterward, let the upholstery dry completely before sitting on it.
  3. wiping down leatherCleaning leather furniture. Leather upholstery cleaning can also be handled, in most cases, with the dusting brush on a vacuum cleaner. To remove ground-in or crusted-on dirt from finished leather, all you need is a little gentle soap (castile soap is nice, but I’ve also used all-natural hand soap with good results), rubbed into a slightly damp cloth to create a light lather. Work the suds onto the soiled leather until the stain lifts, then rinse the soap away with another dampened cloth and dry the area thoroughly with a third cloth. To ensure that the leather doesn’t dry out after being dampened, you’ll want to apply a leather conditioner; a very small amount of olive oil, buffed into the surface, will do the trick.
  4. suede brushCleaning suede furniture. Suede is essentially leather, but the above method for cleaning finished leather is guaranteed to destroy your suede upholstery. Water and suede do not get along. If you own a piece of genuine suede furniture, you should also own two inexpensive tools: a suede brush and a suede eraser. In a pinch, a dry toothbrush and a clean pencil eraser will do, but this is one instance where the tools specifically made for the job do the best work. Wet stains should be gently blotted up with paper towels, and dry marks or stains can usually be rubbed away with a suede eraser. A suede brush can be used to tackle more stubborn stains, and should be used on a regular basis to maintain the nap of the suede.
  5. scrubbing microfiberCleaning microfiber furniture. Microfiber fabric is known for its ability to repel liquids, so if you’re quick about blotting up spills, that may be the extent of the necessary cleaning. If you’re dealing with a dried-on stain, you can clean microfiber furniture with two tablespoons clear dish soap dissolved in two cups of distilled water. Lightly dampen a clean sponge in the soapy water and gently rub away the stain, working from the outer edges inward. Once the stain is gone, wipe away the soap residue with another clean sponge, dampened in plain distilled water. When you’re certain the microfiber is soap-free, either allow it to air dry or use a blow dryer on the cool setting to speed up the process.
  6. bowl of cleaner in front of patio furnitureCleaning patio furniture. The best way to clean outdoor furniture depends on the material it’s made of, but in most cases you can simply squirt some biodegradable dish soap, such as Seventh Generation, into a bucket of warm water. Use a soft cloth and plenty of this soapy water to wash plastic patio furniture or any metal patio furniture, including aluminum and wrought iron. Unpainted plastic furniture can also be cleaned with a thick paste of baking soda and water if dish soap doesn’t do the trick. Wicker furniture that’s used outdoors should be taken inside at night and in harsh weather to keep it from deteriorating. This will also help keep it clean enough that it should normally only need to be vacuumed with a brush attachment. If you do need to really clean wicker furniture, use a scrub brush dunked in salt water. Do this on a hot or windy day, if possible, so that the wicker dries quickly. You can ensure that wicker furniture retains its shape after cleaning by giving it a few days to dry completely before you use it again.

Why Make Your Own Furniture Cleaners?

Unfortunately, one of the pillars of the American justice system also applies to the chemicals in our cleaning products: innocent until proven guilty. Companies that manufacture cleaning solutions pour chemicals into their products because they clean efficiently or polish brilliantly; the effects those chemicals might have on the environment or on people and pets are barely a factor. In fact, existing laws don’t require companies to test the effects of their products on people or ecosystems. Most manufacturers do just enough testing to know what kind of warning label to place on their product, thereby protecting themselves from legal liability if someone takes a swig and suffers immediate catastrophic effects.

But even when we don’t ingest them, these products can leave behind residues and vapors that we inhale or absorb through our skin. The traces of chemicals that enter our bodies this way can compound over time, and are suspected to play a role in the ever-increasing incidence of disorders such as asthma, allergies, cancer, and autism. To get specific, some upholstery cleaners contain butyl cellosolve, which can irritate mucous membranes and damage the nervous system, causing—at the very least—headaches and dizziness. Over the long-term, butyl cellosolve can affect male fertility and fetal development, and has been linked to childhood learning disabilities. Wood cleaners and polishes are often a cocktail of toxic chemicals that can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat; depress the nervous system; cause kidney and liver damage; and, once again, affect a developing fetus. Petroleum distillates and phenol are two very common, very toxic culprits.

Obviously, it would be best to just avoid using furniture cleaners that list dangerous chemicals as ingredients, but because the law allows cleaning product companies to keep their recipes confidential, ingredient lists rarely make it onto the packaging. Most of the companies that specialize in “green” cleaning products opt to list their ingredients so that consumers can make informed purchases. By using these products, either for their suggested uses or as components of some of your homemade cleaning solutions, you get the satisfaction of knowing that your furniture is both clean and nontoxic.

Natural Furniture Cleaners

microfiber clothMicrofiber cloths are an excellent tool for dusting and cleaning wood or any other hard furniture surface. They attract and hold dust that a regular cotton cloth would send flying into the air, and can be dampened with water to clean surfaces that are soiled with stuck-on dirt or spills. Although microfiber rags are far from natural, they make cleaning solutions unnecessary and can be washed and reused almost infinitely. And that’s the next best thing.

box of baking sodaBaking soda is one of the most versatile natural cleaners out there. If you’re cleaning unpainted plastic furniture, a baking soda paste will safely scrub away any stubborn grime you encounter. But baking soda’s most important contribution to cleaning furniture is its ability to deodorize: sprinkle it on upholstery and let it sit for 10 minutes before vacuuming, and you’ll suck up offensive smells along with all that cat hair.

spray bottle of fresh waveFresh Wave is nature’s answer to chemical-based Febreze. I use Fresh Wave’s All Natural Odor Neutralizing Spray on my upholstered furniture after I vacuum, and it replaces the aroma of bulldog with a pleasant mixture of natural lime, pine, anise, clove, and cedar. And, unlike most air and fabric fresheners, its lingering fragrance doesn’t give me a headache. You can order spray bottles of Fresh Wave from Amazon.