How to Remove a Popcorn Ceiling

Asbestos in popcorn ceilings can be a health hazard

Worker painting over popcorn texture on a wall
••• © Big Stock Photo

You've looked at hundreds of homes, and you've finally found the one. It's within your budget, and it's located in a good school district. Everything is perfect...except for one thing. It has popcorn ceilings, and they might have asbestos problems. Many people find them to be just plain ugly as well.

What Is a Popcorn Ceiling?

Sometimes called acoustic or textured ceilings, they resemble cottage cheese. You'll essentially have bumpy stuff stuck to your ceiling. Some have 1970-era sparkles embedded in them.

Many homes built in the late 1930s through the 1990s have popcorn ceilings or some type of texture applied overhead.

Homeowners might install popcorn because they don't want to finish the ceiling or they couldn't otherwise conceal its imperfections.

Option #1—Test for Asbestos

Not all popcorn ceilings contain asbestos. Its use in textured paint was banned in 1977, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, so yours might not contain the substance if your home was constructed later than that.

Otherwise, asbestos fibers can cause lung disease, scarring of the lungs, and lung cancer when inhaled in large quantities. But asbestos isn't dangerous if it's undisturbed or contained.

You might not want to run the risk in your home all the same. You can't tell if a surface contains asbestos unless you test it. It's not visible to the naked eye. You'll have to obtain a sample of the ceiling and send it to a laboratory that specializes in identifying asbestos.

You can hire a professional to do the job—to both take the sample and arrange for testing—if you don't want to risk coming in contact with asbestos.

Wear a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) mask for protection, and use plastic gloves to avoid contact with the surface.

Fill a spray bottle with a teaspoon of soap and 16 ounces of water, and spray a small area to dampen the surface. Use a sharp razorblade or knife to cut out a sample, and seal it in an airtight container. Mail it to the lab and wait for the results.

Option #2—Just Get Rid of the Popcorn

You can leave the popcorn in place and try to camouflage it by painting it, or you can remove it. It's not prohibitively expensive to remove, so you might want to simply get rid of the ceiling if everything else about the property really is perfect,

Workers might scrape away the mess to reveal beautiful plaster perfectly intact underneath. But a popcorn ceiling more commonly covers up a bad drywall and mudding job. Mudding—applying joint compound—is an art, and not every contractor or homeowner is an artist.

© The Balance, 2018
  • Pros recommend that you wear a respiratory mask. Don't expose body parts to the texture in the ceiling. Wear a long shirt and pants. Cover your feet, your hands, and your head, because the particles will fall on you no matter how careful you are.
  • Relocate your pets to another room. Pets—especially cats—can end up stepping in dust and particles and tracking it all over the house.
  • Cover the flooring. You could slip and lose your footing if you use plastic sheeting. Large brown rolls of packing paper are better. Toss drop cloths down and cover those with brown paper. You can roll it up to discard it when the mess falls on the paper.
  • Use a garden hose set to a mist option to dampen the ceiling. Work in small areas at a time.
  • Use a push pole with a blade to scrape the ceiling. This is easier from the floor than walking up and down a ladder to scrape by hand. Don't stand directly under falling plaster.
  • Fill gouges or holes with joint compound after the ceiling dries. Let it dry, then sand. It might require several coats of joint compound to achieve a smooth finish.

You can hire a drywall expert to finish the last coat of mud if you're unsure of your abilities to finish the ceiling.

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.