How often do you wash your walls? If you are a typical American, the answer will be “once a year” or possibly “never.” In fact, many of us believe that walls can’t be washed, and that grimy walls should just be painted, not washed.

Painting walls is a good thing

Painting your home is one of the few renovations that actually pays off when you sell your home, as long as you choose a neutral color like white or eggshell. Paint it in that turquoise shade you love, with a bright fuchsia accent wall, and it will actually bring down your property value. But painting will generally brighten your space and make you feel better about your house, as well as paying for itself if you decide to sell.

…but it’s not an alternative to washing

However, it is not, as so many people think it is, a good alternative to washing the walls. The thing is, paint will adhere to the surface of the wall. If the wall is covered with dirt, the paint will stick perfectly to the dirt.

Not to the wall.

Dirt can be pretty good about staying where it is if you don’t clean the surface, but you can’t really count on it. It, and the paint you put over it, is likely to flake and crack and end up on the floor or in the air instead of staying on the wall.

So you’ll need to wash the wall thoroughly before you paint. And once you have clean walls, you might not even need to paint.

Many people worry that washing the walls will wash off the paint, but it won’t — if you do it right.

So how can you clean your walls?

Remove paintings and mirrors, and move furniture away from the walls as much as possible.

Begin by dusting. A vacuum brush, a microfiber cloth wrapped around a mop head, or even a feather duster is a good first step. Even if you end up needing to scrub, attacking dusty walls with a wet sponge will give you muddy streaks before you get clean walls, so start by dusting thoroughly.

If you know what kind of paint you have on your walls, you can move on to a warm water solution.

  • Flat or matte paint needs something quite mild, like mild soap or sal suds.
  • Latex paint can handle an all-purpose cleaner.
  • Oil paint is fine with a degreasing solution. You can even add a bit of ammonia for stains.

If you don’t know what kind of paint you’re dealing with, start with an inconspicuous spot and the gentlest cleaner. Work your way up to something stronger if necessary.

Have a bucket of cleaning solution and a bucket of clear water, plus a clean towel. Use a clean sponge for each bucket. Start with the sponge in the cleaning solution and wring it out so it’s just damp with your cleaning solution. Clean the wall. Follow with the other sponge, slightly dampened with clear water. Return the sponges to their buckets and rinse them out. Dry the wall with the towel and move on to the next section.

Don’t splash it around

You want to clean your walls, but you don’t want them to get wet. This can cause bubbles in the paint or damage the walls under the paint.

It’s also important, for safety’s sake, not to drip water into light sockets or electrical fixtures.

In fact, dripping is not something you want to see. If you wash from the top down, drips of dirty water can make the walls dirtier as you go. If you wash from the bottom up, you can drip dirty water over the parts you’ve already cleaned. It’s best not to use enough water to cause drips in the first place.

Don’t forget baseboards and moldings

Finish up by scrubbing baseboards and moldings. These areas get dustier and dirtier than flat wall surfaces, and they are usually made of wood or other strong materials and often have stronger paint, too. You can usually give them a good scrubbing.

Otherwise, follow the same steps as for the walls themselves.

Who should not clean walls?

Most housework is not going to get your heart rate up, but washing walls can be hard work. It can cause you to twist your body — one of the most common ways to hurt your back. It can also require you to get up on a step ladder or to crouch down by the floor. If you only do it once a year, you may be setting yourself up for injury. It’s good to know your limitations.

If you’re fit, you should give yourself a weekend to wash all the walls in your house, or a couple of hours per room. It’s a big job, but you should be pleased with the results.