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Area Rug Care and Cleaning

By Michael Hilton

Whether you buy discount area rugs or a priceless treasure, you will need to know how to care for your new area rug. Most area rugs can be cleaned with any type of carpet cleaning method, but the cleaning chemistry may vary by area rug fiber type or dye method. Use a cleaning system that is appropriate for the specific area rug fiber type or fiber system for your particular rug.

Many area rugs blend two or more fibers in the pile. The blending of fibers helps overcome the weaknesses of certain fiber types. Typical blends include wool/nylon, nylon/olefin, nylon/acrylic, wool/silk, jute/wool, sisal/wool, and cotton/rayon.

The primary approach for cleaning area rugs is to clean for the primary fiber that is present in the area rug.

Examine area rug tags and identify the fiber with the highest percentage of fiber content. Generally, the primary fiber is listed first, but use caution when the blend is near equivalent such as a 60-40 blend. In these cases, you should clean for both types of fiber. Some fibers, such as silk, are extremely sensitive to certain cleaning chemicals, so extreme care should be used.

Beware of Dye Bleeding

Carefully watch for dye bleeding in silk or silk blends and use caution with excessive heat in olefin area rugs. also, carefully watch for browning or yellowing with blends of natural fibers. The pH of the cleaning solution should be monitored carefully. High pH < 8 will affect some sensitive fibers.

You should be especially cautious in cleaning braided rugs or woven rag rugs, needle point rugs and hand-tufted or hooked rugs with a scrim back material. Always pretest any cleaning chemical you select on a small area of the rug to ensure the chemical properties of the cleaning chemical are suitable for your rug.

If you are unsure of the fiber content or if you are unsure of the cleaning procedures for your new area rug, cleaning expensive rugs is best left to a professional. However, remember not all carpet cleaners have experience with different fiber types. Many carpet cleaners rarely clean anything but synthetic fibers, which are very forgiving fibers. In selecting a carpet cleaner to clean your expensive rugs, make sure you review our Hiring a carpet cleaner section and make sure the carpet cleaner carries insurance.

The following information should help by providing basic rug care information for the various types of area rugs and area rug fibers that you will encounter. This explanation is not intended to make you an expert in rug care, but it should help you maintain your own rugs. For additional information on cleaning specific fibers found in area rugs and carpet visit our cleaning carpet fibers area.

Woven Rugs, Velvet Rugs and Interlock

Woven carpet is constructed using warp and weft yarns to create a backing and pile yarns are woven into these fibers. Any number of fiber types may be used in the backing or pile fiber and may be natural fibers or synthetic fibers. Most expensive woven area rugs will utilize wool or wool blend fibers.

All cleaning methods are safe but a dry cleaning method is the preferred method. Wet cleaning may be used, but excessive over wetting may contribute to color bleeding or shrinking. If you use a wet cleaning method, minimize moisture use and speed the drying process. Pretest darker colored areas to checking for color bleed before you begin cleaning.

Cleaning Cotton and Cotton Blend Fibers

Cotton is a natural cellulosic fiber and rayon is a manufactured cellulose fiber manufactured from wood pulp. These two fibers have similar properties, and can be cleaned using the same cleaning methodology and cleaning chemistry.

Cotton and rayon are rarely used in wall-to-wall carpet, but are often found in area rugs. These fibers offer a soft hand and provide beautiful colorations. Cotton may be used in weft yarns of many woven area rugs, especially hand-knotted Oriental rugs.

Both cotton and rayon are relatively inexpensive fibers, have the tendency to absorb a large of water, and dry very slowly. Since these fibers are organic, they must be dried quickly to limit microbial growth which may use the organic compounds in the fiber as a food source.

Both have fair to good resistance to changes in alkalinity, but the use of highly alkaline cleaning solutions should be avoided. Both fibers have disadvantages just as any other fiber. They have the tendency to crush or flatten fairly easily and they offer poor resistance to direct sunlight. They can become a food source for mold and mildew and they are flammable without fire retardant treatments.

Rayon has poor dimensional stability when wet and will shrink and distort when exposed to excessive moisture. Rayon is called art silk in India and is used as silk in some handmade area rugs.

