3 Common Ceiling Stains & Their Causes (With Removal Tips)

Ceiling Stains

The other day I saw something on Amazon that hit me with instant nostalgia! I just had to have it immediately. But that got me thinking, with something drawing that much attention to my ceiling, it will be that much easier for guests to spot stains on my ceiling (if I had any).

For those of you who wish to see what took me back to my childhood days, here’s a link to Amazon. Otherwise, continue reading below…

Ceiling stains can draw eyes away from even the most beautiful living room, dining or kitchen. It’s pretty hard to miss a ceiling stain, especially since most ceilings are white, so there’s this big, yellow or brown disgusting looking patch somewhere on that white canvas.

It is important to know what caused your ceiling stain so that you can make the necessary adjustments to ensure your ceilings do not stain again a few months after you have repainted.

These are the 3 most common types of ceiling stains:

  1. Water Stains
  2. Mold Stains
  3. Smoke Stains

1. Water Stains

Water stains are probably the most common types of ceiling stains and man are they UGLY! These stains are very easy to identify by their unique characteristics.

How to Identify

A water stain will form a dark yellowish color on your ceiling, in the shape of a slightly deformed halo. This yellowish color will soon turn into an ugly brown color, and in fact, it may even start off as brown in color right at the beginning.

If you’re not familiar with the halo looking shape I’m talking about, just think back to when you were a kid and you put a wet glass on a wooden table. Hours would go by and suddenly your mom will shout at you for leaving your glass on that table to form that notorious water ring mark.

That’s exactly what a water stain will look like on your ceiling, except it won’t be a perfect round circle and it will be a much uglier looking color.

Water Ceiling Stain
Here you can see a water stain on a timber ceiling.

Ever wondered why water stains are that ugly brown color? I certainly have. I mean, water is not brown, the ceilings are usually not brown, so what gives? Well, I learned something interesting from some research that I want to quickly share with you.

All paints have an additive called “Surfactant”. I didn’t even know this was a word before I started googling why water stains are brown. I’m not going to go into all the scientific stuff.

The surfactant simply stabilizes the paint and also helps the new paint adhere and stick to existing paint. This surfactant additive is brown in color and has an oily texture. EVERY can of paint that you buy will have this additive in it.

You and I would never have known there was this surfactant additive in the paint simply because it does what it needs to do and then cures itself when the paint has dried.

Now, when water sits on a certain spot for a significant amount of time, it will reactivate this surfactant additive which in turn will dissolve and eat through the paint. And THAT’s the ugly brown color that you see!

The Causes

It’s pretty obvious what would have caused a WATER stain, and in fact, most ceiling stains are self-explanatory. But I do want to point you in the right direction so that you know exactly what to look for and fix to prevent water stains from happening again.

Roof leaks are the main cause of water stains on the ceiling. To identify a roof leak you should look for the obvious factors like missing or damaged shingles/roof tiles, torn flashings or loose screws on the exterior of the roof.

Once you identify the leak, have someone fix it before you intend to remove the water stains (so that the stains do not return). If you feel you can tackle the job, go ahead as you will save a ton of money by getting your hands a little dirty.

Sometimes though, a roof leak can be tricky to find. If you are confident that there is a roof leak but you can’t find it then you could probably just call a specialist (or even a handyman) to do their thing. I did come across this helpful article that has some cool tips on how to find a roof leak if you feel that you want to do it yourself.

Another potential cause for a roof leak, although less likely, is a hot water geyser leak. This will obviously only be a possibility if your geyser is located above the ceiling/in an attic. To fix this problem, you will most likely need a specialist. You may have to replace the geyser if there is no way to fix the problem.

2. Mold Stains

This has got to be the most disgusting type of ceiling stain if you ask me. Technically, it’s not a stain but rather a growth. Mold is pretty easy to spot on your ceiling and there are a few causes of mold growth on your ceiling.

How to Identify

Mold Ceiling Stain
An up-close photo of mold on a ceiling

I think everybody knows what mold looks like. I’m sure we all at some point in our lives, forgot about a sandwich. And when you find that sandwich, your sudden excitement is killed within a split-second when you see that nasty mold that started a family of its own, on your sandwich.

Mold is usually green or black in color and can be found in many different forms and patterns. The growth pattern of mold depends mostly on what caused the mold, but more on that below.

