How to Clean a Small Area of Carpet: Step By Step

It happens to the best of us: we’ll put down a gorgeous new rug or pay to have our floors covered in wall-to-wall soft carpeting, and we’ll sigh in relief. We’ll walk across the carpeting without socks on, sinking into the warmth, not having to worry about scratching hardwood or peeling vinyl or creaking floors—and then we’ll spill a bit of coffee. We’ll look down, and there will be a brown splotch, spreading.

Perhaps your carpet held out a little longer: maybe a friend dribbled from a glass of red wine at a party. That can be even more nerve-wracking because you’re hosting an event—and you don’t want to make your friend feel bad about what has happened!

Whatever the case, the problem remains the same: a small area of your carpet has a stain, and you need to get it out – fast. 

In this handy guide, we’ll discuss exactly how to clean a small area of your carpet. We’ll also talk about the different types of carpeting and the solvents which work well with them, the chemical properties of the stains, the difference time and heat makes, and much more! 

Step One: What Kind of Carpeting Do You Have?

The type of carpeting – specifically, the depth of the tread, the type of shag, and the sort of yarn or fabric used to make your rug or carpet – will have a huge influence on what you use to clean it. Knowing this information early on will also help you figure out how best to protect your carpet from stains. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Here are the most common types of carpeting:

Nylon: As far as synthetic fibers go, nylon is hard to beat. It’s relatively stain-resistant, resistant to mold and mildew, and is by far one of the most cost-effective options when it comes to carpeting. Because of this, some 90 percent of carpeting is nylon. You’ll want to check, but if you can’t figure out what you have, nylon is your best bet.

Polypropylene: This is another synthetic option. Because of its cost (very cheap), it’s often used in business or commercial settings. It’s ultra-stain resistant, with one Achilles’ heel: oils or oil solvents should be kept far away because oil-based stains are virtually impossible to remove.

Polyester: Continuing with our trend of synthetic options, polyester’s another safe bet and good choice. The main downside to polyester has nothing to do with stains: Polyester carpet flattens extremely easily. However, the flattened carpet will be harder to clean.

Acrylic: When used for carpeting applications, acrylic takes on the appearance and character of wool—but at a much, much lower price point. It’s not very durable, but it is resistant to stains. Don’t get it wet, though. Like wool, it is prone to shrinkage.

Wool: This sumptuous fabric makes up the most high-end carpets and rugs on the market. It’s ridiculously soft, warm—and expensive. Caring for wool carpets is similarly finicky; however, if you do have one, it’s well worth the maintenance.

Loop pile: This unique type of carpeting leaves the entire ball of yarn used to make the carpeting intact, giving the top of the carpeting a distinct spaghetti-like vibe. It’s very durable and extremely easy to clean; however, it does have a matted feel which many people do not love on their feet.

Cut pile: This is the most common type of carpeting, wherein each of the pieces of yarn is cut at a very short and uniform length (like a very soft brush). These are easy to clean and patch or swap out if needed.

Saxony cut: This is also known in America as simply ‘shag’ — where the pieces of yarn are cut, but at longer and sometimes different lengths. As you might imagine, this is the most difficult type of carpet to clean—simply because there’s so much of it. A mess will go everywhere!

Now that you know which type of carpeting you have (check with your landlord or bring in a swatch to your home improvement store if you’re unsure!), you have a valuable tool that will help you figure out how best to clean it. If you have a synthetic blend, your carpets will take kindly to harsh chemical treatments if need be.

However, the differing pile cuts and the natural fibers will need to be taken care of a little differently. You’ll want to start with natural remedies before you move onto the harsh chemical fixes because those can involve strong fumes. They also stand a strong chance of ruining your carpet. You don’t want to be spraying anything harsh onto wool!

Before we launch into cleaning, let’s talk a little bit about making sure that messes don’t happen in the first place. By implementing a few strategies at the outset, you may be able to ensure that a set-in stain is something that you will never have to deal with! Keep reading for a few easy-to-implement ideas.

