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Why Do Carpet Stains Come Back After Steam Cleaning?

Carpet wicking problems. After your carpets have been cleaned there is a chance that some spots can return.  This can happen even after a professional cleaning!  The most common cause of spots returning is called “wicking.”

What is Wicking?

Similar to a candle wick, when fabric is left in liquid, the liquid travels up the fabric to the top. When fabrics absorb colored liquids, like stains, the top of the fabric eventually absorbs the stains and shows the color. There’s a science experiment kids will do in elementary school where they put celery into a cup of water with food coloring.  The color travels up the celery.  This is the same process.  As cool as it is to watch in a science experiment, it is not what we want happening with stains in our carpets.

a kids science experiment of celery wicking color through the stalks
carpet fibers showing an example of how stains wick back through to the surface

How do carpets wick stains?

When the stain has settled deep into the padding below your carpet, wicking may occur.  When the stain is that deep, even after the carpet is completely cleaned, the fibers of the carpet will act like a candle wick. The stain will wick back from the padding and bring it back to the surface of the carpet, making the stain seem to reappear.


Stains that wick back are usually stains that have been created by a large amount of liquid that is not or has not been quickly or fully removed. Without quick removal, they soak into the backside and/or the padding below the carpet.

Common stains that can cause wicking include pet urine stains. Pet urine usually creates a higher amount of liquid concentrated in one spot and is not always immediately found.  Most of the time, when you try to clean these types of stains yourself, you are actually making the wicking problem worse.  Most people will add more liquid in the form of cleaners in an attempt to spot clean.  Adding these cleaners allows more of the original stain to soak through the carpet. This can even cause the original stain to spread and appear larger.

How to prevent and clean a wicking stain:

When it happens, the best thing to do is to remove as much liquid as possible. Do this using towels to blot up the stain and fans. Be careful and sparing when using a liquid carpet cleaner since they can actually make the problem worse. A wet-dry vacuum or shop vac can help remove larger amounts of liquid.  Other than wicking, many stains could come back due to residue left from household carpet cleaners.  It’s ok to use those types of cleaners to spot clean. Just be sure to remove as much of the cleaner as you can once you have completed spot treating.  Cleaners left behind in carpets can actually attract more dirt and make stains reappear or look worse.

A carpet extractor extracting a stubborn stain from carpet

Call Master Clean Carpet and Tile Cleaning

The only real solution is to have the spot professionally cleaned. The professionals at Master Clean can help to extract the stain.  Extracting the stain helps remove it so that it does not come back.  Keep in mind, with the worst of stains, a single cleaning, even from the best carpet cleaning professionals, might not be enough to fully remove the stain.  Sometimes we might even have to make two or more trips out treat your carpets to fully remove the problem stain.

If you do have problem stains and have us out to clean them and work on them. Just remember to let us know as quickly as you can if you notice a stain that comes back.  We will return as much as it takes to keep those problem wicking stains gone!