Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She’ll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.

I was following your instructions for cleaning my mattress when I discovered small black mold or mildew spots under the top layer of fabric. Help! They weren’t visible until that layer was damp. I diluted some rubbing alcohol and applied that with a damp cloth, but I don’t think that was enough, and I don’t think bleach on my mattress is a good idea (I could be wrong). I have fans going to try to dry it out, since taking it out into the sun is virtually impossible in my apartment. Do you have any other suggestions? I can’t really afford a new mattress at the moment.

Well, I’m just thrilled to know that the post about the poor guy wetting the bed inspired you to clean your mattress! Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when I’m wide awake and fretting (every night), I get kinda blue in an existential sort of way, but from now on I’ll try to remind myself that there’s one person out there, at least, to whom I’ve been useful.


I’m less thrilled, however, that in the course of cleaning that mattress, you discovered some mold growth. That is not good! I suppose, though, that it is good—or, more specifically, that the discovery is good—because it means you caught the problem early, allowing us to treat it straightaway.

Generally speaking, when you end up with a mattress that has developed a mold or mildew problem, you’ll want to give serious thought to replacing it. Mold in a mattress is no good, in two very specific ways. The first is that it’s SO BAD for you to sleep atop a bed of mold spores. That’s not really stuff you want to be inhaling while getting your eight hours in. The other reason is that mold is pretty tricky to eradicate completely from a mattress.


In this case, our letter-writer has specified that replacing the mattress isn’t currently an option, and I can help with that, but if you find yourself with a molded mattress and have the ability to replace the thing, do so. While you’re out consumer-ing, it’s also a good idea invest in a dehumidifier for your bedroom to keep moisture levels down, which will go a long way toward preventing the molding from happening again.

Mold Removal

Unfortunately, in the case of our friend with the moldy mattress, replacement is not an option. Which means we have to do our best to kill those spores. And actually, rubbing alcohol is a pretty good choice. Bleach is another good choice, but be warned that it can lead to color loss in the mattress if the fabric used for the mattress top isn’t color-safe for bleach. (That also may be totally fine with you.) White vinegar is good as well.


And then there is Lysol.

I think I like Lysol best for this job, and here’s why: In addition to being antibacterial and excellent at annihilating spore-y things, the aerosol action is enticing for this application in that it may penetrate deeper into the cushioning and insulator pads than the other three options, which you’ll apply with a rag or sponge. With that said, if you’re using the Lysol, it’s equally as important not to totally saturate the mattress as when using alcohol, bleach, or vinegar.


If Lysol isn’t your thing, certainly rubbing alcohol, bleach, or white vinegar will also be good choices for mold-killing purposes. Regardless of which you choose, the instructions for use are the same: Pour about a half-cup of whichever product you’re using into a bowl. Dip a sponge or rag into the bowl and wring it out very, very well. What you want to strike is the perfect balance of applying enough of the alcohol/bleach/vinegar to the mattress to absorb and kill all that mold, but without soaking the mattress so much that it doesn’t dry, ever. So, wring your rag out so that it is damp but not soaking, and work the alcohol/bleach/vinegar into the mattress in a circular motion. Repeat. Repeat again. Probably repeat again, and maybe even again after that. Now, let the mattress dry completely before re-making the bed. Fans and/or a dehumidifier, as well as open windows (provided that it’s a dry day) will help that process along.

But actually, before you do any of that, first you should vacuum.


Vacuuming a mattress may sound like an extra-compulsive thing that I, in my infinite weirdness, am suggesting you do and that no one really, actually does. Not so! I mean, sure it’s a touch on the compulsive side, but it’s also a very common act and, despite being a touch on the odd side, a quite simple and not-at-all time-consuming one. Consider doing it two to four times a year. Or just when the mood strikes. Or not at all! I don’t care, it’s your mattress!


The vacuuming is going to do pretty much what you imagine it will do: suck dander and dust mites and mold spores, if you’ve got ’em, up into the vacuum. If mold spores are an issue, be sure to empty and clean the container after use—otherwise, you’ll run the risk of vacuuming the rest of your home with mold spores and, right, you don’t want to do that. Speaking of cleaning! It’s also not a bad idea to apply a bit of all-purpose cleaner to a rag or paper towel, and give the attachment you’ll use on the mattress a quick once-over before getting to work; attachments will hold onto small amounts of grime that they pick up in the course of duty that then tends to transfer unattractively to upholstery.

The attachments you’ll want for this job are the upholstery tool (duh, Jolie) and the crevice tool. Start with the upholstery tool and go over the entire mattress, including the side panels, and as much of the box spring as you can get to. Then use the crevice tool to get along the seams, including the quilting. If you’re unsure what those attachments look like on your vacuum, Good Housekeeping has a handy illustrated guide.


Stain Removal

There are, essentially, only two things you need to know about removing stains from a mattress. The first is that you should use a stain-remover that is appropriate for the stain you’re trying to remove. So, if you’ve got a blood stain, hydrogen peroxide (or any number of other products that will eliminate blood stains) is the ticket. If the stain is from urine or sexual fluids, you’ll want to use an enzymatic cleaner, like Zout or Nature’s Miracle. The latter is designed for use on pet messes, but is very good on human messes as well—that is also true of a number of other pet-mess-cleaning products, so if you’ve got one around the house to keep up with Fido or Fluffy, go on and use those.


The other thing to know is a thing you actually already know, provided you’ve read this entire post instead of skipping straight to this section: You want to apply as little moisture as possible (if you saturate it, it will take forever to dry, and moisture + mattress = Bad News Bears) and make sure the mattress is completely dry before re-making the bed.

Odor Elimination

If you’ve vacuumed, and mold- or stain-treated, and thoroughly dried your mattress, it’s pretty unlikely that there will be lingering odors. But! It’s also entirely possible that there will be, and it’s also entirely possible that at some point in your life, a mattress may take on a funk that is unrelated to stains or mold. Maybe you’re a night-sweater! Maybe you have a malodorous dog! Maybe you eat smoked meats in bed! Whatever the case may be, as long as I have you here, let’s take a moment to talk about freshening up the smell of your bedspace.


Certainly, if you have the space for it, sunning and airing out a mattress out of doors is a great thing to do. But not everyone has the set-up for that, in which case you can sprinkle a liberal amount of baking soda across your dry mattress and allow it to sit for 15-60 minutes (the longer the better) before vacuuming up. Arm & Hammer also makes scented household deodorizers that can be used on mattresses, furniture, and carpet in the same way as regular old baking soda. Lysol is an odor neutralizer, too.

In the event you were curious, yeah, I’m on a bit of a Lysol kick these days. It’s good stuff! And I’d sort of totally forgotten about it, and then I was reminded of it, and, right, Lysol! Let’s all get really into Lysol—cold and flu season is upon us, so this isn’t a bad time to pick up a can, and hit the doorknobs and light-switch plates with the stuff.


Jolie Kerr is Deadspin’s resident cleaning expert and the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume). Follow her on Twitter, or email her:


Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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