The cleaning method used for cotton and rayon rugs depends on the types of dye used, the finishes applied and the percent of cellulosic fiber content. You always should pretest all colors in cotton and rayon area rugs constructions before proceeding with any cleaning method or cleaning chemistry because both cotton and rayon have the tendency to bleed.

If a flame retardant chemical has been applied to the fiber, ensure that the cleaning chemistry will not remove the flame retardant properties. Area rugs constructed of 100 percent rayon should be cleaned using a dry method only, since rayon is extremely susceptible to shrinking. Host, Capture, or a dry foam carpet cleaning method are preferred.

Both cotton and rayon are susceptible to browning if a high pH cleaning chemistry is used. Cleaning on the acid side- pH of 7 or less is recommended from both cotton and rayon.

Use the following precautions when cleaning cotton or other plant fiber rugs.

  1. Vacuum aggressively to remove as much embedded soil as possible
  2. Pretest all colors for browning and color stability
  3. apply pre-spray and allow 8-10 minutes dwell time before attempted cleaning
  4. Use minimal moisture cleaning methods with a pH of 5-8
  5. accelerate drying using air movers, dehumidifiers or other drying equipment
  6. Use an acid rinse following alkaline cleaning
  7. Use only an oxygen safe bleach, reducing agent or anti-browning agent to restore color

Cleaning Sisal Fiber Area Rugs

There are a number of fibers used in rug making that originate from vegetable or plants. These include jute, hemp, flax (linen), raime (rhea) abaca, sisal, pineapple, coir reeds, or sea grass and kapok. Each of these specialty fibers have cleaning properties similar to cotton. Most provide a coarse texture rather than the refined look of cotton, but each rug is unique unto itself. Sisal originates from the leaves of the ‘Agave Sisalana’ plant which is native to Central America.

Jute is a baste fiber obtained from the stalk of the jute plant found, primarily in Pakistan, India, and South America. Jute was once used as the secondary backing of choice for most broad wall carpet constructions until a greedy monopoly in India forced US carpet producers to seek other material for this secondary backing.

Rayon is manufactured from regenerated cotton pulp or wood pulp. Rayon uses several chemical properties to develop the refined look of silk. Since each of these fibers are cellulosic, each has a high probability of browning as a result of cleaning. Use a low moisture technique such as dry foam extraction carpet cleaning, Host or Capture, for these rugs to minimize cellulosic browning. Use the guidelines for cotton in cleaning these plant fiber rugs.

One added precaution for Sisal is the type of dye system used for the rug- many utilized a stenciled or printed dye system to apply dye. Color stability is usually a primary concern for these types of rugs. Careful chemical selection and light agitation should be used in caring for these rugs.

Nylon Area Rugs

Nylon is the most common fiber that you will encounter in buying area rugs. It provides the best all-around performance of any fiber, offering long wear life, abrasion, resistance, good cleanability with a wide variety of cleaning chemicals and cleaning methods. It offers low water absorbency (6-10% moisture regain), good resiliency, and excellent dimensional stability. Visit our carpet cleaning section for information on cleaning these types of rugs.

Cleaning Olefin Rugs

Olefin fibers (polypropylene) are found in a large number of rugs because they are easy to manufacture, can be manufactured cheaply, provide good durability, can be cleaned with all carpet cleaning methods, and can be cleaned with almost any cleaning chemistry. Review our carpet pile fibers area for a complete description of the advantages and disadvantages of olefin.

One caution should be noted with olefin area rugs, however. Olefin is an oleophilic (oil-loving) fiber. Oily soils are easily absorbed into the fiber. By the same example, oily cleaning solvents have the same negative characteristic. For example, while mineral spirits is a very good cleaner for many fibers, its oily texture might not be a good choice for cleaning oleophilic fibers like olefin or polyester.

Cleaning Polyester Area Rugs

Polyester, like olefin, is another of those oleophilic fiber systems and care should be taken in placing a polyester area rug in areas exposed to oily soil or other oily stains. Polyester is a fiber that is most similar to wool in the way it reflects color.