Step Two: Avoiding Stains Whenever Possible

Follow the ideas listed below, and you’ll stand a better chance of making sure that your rugs stay clean in the first place. Or, when stains inevitably occur, you’re in a better place to handle them with ease!

1.   Consider investing in a stain protectant. A good stain treatment will lay a protective, oil-and-water resistant layer over your existing carpet. Some carpets come already prepped for stain resistance; older ones probably don’t. The good news is that these treatments aren’t very expensive, and you can likely apply it yourself over a weekend.

2.   Cultivate a vacuuming habit. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: a clean carpet is likely to stay clean. On a purely psychological level, if you invest time and energy into making your home look good, you’re more likely to be careful around it. Vacuuming will also help keep dirt and other small objects out of your pile, which could be stain bombs just waiting to happen.

3.   Keep a shoe rack by the door. Some stains are not food catastrophes, but the slow buildup of scum and dirt from outside over time. Cut out that factor entirely by having people put their shoes just inside your front door before venturing further into your home.

4.   Invest in area rugs. Either small statement rugs to demarcate the flow of the room or plastic mats to go under tables and chairs will be a great choice for the health of your carpeting. They can also be very fashionable and making moving your furniture easier. For example, having a plastic mat under a wheeled chair is just good sense.

5.   Step on it! When you notice that a spill has happened, don’t just ignore it—treat it. Have a cleaning caddy of good, quick-working solvents in one of your kitchen cabinets, and take the two minutes to dab the stain immediately. Fresh, wet stains are much easier to treat and remove than baked in ones!

On that note, it’s probably a great idea to ensure that you have a stash of optimized-for-you cleaning materials on hand at all times. Let’s talk about building that kit up next!

Step Three: Prepping Your Arsenal of Cleaning Goodies

Cleaning is much easier if you’re prepared for it. In this case, that means that having a go-to place where your fabric and carpet cleaners are stored will make tending to spills the moment they happen an absolute breeze.

Here are a few guidelines for figuring out which types of carpet cleaners you should have in your home, based on the type of carpet you discovered you have back in Step One:

Get a good scrub brush. Rags won’t really cut it when it comes to scrubbing a stain out of the carpet pile, but with a scrub brush, you might only have to work at it for a minute before the stain comes flawlessly out! You don’t need anything expensive – as  long as it has strong bristles, you’re good to go. 

Get a glass bottle of white vinegar. This stuff is a cleaning powerhouse!

Get some baking soda. Aside from providing some majorly helpful grit to your cleaning tool kit for your entire home, baking soda is a foolproof way to get stains out of fabrics—including carpets. Read below for more details!

A spray bottle of lemon water. Lemons can also provide an all-natural cleaning boost to your water!

A bottle of isopropyl alcohol. This can be the key ingredient for getting out set-in stains. It’s especially effective for ink.

If you’re looking for more intense methods, you can always look into the following:

Commercially available carpet cleaners: At your local grocery or home store, there are likely shelves upon shelves of home cleaning solvents. Pick out one that has attributes that matter to you, such as being all-natural or having a great smell or boasted stain-busting capacity. While the above natural remedies should work every time, sometimes it helps at the very least for peace of mind to have something tougher as a final resort.

Steam Cleaning. For a small fee, you can always rent (or even purchase!) a steam cleaner, which uses very hot water to clean set-in stains with immense efficiency and ease. However, as it likely won’t be a daily cleaning tool, don’t feel like this is a must-have for your home cleaning arsenal. Go for it if you choose!

Step Four: Basic Cleaning (If You’re Alone and Ready)

Now that you’ve done the best that you can to make sure that:

  • Your carpet is prepared and protected 
  • You have the best tools you possibly can on hand
  • You have learned all you’ll ever want to know about solvents, and the different materials carpeting can be made out of.

Now it’s time to look at a few ways to clean small sections of carpeting.

