How to Clean Soot from Hard Surfaces and Other Materials
Soot caused by fire can coat hard surfaces and be a pain to remove — especially if something protein-based was burned. While some surfaces may have to be replaced completely during fire restoration, soot can be cleaned in less severe cases.
Here’s everything you need to know about soot removal, including what causes it and how to remove it from hard surfaces and other materials to prevent soot stains and damage.
What Is Soot?
Soot is a powdery black substance made up of amorphous carbon that’s produced by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and organic matter. Commonly, it’s a byproduct of house fires and can be challenging to clean — especially in large amounts or if the soot damage that’s been caused happened some time ago.
Why Is Soot Difficult to Clean?
Soot is made up of microscopic particles that easily settle into the tiniest nooks, crannies and pores of surfaces. This can create a stubborn coating of fine black powder. Further, oily soot is sticky by nature. If you try to use a water-dampened rag to wipe the residue away it can smear and become even more frustrating to remove.
Identifying the Source of Soot
Prior to cleaning soot, it’s important to identify how old the fire damage is. If the soot deposit is only a few days old, you will usually be able to clean and restore hard surfaces relatively easily. However, soot is corrosive and acidic by nature. The quicker you can remove it, the less long-term damage and staining you risk.
The type of items that were burned can also influence how well soot can be cleaned from surfaces. For example:
- Natural substance residues resulting from burned wood or paper are the easiest to clean.
- Plastic or synthetic soot residues resulting from burned oil-based material such as carpet, upholstery, window treatments and electronics are moderately difficult to clean.
- Protein residues are usually the result of burnt meat, fish, beans and other organic, protein-rich materials and are usually the most difficult to clean.
While housefires are the most devastating and hard-to-clean causes of soot, there are a few other less severe origins that can produce stubborn stains and soot buildup over time. Excessive use of candles and cooking oil, for example, can stain walls and kitchen vent hoods. In these cases, minor residues should be cleaned regularly to keep them from leaving a tough soot mark.
Is Soot Harmful to Inhale?
Prolonged soot exposure and inhaling soot particles can be harmful to health. Breathing in soot can contribute to coronary heart disease, respiratory issues, such as asthma, and even cancer.
It's important to always use the proper protection and take all necessary precautions when cleaning soot. Safety gear that you should consider wearing when cleaning soot may include:
- Eyewear, such as goggles
- Protective clothing or coveralls
- Respirator or facemask
Due to the health hazard posed by soot, the experts at Jon-Don recommend having severely soot-damaged surfaces and structures cleaned by a trained professional.
Soot Cleaning Tips
Because soot particles can become airborne when disturbed, it’s important to take the necessary precautions to protect other surfaces in the home — especially in severe cases.
- Remove furniture. Extensive smoke damage, especially on walls, can cause soot to settle on any nearby surface. Before cleaning, remove any furniture and cover carpets with protective plastic to prevent further damage.
- Ventilate the space before and during cleaning. Given the toxic nature of soot particles, it’s always a good idea to properly ventilate the space in addition to wearing the right safety gear to reduce the risk of inhalation.
How to Clean Soot from Countertops, Flooring, and Walls
The following instructions are for soot removal from surfaces that can safely be cleaned with water, including countertops, flooring, and walls. Surfaces that have extensive soot staining and are easily damaged by water, such as dry-clean-only fabrics, wood, or electronics, will almost always need to be replaced as they may prove too difficult to clean effectively. Formica, some plastics, and ceiling tiles can also be difficult to restore, so use your best judgment when cleaning.
The following directions apply to surfaces such as concrete floors, brick walls, and drywall that have been painted or wallpapered.
- Use a vacuum with a brush attachment to remove as much dry soot residue as possible.
- Use a dry cleaning or soot sponge and/or Absorene Wall Cleaner to gently wipe away excess soot.
- Note: Depending on the severity of the soot damage,this step alone may remove most of the soot on the surface. However, if there is any soot remaining, continue with step 3.
- Wet-clean the surface using one of the options below. You may spray the product directly onto the surface or sponge it onto the affected areas.
- Note: When sponging, be sure to use a gentle downward motion. Scrubbing can cause the soot to work its way into the surface, leaving a stain and odor that’s harder to get rid of.
Option 1: Unsmoke Degrease-All diluted at 14–43 oz per gallon of water.
Option 2: Benefect Botanical Atomic Degreaser diluted at 2-4 oz per gallon for light soot cleaning or 16 oz to full strength per gallon of water for heavy/slimy soot.
Soot removal from wood surfaces requires more specialized procedures and products, so be sure to check out our tech tip or call a Jon-Don restoration specialist for advice.
How to Clean Soot From Clothes
Removing soot stains from clothing is a fairly straightforward process, however, it’s vital to be mindful of a few tips that will reduce the chances of permanent blemishes.
- Using a soft-bristled brush, wipe (don’t scrub) away any loose soot particles from the clothing.
- Clean the affected items in the washing machine using as hot of water as recommended by the clothing label.
- Note: If a soot stain remains after one wash, repeat step 2, making sure not to let the clothes completely dry between cycles.
- Once the stain is visibly gone, let the clothing air dry.
If the soot stain is significant, a pre-treat may be necessary. In that case, add a pre-treatment laundry detergent to a bucket of warm water and let the clothes soak overnight. Afterward, launder clothing as outlined in the steps above.
How to Reduce Candle Soot
The soot caused by housefires is not preventable, however, the more moderate sources of soot particles, like candles, can be controlled to an extent. When burning candles, follow these tips to reduce the chance of soot accumulating on walls or ceilings:
- Don’t light candles in areas with a lot of drafts. Lighting candles near windows, doors, or air vents can cause the flame to bounce around and use an inconsistent amount of fuel from the wax. When it burns too much oil, the extra particles become soot, which is what sticks to the walls and ceilings.
- Trim wicks regularly. Untrimmed wicks produce more soot. As a precaution, it’s best to trim wicks before lighting a candle. If burning a candle for an extended period of time, it should be trimmed throughout. Simply blow it out, trim and re-light.
- Buy high-quality candles. The more additives that are in candle wax, the more soot they will create when burned. Opt for high-quality options with fewer additives to reduce the amount of soot that they produce.
The Best Products for Removing Soot
In addition to leaving behind a stain, soot can also create an unpleasant odor. A combination of the right professional cleaning and odor removal techniques can help to get rid of soot for good.
- Dry Cleaning Soot Sponge
- Absorene Wall Cleaner
- Unsmoke Degrease‑All Degreaser
- Benefect Botanical Atomic Degreaser
Training Opportunities for Fire Damage Restoration
Interested in learning more about fire and smoke damage cleanup? Consider attending an upcoming IICRC Fire and Smoke Restoration Technician (FSRT) Seminar at Jon-Don.
In this hands-on, two-day class, you will learn:
- How different substances can influence the difficulty of the cleanup (organic vs. inorganic burned materials)
- Insurance coverages and working with adjusters
- Contents cleaning, including wood furniture, documents, books, and electronics
- Jobsite safety protocols
- Surface preparation and finishing
- This course is required to earn a Master Fire and Smoke Restorer designation
For upcoming classes and more information, visit the course page.