Polyester is easily cleanable and is very versatile, in that it is very affable to a variety of cleaning chemistry's and cleaning methods. It cleans very well and dries relatively quickly.

Cleaning Wool Rugs

Wool rugs require special care and our section on Cleaning wool carpet addresses many of the issues with wool fiber. The pH of wool should be cleaned on the neutral or acid side of the pH scale to limit browning. Wool holds up to 10 times its weight in water and is subject to shrinking, so use caution with wet cleaning.

There are 4 basic recommendations Made by the Wools of New Zealand for chemistry selection:

  1. low alkalinity (pH of 7 or less)
  2. Select a solution that leaves no sticky residue following drying
  3. Select a product with good cleaning efficacy
  4. Do not use cleaning products with added bleaches or dyes

One of the most important recommendations (not mentioned by Wools of New Zealand) is to select a product that DOES NOT CONTAIN OPTICAL BRIGHTENERS. Optical Brighteners actually dye the fiber and make them appear brighter. However, these dyes degrade and can remove rug color, yellow, and cause fibers to take on a dingy hue over time. At one-time Woolite® contained these optical brighteners. Check label information carefully. Even if the cleaning product carries the Wools of New Zealand seal, check the label to confirm that these products are not contained. For an image that shows this optical brightener damage, visit or Unusual carpet stains page.


From the modest welcome mat to the antique treasure, all rugs require regular care to prolong their life and appearance. These rugs can quickly fill with dry soil allowing soil to transfer to other surfaces inside the home. Dry soil, environmental pollutants, and spills also can damage the fibers of rugs and reduce their attractiveness.

A regular maintenance program will extend the life and the original appearance of your area rugs. Specific care information may be available from your area rug dealer, or from an 800 number provided by the area rug manufacturer or fiber producer.

Regular attention can keep your area rugs clean and new looking. A good practice is to vacuum clean area rugs that receive the most traffic on a daily basis. These areas are where the bulk of the soil is located. Vacuum the entire area rug a minimum of twice per week.

To properly care for your rugs, vacuum regularly to remove dry soil, taking care when vacuuming fringe and edging. A straight suction vacuum is recommended to limit raveling. Cleaning should take place at regular intervals to remove insoluble soils and environmental pollutants. Removing loose soil while it remains on the surface is important. Normal traffic will work soil deep into the pile. Removing embedded soil is more difficult and time consuming than removing surface soil.

To remove surface soil, push the vacuum forward with the pile direction of the area rugs in a slow, deliberate motion. Push the vacuum several feet before reversing direction. To remove embedded soil, pull the vacuum, against the pile direction, over the same area using a slow, deliberate motion. There should be more resistance when pulling the vacuum against the pile. Pulling the vacuum against the pile direction stands the pile upright and improves the removal of embedded soil. Repeat this procedure several times to remove as much embedded soil as possible. Make the final vacuum stroke in the same direction throughout your home for a more uniform appearance.

Area Rugs

Area rugs should be professionally cleaned yearly to remove environmental pollutants, spills, and insoluble soils. In selecting a cleaning method, consider that most cleaning methods may be used on synthetic fibers; however, natural fibers may require specialized care. (See Selecting a Carpet Cleaning Method) Do-it-yourself cleaning of natural fibers is discouraged.

Bath Mats and Small Rugs

Many bath mats and small rugs can be cleaned in a washing machine. Wash them in warm water (90ºF - 105ºF) using a neutral (mild) detergent. Rinse thoroughly, and tumble dry using the lowest possible heat setting. Larger bath mats and rugs may be spread in a shaded area and brushed lightly to facilitate drying.

Entry Mats

Entry mats limit more soil from entering a home than any other soil removal method, but entry mats are cleaned too infrequently to offer their full benefit. Once these mats have become filled with soil they become a source for additional soil. To remove dry soil from entry mats, vacuum regularly to remove surface litter. Remove embedded soil weekly by shaking or striking with a brush. For a thorough cleaning, wash entry mats with a brush and detergent solution and rinse thoroughly. Allow entry mats to dry completely before vacuuming.

