Dealing with Stains on Walls

We’re probably all familiar with that sinking feeling when you walk into a room and realise that the previously pristine white walls are now covered with multi-coloured crayon scrawls. Or that the romantic candle-lit dinner has left smoke stains on the cream dining room walls. Or even that the long, damp winter has left ugly mould stains and water marks along the hallway walls.

Never fear – most wall stains can be easily dealt with, depending on the paint that has been used on the walls (or wallpaper) and the type and age of the stain. In fact, for general dirt and grime and many fresh stains, a good scrub with an all-purpose cleaner may do the trick.

Simple Wall Cleaner:

Dissolve 2 ounces of borax & 1 tsp ammonia in a bucket containing about 2 litres of water. (Note: this should not be used on wallpaper).

Scrub the wall from bottom upwards – this is because if you start from the top and work your way down, the dirty water will run down over the still-dry, dirty wall section below and leave streaks that are hard to remove. Whereas, if the lower sections are already wet and clean, even if dirty water runs over them from the upper section, it does not stain as easily. If your wall is textured, you may find that old socks make good scrubbers, as opposed to sponges, because they will not break off into little pieces.

Crayon Marks & Coloured Pencils

For the inevitable crayon stains from the little Picassos in your household, a very effective stain remover is car-parts lubricant. Spray onto the stained area and then wipe clean with a soft cloth. If some staining still persists, wash the surface using a sponge soaked in a solution of dishwashing detergent and warm water – move the sponge in a circular motion and then rinse well.

This treatment works well for both painted walls and scrubable wallpaper. It is also effective for removing stains from coloured pencils.


It is a good idea to only allow children to use washable and water-based paints. For watercolour paint on walls, first try to rinse off as much paint from the wall as possible, then apply a mild abrasive cleaner with a damp sponge and rub in a circular motion, working from the outside towards the centre of the stain. Then rinse again and dry the area. If a stain still remains, try applying a bit of nail polish remover using a cotton ball, using a blotting action on the stain. Then rinse again and dry. Make sure there are no open flames near you when using the nail polish remover.

For finger paints, wipe away as much of the stain as possible using a damp sponge, then use the sponge to apply a bit of mild abrasive cleaner, working in a circular motion. Rinse thoroughly with water and check – if any stain is still remaining, soak a cotton ball with alcohol and apply to the stain with a blotting motion. Rinse again and dry.

Mould, Mildew and Water Stains

Resist the temptation to cover these stains just by applying a coat of paint to the stained area – without proper preparation the marks will inevitably bleed through the fresh paint (no matter how many coats you apply) and show up again. The best thing to do is first identify the source of these stains (eg. a leak) and remove or fix it, so that they cannot occur again in the future. Then clean the surface thoroughly and if there is any stubborn mildew, use a bleach and water solution to remove all traces. (Make sure that you wear protective gloves, clothing & eyewear, and cover floors and furniture with plastic sheathing). Rinse the area very thoroughly – however, try not to flood the area with water or cleaning solutions, as this creates high moisture conditions beneath the surface and thus encourages the growth of more mould and mildew. Dry the area very well – even if it means using a hair dryer or a dehumidifier, heater or fan for larger patches. Make sure the surface is absolutely dry before applying a primer; ideally a shellac-base primer-sealer. Then repaint the area and choose a paint type that is resistant to mildew growth, fast-dry and has a stain-resistant finish.

Smoke Stains

Like mould stains and water marks, just painting over the area without removing the stain will not work as the stain will likely “bleed through” the new paint within a few weeks or months. You need to first vacuum up as much loose carbon as possible, then rub the area with a dry sponge or a commercially available “soot sponge” , which is chemically treated to absorb soot and dirt into its pores. Finally wipe the wall with a solution of 1 Tbsp tri-sodium phosphate (TSP) diluted in about 1 gallon of warm water – and then rinse thoroughly. In some cases, this treatment will remove some paint together with the stain – in this case, you may need to prime the area and repaint (as described above).

Remember, prevention is always better than cure therefore consider carefully the type of paint you choose for your walls. In general, semi-gloss, high-gloss or enamel paints are best for rooms with high moisture levels such as kitchens and bathrooms, and high traffic areas such as main stairways and halls.

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