Spilled wine, pizza grease, stinky cat pee: How to clean your couch of stains and odor

Here’s my sectional couch in its heyday. I’d like to restore some of its former glory.

Brian Bennett/HDOT

Living room sofas lead a full, yet hard life. From pets to kids and messy adults, your couch is often the hub of activity in the home. The downside to that is it’s constantly exposed to a variety of potential threats. These include dropped food and drink, dripped grease and spills of wine and other adult beverages. Cats and dogs can cause mayhem too, leaving deposits in both liquid and solid form.

Unless you seal your furniture up completely in plastic, accidents and stains will happen. When that day arrives, don’t panic — have a game plan instead. That way you won’t waste critical time letting a mess fester and turn into long-term damage.

This guide lays out many common sources of household soiling and what to do if it ends up on your sofa. We’ll also explain how to spot-clean your couch yourself, or find out when it’s time to call in the pros.

Brian's couch a little rough

Six years, one pandemic, and two big dogs later and my couch has seen better days.

Brian Bennett/HDOT

Find the cleaning code

In recent years, furniture makers have begun including cleaning instructions with their products. Usually this guidance consists of a physical tag on the furniture itself. On the tag there should be one of five lettered cleaning codes. 

If you’re lucky, your couch’s tag will have a “W” code printed on it. Standing for water, this means you’ll be able to use water-based cleaning solutions on your sofa’s fabric. It represents the most hassle-free cleaning classification. Usually synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon and acetate fall into this category.

Other categories include “S,” which indicates that only water-free solvents are allowed. Typically you’ll find natural textiles such as cotton, linen, and wool classified this way. The “SW” or “S/W” code means the fabric in question can handle both water-free solvents or water-based cleaners.

The last two categories are the most restrictive. Couch fabrics with the “X” code label must be vacuumed or brushed only. Forgo using any water or liquid cleaners. The “DryCln” code indicates that a sofa can only be cleaned by a professional dry cleaner.

No cleaning code label?

You may discover that your sofa lacks a cleaning code label. That’s the case with my couch, a Jonathan Lewis sectional sold by Macy’s back in 2015. Fortunately, I was able to track down the fabric, which I recall placing as a special order. 

Oddly enough it’s named “Bennett Peacock” and is a striking hue of teal that Jonathan Lewis still sells today. I was also happy to learn that the fabric has a “W” cleaning code.

For those whose furniture didn’t come with cleaning instructions you may be able to find more info online. If you strike out there too, then I suggest contacting the manufacturer directly. 

Deal with incidents promptly

When it comes to spills and other accidents, time isn’t your friend. As soon as the spill happens (or as soon as you notice it), clean it up quickly. For spills or liquid messes, dab with a dry absorbent paper towel or cloth. For solid substances, use a fork or spoon to gently remove as much physical waste as possible.

Vacuum first, then color test

Before diving in with solvents and cleaning solutions, it’s a good idea to remove any dust or solid debris from your couch first. Do this using a vacuum cleaner and upholstery attachment. With that done, the next step is to perform a spot check for colorfastness. 

Pick a section of your coach that’s usually hidden, say against the wall or on its side. Now apply a few drops of the cleaning agent you’ve determined is compatible with your furniture. After 10 seconds, blot the area with a white absorbent cloth. If you don’t see noticeable discoloration on the couch fabric or color transferred to the cloth, you can proceed. 

Red wine

If your couch supports water-based cleaners then consider a mild detergent solution. Mix 1 teaspoon of liquid dish soap to 1 cup of lukewarm water. Froth the mixture until you create suds. Pick up some suds with a dry microfiber cloth or sponge. Gently rub the spill with the cloth and soap. Start from the outside of the spill and work your way inward. 

As the spill or stain material lifts from the fabric, switch to a clean section of your cloth. Next rinse your cloth or sponge with fresh water and wring to remove excess moisture. Finally, dab the spill with your cloth to pull away any residual soap.

If you’d prefer a little less work, consider specialty products such as Folex and Chateau Spill. Both let you spray, then dab — rinsing not required.

Target couch stains with suds if the soil and fabric are compatible.

Brian Bennett/HDOT

Adult beverages

Like any food, you can tackle cocktail and mixed-drink spills with mild detergents. Just make sure your sofa fabric can tolerate water-based cleaners. Gently rub the spill with suds from your dish soap solution. Rinse the cloth, wring it out, then blot to rinse the spill free of detergent.

Pizza grease

For oil and fat residue you’ll need a cleaner specifically designed to target grease stains. One such product is AlbaChem PSR II Powdered Dry Cleaning Fluid. It sprays onto fabric as a liquid, bonds to greasy stains, then dries and brushes away as a powder.

Cat and dog pee

No matter if you own a dog or a cat, the messes they can create require a strong counter measure. Specifically, I suggest an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle. It’s available in both dog and cat foam formulas, as well as spray bottles.

These are water-based cleaners so make sure your couch can withstand the treatment. To use them, you’ll fully saturate the affected area. After 5 minutes, wipe away any residual solution and allow for the fabric to air-dry. I’ve personally used the product on my mattress after one of my big dogs once wet the bed there in epic fashion. Impressively, after two weeks all odors have been eliminated.

Dog drool

That same dog loves to sleep on the couch, too. Unfortunately, she has a tendency to drool, and her breath isn’t what I’d call minty fresh. Thankfully, the same Nature’s Miracle Dog Stain Foam worked like a charm here, too. After a week or so all traces of canine saliva funkiness were gone. 

When all else fails

Many of these solutions should help cure your couch-cleaning woes. However, there may come a point when stains have had too much time to set. Or perhaps nothing you’ve tried will banish your sofa’s off-putting aromas. 

If so, it’s high time to consider turning to a professional cleaning service for help. There are a number of large national chains to choose from — Stanley Steamer, Chem-Dry and Coit just to name a few. You’re also likely to have local cleaning outfits to consider. And if the pros don’t pan out, there’s always the last resort — splurging on a new couch.