Outdoor Carpet

Maintain outdoor carpet installed indoors in the same manner as other carpet in your home. When the carpet is used outdoors, surface litter can be swept up with a broom or deck brush. For a thorough, overall cleaning, wash outdoor carpet with a good carpet cleaning solution. Follow dilution instructions. Spread solutions over outdoor carpet with a garden sprayer. Using a scrub brush, work the solution into the pile. Rinse thoroughly with a garden hose, and allow the carpet to dry completely before vacuuming.

Selection of a Vacuum Cleaner

The Carpet and Area Rug Industry recommends choosing an upright vacuum cleaner that has a rotating brush and high efficiency filtration. Canister-type, straight suction vacuums work well in removing surface soils, but a vacuum cleaner with revolving brushes is recommended to remove embedded soil and properly care for your area rugs. Today, upright vacuums have become the most popular type of vacuum purchased because they are easy to handle, offer attachments for special cleaning jobs, and they come in a wide variety of pricing options. High efficiency filtration is an important feature because it reduces the number of particles that pass through the vacuum bag to become airborne. Other features to consider include a powerful suction, high airflow, brush height adjustment for efficient soil removal, sensors to identify clogs or full bags, a long power cord for convenience, and maneuverability.

For the best cleaning results, no matter which vacuum cleaner type you purchase, be sure to inspect it periodically to make sure it is mechanically fit.

  • Keep brushes clean and replace them when worn.
  • Keep vacuum hoses and attachments free of obstructions which restrict air passage.
  • Inspect the vacuum head for rough edges or bent metal that may damage your area rugs.
  • Inspect belts frequently to make certain they are working properly.
  • Always keep a spare belt for replacement as needed.
  • Follow the vacuum cleaner manufacturer's instructions, and change the vacuum bag when it becomes more than half full. With most vacuum cleaners, as the bag becomes full, soil removal efficiency is reduced.

Cleaning Tips

Today's area rug fibers are designed to hide soil and reflect light, and have the ability to resist soiling and stains. The effect of soiling in area rugs is not readily visible, as it is on hard surface flooring where soil remains on the surface and is easily seen. The ability of today's area rug fibers to hide soiling is a positive feature for most consumers. However, the lack of apparent soiling does not eliminate the necessity of regular cleaning.

Most dry soil has razor-like edges that cut or scar area rugs fibers causing light to reflect differently. This is what makes dirty area rugs look dull and worn. Soil can damage the fibers permanently if it is allowed to remain in the pile. Daily vacuuming is the most important cleaning activity, but deep cleaning must also be performed to remove stubborn or embedded soil. The Area rugs and Rug Institute recommends that area rugs be extraction cleaned a minimum of every 12 to 18 months before it shows soiling. The use of a cleaning method recommended by the area rugs manufacturer can extend the life of your area rugs. The use of any cleaning method not recommended by your area rugs manufacturer may void specific warranties on your area rugs.


Consider the services of a area rug cleaning professional before your area rugs begin to show soil in the traffic lanes. In some instances, the dull appearance of soiled areas in traffic lanes may be the result of permanent fiber damage caused by abrasive soil. Allowing area rugs and rugs to become excessively soiled will shorten the useful life of the area rugs.

Your area rug retailer and local business groups can furnish the names of reliable, certified cleaning professionals in your area. The Carpet Buyers Handbook can supply a listing of area rug cleaners for your convenience. Some of the services provided by a area rug cleaning professional include:

  • Stain removal
  • Repairs
  • On-location cleaning (in your home)
  • Area rugs dyeing (color repair)
  • In-plant cleaning (for rugs)
  • After cleaning applications (Topical soil and stain treatments)
  • Fire and water damage restoration
  • Odor control

Stain Removal

The area rug cleaner is the best resource for removing stains because of the many different types of products available to the professional for the removal of specific spots. Be sure to tell the cleaning professional what has been spilled and any procedure already attempted to remove the spot.


Many cleaning professionals have special equipment available to repair, restretch, and reinstall existing area rugs.

Area Rug Redyeing

In some instances, an area rug cleaner may be able to repair or redye areas that have lost color due to chemical fading or bleaching. Use only cleaning professionals that have been certified in color repair. We have provided a listing of area rug dyeing technicians who have requested links to their web sites.

