Gone Thrifting? Here's How to Clean a Used Couch

used couch

Cathie Hong

You’ve found your dream used couch. Congratulations! It’s going to look perfect in your home—right after you get rid of the bacterial evidence of it being in another person’s home, a thrift store, a delivery truck, and who knows where else.

It can take some elbow grease to fully clean a thrifted couch, but now is not the time to grab the room spray and call it a day. Think about it: you’re going to put your face on that thing's cushions. You bought the couch—not its smells—and you won't regret the effort of bringing it back to its best state. 

To help you get the most out of your new-to-you piece, we put together a guide on how to properly refresh this piece of furniture. Below, read on for the best tips on how to clean and sanitize a used couch.

Things You'll Need

  • Bristle brush 
  • Gloves
  • Dishwashing detergent 
  • Baking soda 
  • Handheld vacuum or vacuum with nozzle attachment
  • Enzyme-based cleaner (optional) 
  • Handheld steam cleaner (optional) 
  • Vinegar or Vodka
  • Spray bottle

Step 1: Clean Up Dirt and Debris

If a new-to-you couch really needs some TLC and you've lucked into a sunny day, start the cleaning process outside. UV rays kill bacteria, and working outside ensures you won't breathe in decades of dust.

On a similar note, even if you never use gloves, cleaning a used couch is a good time to adopt the habit. Dust and spores—combined with cleaners—can do a number on your hands, and using new gloves is the safest, most sanitary way to clean.

Once you're kitted out, grab a handheld vacuum or vacuum with a nozzle attachment and do your first pass over the couch and into its crevices to get rid of any crumbs, hair, or other debris. Use the bristle brush to agitate and loosen up caked-on debris, like melted chocolate or (hopefully) other foodstuffs.  

Particularly if you live in a city, now is also a good time to consider saturating the couch in a non-toxic bug spray or coating it in a layer of diatomaceous earth. Let sit for 24 hours, then vacuum it again.

Step 2: Prep and Plan For Cleaning

Remove anything that can be removed—pillows, cushions, covers, etc.—to treat and clean these separately.

If your couch’s tag has a code W-S on it, it can be cleaned with both water and water-free solvents. Put anything removable in the washer on high heat and dry it in the sun to prevent shrinkage. If your couch’s tag has a code S, which stands for “solvent," that means you should take it to the dry cleaners if it's past the hope of spot treatments.

If your couch’s tag has a code X, avoid foam or liquid cleaning agents, as they could cause shrinking or staining. Only use a vacuum or dry cloth to clean these couches. If that won't cut it, seek professional help and consult a couch cleaning service.

You can find an in-depth explanation of the various fabric codes for couches here.

If your vintage couch is missing tags but you know the brand or the model, head to Google for a bit of investigative work. The vintage furniture community is a friendly one, so if you're really in a pinch, you also shouldn't be afraid to ask your local Baughman dealer for advice.

dark couch

Bespoke Only

Step 3: Tackle Stains

Mix one cup of warm water with 1/4 cup of white vinegar and a tablespoon of Castile soap or mild dish detergent inside of a spray bottle or small bowl. Spray or use a clean cloth to dab the solution onto the stain, but do not saturate the fabric (or you might make a bigger stain than when you started). 

It's always a good idea to do a spot test underneath the couch or below its cushions before moving on to more visible areas, particularly if you're using a heavy-duty cleaner.

Blot the stain with a clean, damp cloth. Allow it to dry and repeat the process as necessary.

If your vintage modular sofa has metal legs that have seen better (shinier days), soak the area in white vinegar (if possible) or use a solution of lemon juice and salt, mild dish soap, and ammonia to remove rust.

Step 4: Neutralize Any Odors

Remove the cushions, if possible, and coat the couch in a fine layer of baking soda. Use a dry bristle brush to work the baking soda into the material, as well as the corners and crevices. Let the baking powder sit for a few hours to soak up any moisture. 

Spritzing a solution of water and vinegar or water and vodka onto your couch can help eliminate most odors. You can also use an enzyme cleaner to tackle smells and stains that won’t budge. Just make sure you buy the appropriate cleaner for your couches material.

For a Super Deep Clean (Or Smelly Couch), Rent a Steamer

For an upholstered couch (Grandmillennial *is* all the rage, after all), renting a steam cleaner is calling out the big guns. The heat helps lift and removes old stains, kills bacteria and bugs, gets out pet odors, and refreshes the fabric.

Hit everywhere you can access on the couch with the steamer and allow it to air dry, then repeat as necessary. If you want to leave the steaming to the professionals, professional cleaning varies according to your couch's material and your area, but prices start at about $75 for smaller couches.

Just because your couch is fabric doesn’t mean you can steam it though. Cleaning Code S, as in “solvent,” means the fabric water may shrink or stain it.

leather couch


For Cleaning a Leather Couch

Use a vacuum nozzle attachment to clean crevices. Treat mild stains with a solution of dish soap and water, or a specialty leather soap, called saddle soap, using a clean, white microfiber cloth.

Do not use liquids on an oil stain when working with leather. Instead, sprinkle baking soda on the area, let it sit for a few hours, then wipe the couch clean with the microfiber cloth.