The textured popcorn ceilings common in mid-century homes have a lot of benefits, which is how they became so popular. They’re fire-resistant, insulate well against heat transfer and sound, and last for decades with little maintenance.
There’s one big problem with them, though. Most older textured ceilings were made with a mineral called vermiculite, which often contains harmful asbestos. If your home has a vermiculite ceiling, it’s important to know how to care for it safely.
How Vermiculite Ceilings are Made
A vermiculite ceiling is made by spraying a textured finish onto the ceiling after construction. Although this finish was used between the 1950s and the early 1980s, it rose to the height of its popularity in the 1970s. At the time, there were good reasons for its widespread use.
The vermiculite it contains is a great insulator and doesn’t burn. The finish’s bumpy texture was also a cheap and easy way to hide imperfections in the ceiling.
What wasn’t known then, though, is that vermiculite is often contaminated with a cancer-causing substance known as asbestos. Thanks to mounting evidence of the health damage asbestos causes, spray-on asbestos ceiling products were finally banned with the Clean Air Act amendments of 1978.
So if your popcorn ceiling was installed before 1979, there’s a good chance it contains asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. Because existing stocks of spray-on material were exempt from the ban, it’s also possible a ceiling installed any time in the 1980s could contain asbestos.
Modern popcorn and other textured ceilings installed after this time are made with Styrofoam, cardboard or another harmless material.
Health Risks Overhead
Pure vermiculite is perfectly harmless, but this mineral is often mined from areas where it picked up asbestos. Asbestos is a natural, fibrous material that releases microscopic fibers into the air. When you breath anywhere around unsealed asbestos, those fibers can find their way into your lungs, causing damage and eventually cancer.
Textured vermiculite ceilings are highly friable and easily damaged, so they’re more likely to release any asbestos they might contain than, for example, asbestos floor tiles. An even bigger risk comes when the ceiling starts to deteriorate, or you remove it for remodeling.
Keeping it Clean
The texture of a vermiculite ceiling makes it prone to collecting dust and cobwebs. This ceiling finish crumbles easily and doesn’t stand up to water, though, so cleaning it requires a delicate touch.
More importantly, even minor crumbling can release asbestos. Before you clean, it’s a good idea to have an asbestos test done by a professional. The asbestos testing service you choose should come to your home to take a sample of the ceiling. Doing this yourself could be dangerous to your health.
If your ceiling tests negative for asbestos, it’s safe to clean it yourself. Before you start work, cover you floor and furniture to keep off any dust and debris that gets knocked down. To get your ceiling clean, the simplest method is to use your vacuum with the brush attachment and gently vacuum the ceiling.
Alternatively, use a thick-napped paint roller or a paint roller wrapped in heavy tape with the sticky side out. Run this gently over the surface of the ceiling.
Stains are more stubborn and usually require some type of cleaning solution to remove. For cooking grease and cigarette smoke stains, a solution of 1 tbsp. vinegar or dish soap in 1qt. water is enough. To clean up mold spots and yellow water stains, use a solution of 1 tsp. bleach in 1 qt. water.
First patch test the solution on an inconspicuous part of the ceiling to make sure liquid won’t damage it. If the solution doesn’t cause damage, dip a cloth into the solution, wring it mostly dry, and carefully dab the stains away.
If the stains won’t come off this way, don’t scrub harder or you’ll damage the ceiling. If you want a spotlessly clean ceiling, consider repainting or removing the ceiling.
Upgrading and Remodeling
As if harboring a potential health hazard weren’t bad enough, a vermiculite ceiling can also make your home look dated. If you’re tired of your grey, old popcorn ceiling, there are three main ways to update it.
Risk of asbestos exposure is even greater during remodeling than cleaning, so professional testing is critical. If your ceiling contains asbestos, leave any work up to a professional trained in handling asbestos. These specialists can upgrade the ceiling without spreading asbestos around your house. If the ceiling is asbestos free, you might be able to do the work yourself.
Paint the ceiling – Painting the ceiling smooths out the surface and gives it a more contemporary look, but the job is far from easy. It takes more time and paint than painting an ordinary ceiling. Using a paint specially formulated to cover up dirty, old popcorn ceilings will make the work easier. Just keep in mind that painting a vermiculite ceiling makes it harder to remove later.
Install a false ceiling – By covering your vermiculite ceiling with a false plasterboard ceiling, you’ll get a smooth surface that’s easy to paint. You’ll also have a lot of options for modern 3D designs and recessed lighting. On the downside, a false ceiling reduces the height of a low ceiling even further.
Remove the vermiculite finish – Because a vermiculite ceiling is just a sprayed on coating, it’s fairly easy to remove. Get the finish off, and you can repaint the ceiling to your tastes.
You can remove an asbestos-free vermiculite ceiling with a solution of half water and half vinegar. Use a cloth to apply enough of the solution to soak the ceiling, then scrape the soaked finish off.
To protect your lungs from dust, wear an N95 dust mask while you work. If asbestos is involved, though, leave the job to a licensed asbestos removal contractor only.
Vermiculite ceilings have a lot to offer, and as long as yours doesn’t contain asbestos, it poses no danger to your health. You can keep it clean with an annual light vacuuming or a sweep with a paint roller.
If your ceiling is showing signs of deterioration or you’re just tired of the look, have a professional test it for asbestos before you touch it. If it tests positive, consider having it removed or at least covered for your family’s safety.