In-Plant Cleaning

Loose area rugs can be removed and sent out to a plant for a thorough cleaning. Modern cleaning plants have equipment for removing large amounts of embedded soil particles. The area rug is then cleaned, using large quantities of water to flush away the attached soil, followed by rapid drying under controlled conditions.

After Cleaning Applications

Your cleaning professional can apply special treatments to improve your area rug's resistance to soil and stains. Contact a area rug cleaning professional, if your area rugs do not have one of these special treatments or if you would like to have a reapplication of these treatments after cleaning.

Water Damage Restoration

In many instances, area rug cleaning and restoration professionals can be called upon to restore area rugs that has been damaged by water intrusion. Choose a restoration professional who is properly trained and certified in water damage restoration. The restoration professional will follow guidelines set forth in the “IICRC Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Water Damage Restoration S500-94."

Odor Control

An area rug cleaning professional can often reduce or eliminate nuisance odors, such as pet odor, mold, mildew, tobacco, and others, absorbed by fabrics such as area rugs, upholstery, and draperies. Most professionals provide inspections and evaluations, along with complete pricing, without obligation.

Selecting a Area Rug Cleaning Professional

It is important to select a qualified company to clean your area rugs. Proper cleaning enhances the look of the area rugs and extends their life, whereas, improper cleaning can result in irreparable damage to your area rugs. Obtain the name of a reliable area rug cleaning professional through referrals from friends and acquaintances, the Better Business Bureau, or your area rug retailer. The Carpet buyers Handbook also can supply a listing of cleaning company partners.

Before having area rugs cleaned, have a representative of the cleaning firm come to your home to make a visual inspection. The cleaning professional can inspect the area rugs for problem stains or excessively soiled areas which may require additional attention. Obtain a written estimate for all work to be performed. A number of activities, such as moving furniture and preconditioning, should be included in the price of the cleaning.

In selecting a cleaning professional, beware of pricing that seems "too good to be true." Professionals charge only for services that you authorize in writing before cleaning begins. Most cleaning is based on the total number of square feet to be cleaned. Many firms do have cleaning specials; however, pricing by the room or low prices quoted over the phone may have hidden restrictions or mandatory add-ons. A reliable firm will tell you the steps that they are going to use to clean your area rugs and provide a written cost estimate before the work is started.


There are five accepted methods for area rug cleaning with advantages and disadvantages for each method. Because it may be difficult for a consumer to make an informed decision regarding which cleaning method to use, the consumer should rely on the area rug manufacturer's recommendation regarding the specific method of cleaning.

In choosing any cleaning method, select cleaning agents sold especially for stain resistant area rugs cleaning or natural rug fibers, and FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS FOR DILUTION AND APPLICATION. Never use soap, ammonia, laundry detergent, automatic dishwashing detergent, washing soda, or any of the strong household cleaning agents intended for use on hard surfaces such as woodwork, linoleum, or tile. For best cleaning results, always pre-vacuum the area to be cleaned and apply a prespray solution prior to cleaning.