The Causes

There are a few possible causes of mold stains. These include roof leaks, high humidity, moisture and lack of ventilation.

I wrote a more detailed article covering the common causes of ceiling mold (with solutions). You can check it out here.

3. Smoke Stains

A smoke-stained ceiling sounds all cool and stuff, and was probably misinterpreted as a legit style in the 70s, but times have certainly changed and I can attest to that! Maybe I should start saying “nicotine-stained ceiling” and “tar-stained ceiling”, that way you will get the same feeling of nausea when you hear it and when you see it – you’re welcome!

How to Identify

Ceiling Smoke Stain
This photo was taken at an airport’s smoking lounge. At one point, those 2 different colored ceilings were both white.

If you are a smoker and you puff in your room, you will absolutely notice the staining on your ceiling and upper walls. But if you’re a non-smoker moving into a new home for example, how would you know that the stains you’re looking at are nicotine stains? It’s really not that important, to be honest, but I’ll tell you anyway…

Nicotine and tar stains are brown in color. Unlike other stains, they tend to be more consistent and uniform, like a thick layer of brown dust, spread evenly across the ceiling.

The same type of stain will also be present from about 3/4 of the way up interior walls, and all the way up to the ceiling. And when the air freshener smell finally fades away (hopefully someone sprayed air freshener!), then you will most likely get that stale, ashy smell in the air.

The Causes

Again, very obvious but nicotine and tar stains are primarily caused by cigarettes. They can also be caused by old-school pipes (the type Popeye always had in his mouth) and cigars.

Another interesting thing I learned and thought I’d share – If someone smokes one pack of cigarettes a day, the nicotine stains can take anywhere between 1.5 to 2 years to fully develop on ceilings and walls.

How to Remove Ceiling Stains

Remove Water Ceiling Stains

Most people tend to assume that water stains will simply disappear just by painting over the stain. I have some bad news if you were thinking of doing the same. No matter how many times you paint over that stain, it will just keep coming back again and again after a few days or weeks. This is called “bleeding”.

The only way to stop the stain from bleeding-through is to use a “stain blocking” primer FIRST. This is a primer that will block the stain from bleeding through the new paint.

In fact, most (if not all) of these stain blocking primers come in white, so if your stain is on the smaller side then there may not even be a need for you to repaint over the stain (if your ceiling is white of course!).

If you need a good stain blocking primer then I’ve got you covered. This is a pretty good stain blocking primer (link to Amazon). The reason I like this one is that it comes in a convenient spray bottle. Just spray over the stain and let it dry. Once it has dried, spray again if needed (if you’re not fully satisfied that the stain is covered).

Be sure to spray diagonally from you or wear goggles as sometimes the primer can drip from the ceiling and you wouldn’t want it to fall in or around your eyes. However, if you spray nice and evenly across the stain then the primer WILL NOT drip (it will only drip if you spray way too much!).

If the stain blocking primer matches your ceiling color then good on ya! If it doesn’t (or if you’re just too pedantic), you will need to repaint your ceiling – yippee.

Remove Mold Ceiling Stains

To remove the mold stains from your ceiling, check out this article that will guide you through the process of easily cleaning moldy ceiling stains.

Remove Smoke Ceiling Stains

Here I will cut the crap and everything that goes with it. There are no shortcuts when it comes to removing smoke stains caused by cigarettes or other nicotine-based products. This is just good old-fashioned hard work and elbow grease.

I have read a few short posts claiming that you can use a mixture of water and vinegar or sugar soap but they prove NOT to work. The only efficient method is to put in the hard work with some sponges and cleaning solution. Simply apply the solution to the stain and start scrubbing with your sponges until the stain is gone. It’s that simple.

If the solution you intend to use does not come packaged in a spray bottle, then you can simply pour the solution into a spray bottle of your own. I find it much more convenient to spray directly onto a stain instead of having to control the amount of solution to pour onto a sponge.

Some cleaning solutions may not work as great as others do. Fortunately, I know that Simply Green works great for nicotine stains (and almost all other stains around the home). Some Simply Green combined with magic sponges will get the job done every time.

You can find Simply Green over here at Amazon. You will also need about 5-10 magic sponges (link to Amazon) to go with it.


Photo of author

Barry Gray

Hi, I’m Barry. I’ve loved woodworking and bringing things back to life for more years than I care to remember. I hope my passion for tools comes across loud and clear in everything you read here on The Tool Square.