How to clean a vacuum filter — remove blockages and nasty odors

With expert tips on how to clean a vacuum filter, your machine will be running (and smelling) it's best

Vacuum cleaner on white shag rug
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Knowing how to clean a vacuum filter is key if you like to keep your floors crisp and clean. It's a small step but makes a big difference when it comes to your vacuum suction and overall power.

The filter can accumulate all kinds of nasty debris like dust and hair. This will make your vacuum lose power, plus it will start to smell every time you use it. 

Since the best vacuum cleaners come with a variety of filter types, it can leave you confused and unsure of where to start with cleaning the filter. Well, worry no more. Our cleaning experts have broken down the best way to give your vacuum the boost it needs.

How to clean a vacuum filter like a pro

When it comes to cleaning your vacuum, there's only one place to start: the filter. Cleaning the filter regularly and effectively ensures maximum suction and overall performance.

Whether your vacuum uses HEPA, foam, pleated, or synthetic cartridges, we've got you covered. By following our expert tips, you'll have shimmering floors in no time.

Where our pros have suggested products, our expert shoppers have curated highly-rated products and trusted retailers.

How to clean a HEPA filter

Red vacuum on beige rug

(Image credit: Getty Images)

High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters are renowned for their ability to trap microscopic particles, ensuring cleaner air in your home. 

They excel at capturing small particles, making them vital for allergy sufferers and those concerned with air quality. However, they require delicate handling during cleaning to preserve their efficiency.

Cleaning Steps

Firstly, take safety precautions by ensuring the vacuum is turned off and unplugged at the mains. Next, carefully remove the filter according to the instructions and empty the collection bag or canister.

Gently tap the HEPA filter over a trash can to remove loose dust and debris. Then, use a soft brush attachment, or this handy cleaning tool from Amazon, to clean thoroughly, but be careful not to damage the filter material.

Finally, replace the clean filter, or — if the filter still looks clogged up — swap it for a fresh one. 

Top Tip

Though some HEPA filters are sold as "washable," we don't advise washing as it can lead to a lower particle capture rate and therefore poorer performance. However, a few drops of an essential oil in the filter is a lesser-known but effective vacuum cleaning hack.

Angela Rubin, a home cleaning expert at Hellamaid, says, "Avoid using water on HEPA filters as it can damage the filter's integrity and affect performance. However, if you are going to wash your filters, ensure they are completely dry before reinstalling to prevent mold and mildew growth."

Angela Rubin, cleaning expert at HellaMaid
Angela Rubin

Angela Rubin works at Hellamaid, a top-rated cleaning company in Canada. Hellamaid are industry experts specializing in residential and commercial cleaning services. 

How to clean a foam filter

Person vacuuming a rug with cat relaxing in background

(Image credit: Valeriy_G/Getty Images)

Foam filters offer effective filtration while being gentle on surfaces, making them ideal for capturing dirt and debris without causing damage. 

Cleaning Steps

Firstly, ensure the vacuum is turned off, before carefully removing the filter and emptying the collection bag or canister. 

In a sink or bowl, mix two drops of dish soap (we like the classic Dawn dish soap available on Amazon) with lukewarm water. Submerge the filter, gently squeezing it to move the solution through the foam and remove any dirt or debris. (If the water blackens with dirt, mix a fresh solution and repeat.)

Next, rinse the filter under cold water until the water runs clear and no more suds appear. Place the filter on a drying rack to air dry, opening windows for increased ventilation.  

Finally, replace the dried filter in the vacuum. Ensure it is fully dry — this can take up to 24 hours.

Top Tip

For foam filters, pay attention to the water temperature. Angela says, "Avoid using hot water as it can cause the foam to deteriorate. Lukewarm is your ideal temperature."

We recommend the Shark HydroVac Cordless Pro from Target — a vacuum and mop all in one. Using a foam filter, its self-cleaning technology makes it super easy to maintain. 

For Karina Toner, of Spekless Cleaning, one vacuum stands above the rest for filter cleaning —  Amazon's Shark Navigator Lift-Away Professional. She says, "It's my favorite vacuum for ease of filter cleaning. Its lift-away technology allows easy access to the filters, and the washable foam and HEPA filters ensure hassle-free maintenance."

Profile photo of Karina Toner, operations manager at Spekless Cleaning
Karina Toner

Karina Toner is a cleaning expert and the Operations Manager at Washington D.C.-based Spekless Cleaning. 

How to clean pleated filters

Neglecting to clean the filter is one of the most common vacuum mistakes made by homeowners. But pleated paper filters make the process simple and easy. 

Cleaning Steps

To clean, begin by unplugging the vacuum and removing the filter according to the instructions. 

Remove any visible dust or debris with a soft-bristled brush. Gently tap the filter above a trash can or against a rail outside to remove any remaining dust.

Finally, replace the clean filter, or — if tapping and brushing fail to dislodge the dirt — swap in a fresh one. 

Amy Poulton, of Hometalk, says, "An old toothbrush can work a charm to brush away dust and debris caught between the pleats. 

"Remember, though, most pleated filters have a replacement schedule and are considered disposable by manufacturers — so if you're struggling to shake the dirt, it's probably time to swap in a new one."

Top Tip

Pleated paper filters should never be soaked or rinsed in water. 

Profile photo of Hometalk editor Amy Poulton
Amy Poulton

Amy Poulton is editor and home-improvement expert at Hometalk, the world’s largest home DIY community. It has 150,000 tutorial videos on everything from cleaning to decor provide inspiration, and shared expert guidance to more than 21 million members. 

How to clean synthetic cartridges

Black vacuum with silver handle cleaning floor

(Image credit: Virojt Changyencham/Getty Images)

Synthetic cartridges come in various shapes and sizes, offering versatile solutions for effective filtration.

Cleaning Steps

As always, begin by ensuring the vacuum is switched off, before removing the filter carefully, following the manufacturer's instructions. Empty the collection bag or canister.

Working outside or over a trash can, give your synthetic cartridge a good shake to dislodge any loose dirt or debris. You can further aid the process by tapping it gently and using a soft-bristled brush.

Many synthetic cartridges are washable. Simply hold the filter under a stream of cold or lukewarm water, before leaving it to air-dry thoroughly on a drying rack. Replace the filter only when fully dry.

Top Tip

Synthetic cartridges are designed to be used and disposed of. If you’ve cleaned your filter regularly, but you still notice that your vacuum’s performance is not as powerful, we recommend changing the filter.

Regularly cleaning your vacuum filter is essential for maintaining optimal performance and prolonging its lifespan. 

By following the expert advice provided in this guide and using recommended products, you can effectively clean different types of vacuum filters and keep your vacuum running smoothly for years to come. 

Next, check out the most common reasons vacuums smell and what to do if your vacuum loses its suction.

Andy van Terheyden
Freelance Writer

I'm a senior writer with an English degree and NCJ qualification, plus years of experience writing news, lifestyle and consumer articles for the national and international press. I'm also a copywriter, working on a breadth of consumer and corporate projects, and a private education consultant. I live in the quiet of the countryside and spend my weekends mooching around homeware shops, completing DIY tasks to breathe life into my small, newly-built home.