  1. Dry Extraction Method An absorbent compound saturated with detergents and solvents is brushed in and around the fibers. Machines especially designed for this type of cleaning may be more efficient than manual application. The embedded soil is absorbed by the compound and both the soil and compound are then removed by vacuuming. There are a number of absorbent type cleaners available. Follow the manufacturer's directions for using these products.
  2. Dry Foam Extraction Method Dry foam cleaning is a procedure by which a detergent solution is whipped into a foam and applied to the area rugs. The foam is worked into the area rugs by a specially designed machine with reel-type brushes, followed by wet vacuuming. Some machines have their own extraction capabilities, eliminating a separate wet vacuuming step. For equipment without extraction capabilities, the area rug is vacuumed thoroughly to remove crystalized detergent and attached soil particles, after drying.
  3. Hot Water Extraction Method This method is sometimes called "steam cleaning." Area rugs entries and high traffic areas are preconditioned to suspend ground - in soil, then a pressurized cleaning solution is injected into the pile. Suspended soil and solution are immediately extracted. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS CAREFULLY. Avoid overwetting and ensure speedy drying by using fans, operating the building HVAC system in the "on" position, and by performing additional drying strokes.
  4. Absorbent Pad (Bonnet) Method The rotary bonnet method uses a machine similar to a floor buffer with an absorbent spin pad attached to remove soil. The spin pad adsorbs soil onto the pad, and soil is removed when the pad is rinsed. When using the bonnet method, select one of the non-cationic, neutral detergents sold especially for stain-resistant area rug cleaning, and FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS FOR DILUTION AND APPLICATION. Never use any cleaning solution that contains optical brighteners. Keep absorbent pad well - lubricated with cleaning solution to reduce pile distortion. Replace pad often to prevent transfer of soil back to the area rugs face. The absorbent pad method should be used only by a properly trained cleaning professional.
  5. Rotary Shampoo Method The rotary shampoo method uses equipment similar to the rotary bonnet method, except that a cleaning solution is injected onto the area rugs before cleaning or through specially designed brushes. When using the rotary shampoo method, select one of the non-cationic, neutral detergents sold especially for stain-resistant area rugs. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS FOR DILUTION AND APPLICATION. Never use a do-it-yourself machine designed for hard surface floorcovering that uses counter rotating (rotary) brushes because of the pile distortion or untwisting of the fiber that can occur.

Do - It - Yourself- Area Rug Cleaning

The following points are critical for any do-it-yourself cleaning method:

  • Always pre-vacuum to remove as much dry soil as possible
  • Prior to attempting to perform the cleaning, read the information carefully and completely.
  • Follow instructions carefully! The following precautions should be considered when selecting a wet cleaning method.
  • Remove furniture from the room before cleaning. If it is impractical to move furniture, place plastic film under and around the legs of chairs, tables and other furniture until the area rugs is dry to prevent rust or furniture stains from developing on the area rugs. It is always best to remove the area rug from the installation area.
  • Never exceed the recommended solution strength in mixing cleaning solutions. Most cleaning solutions are formulated to work at specific strengths. If the solution is mixed stronger than the recommended concentration, excess detergents left in the area rugs may cause accelerated soiling.
  • Ensure that all detergent is completely rinsed from the area rugs to prevent accelerated resoiling.
  • Do not over wet the area rugs. Overwetting may cause separation of the backing, separation of the seams, shrinkage, discoloration, and odor.
  • Do not allow the area rug to remain wet for more than 24 hours, as this may encourage the growth of mold and mildew. Allow for proper ventilation or use fans to quickly dry the area rugs and exhaust any existing solution-related fragrances.
  • Allow the area rugs to dry completely before walking on it.


Maintain outdoor area rugs installed indoors in the same manner as other area rugs in your home. When the area rugs is used OUTDOORS, surface litter can be swept up with a broom or deck brush. For a thorough overall cleaning, wash the area rugs with a good area rugs cleaning solution. Follow dilution instructions. Completely dissolve powdered detergents in water; spread solutions over the area rugs with a garden sprayer or a sprinkling can. Using a scrub brush, work the solution into the pile. Rinse thoroughly with a garden hose, and allow the area rugs to dry completely before vacuuming.


Many bath mats, rugs, and similar products can be cleaned in a washing machine. The secret to restoring these products is to wash them in neutral (mild) detergent, rinse thoroughly and tumble dry, setting the dryer at the lowest temperature. DO NOT IRON. If tumbling action is not available, hang or spread them in the shade until dry, then brush lightly. Air from a fan is helpful in drying these items.

Whites and very light colors may be washed together, but wash dark colors separately. Washing temperature for dark colors should not exceed 90o F. For light colors and whites, do not exceed 105o F. Did you Know? Area rugs may require different cleaning procedures depending on fiber type. Some area rugs may turn brown or yellow if certain detergents are used. In cleaning area rugs, make sure you know the cleaning procedures required for your particular area rug type.

About the Author
Michael Hilton was the original creator of Carpet Buyers Handbook. Having owned and operated a carpet wholesale company, Hilton has a vast knowledge about all-things carpet related as well as other types of flooring.

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