1.   Grab your carpet brush. It may seem simple, but if you catch a spill straight away, sometimes the only thing you need is to brush the dirt and scum away (and then vacuum or sweep, later). Think of this as an opportunity for an arm workout, and get to cleaning that small section of your carpet.

2.   If it doesn’t seem like agitating the area alone is going to cut it, start out with an all-natural solution: vinegar. Add some lemon water, if you like! Even though it’s natural, you may still want to use a face mask, as the smell can be strong.

3.   Fill a bucket with warm water, mix in 1/4 a cup of vinegar, and get on the floor. Douse your scrub brush in the vinegar solution, and begin agitating the area again. Dip your brush in the water again as needed, but don’t over-saturate the area; you don’t want the stain to spread.

4.   After you’ve scrubbed with vinegar, go and dump out the bucket, refill with fresh, hot water, and try again. That way, if you introduced any discolorations into the rug with the vinegar, you can reset the area, quick as a flash.

5.   If that simple process didn’t get the stain out, consider introducing baking soda into the mix. Sprinkle a generous amount of baking soda on the floor, completely covering the stained area. (Baking soda is inexpensive; don’t hesitate to pour a lot!)

6.   If you have any dogs or crawling children, it might be a good idea to section the area off; baking soda doesn’t make a great snack on its own.

7.   Spritz the area with lemon water, just enough to get everything relatively moist, and then let it sit for at least three hours (although, the longer, the better!) The baking soda should soak up the stain, leaving your carpet crystal-clean.

8.   After the three hours are up, vacuum up the baking soda. Don’t fret if it didn’t work the first time — even the toughest of stains should whisk away after a few rounds of this more intense treatment.

Step Six: Set-In Stains

How you get out a set-in stain will depend a lot on what you’ve stained your carpet with. Here are the methods of attack for the five most common types of stains you’ll encounter:

1. Kool-Aid or Wine. As it turns out, kids and adults alike have extremely saturated beverages which can make or break your new carpet! Start by blotting the area dry with a dry towel to remove excess fluid. Then, mix some dish soap, vinegar, and water together in a spray bottle. Saturate the area. Let the area soak for ten minutes, then blot up with another dry towel.

2. Pet stains. If you have pets, you know that they can wreak havoc on carpets—even on a good day! The first step with tackling this type of stain is to make sure that any physical debris are gone. Then, moisten the area with a mixture of vinegar (or white wine) and water. Allow this to stand for several minutes, then blot with a dry towel until the stain is gone.

3. Coffee stains. These are among the most common stains — after all, you’re dealing with something that stains before you’ve gotten your jolt of morning caffeine! To treat inevitable drips and spills, start by blotting the area dry with a clean towel. Then, mix up a potion of vinegar, hot water, and laundry detergent. Soak the area. Allow to stand, then blot dry.

4. Blood stains. It’s going to happen at some point in your life, so you may as well be prepared for it: Bloods stains from nosebleeds and kids’ roughed-up knees can do a number for your carpeting. When you’re working with bloodstains, always use ice-cold water. Any kind of heat will cause the proteins to coagulate, which means that it’ll get stuck irrevocably into the fibers of your carpeting. Mix dish detergent and very cold water, moisten the area, and wait; then blot it up. Repeat as necessary.

5. Ink stains. If you’ve ever had a pen break in your breast pocket, you can only imagine the agony this stain can cause! A dark spot on a bright carpet can feel like a death knell, but it doesn’t have to be. Grab some isopropyl alcohol and damp a towel with it. Dab the towel on the stain—but be careful not to scrub, as you’ll work the ink into the fibers even more! Blot away; rinse; and repeat.

Final Thoughts

When you’ve found a stain in a small section of carpet or found another reason that you need to clean a specific area, that can seem like a chore that you just don’t want to touch anytime soon. 

However, if you get to the stain quickly, it doesn’t have to be a disaster. 

Following the guide above, just make sure that your cleaning materials are always around, and that you know what you need to do based on what type of stain you have!

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