How to Remove Popcorn Ceiling (or at least make it look better)

Removing popcorn ceiling isn't just a matter of annoying scraping and sanding. It requires special care due to the possibility of contamination with asbestos.

The avatar of Rachel Polant

Rachel Polant

Apr 18

Getting rid of your old textured popcorn ceiling can be a DIY pain

It goes by many names — cottage cheese, acoustic, stucco — but it’s most commonly known as popcorn ceiling. The sprayed on textured ceiling material was a very popular look during the height of the cold war era. Mainly, because it was a fast and inexpensive way to cover imperfections in the ceiling, offered fireproofing, and acoustical benefits. Also, some people just honestly liked it and who am I to judge?

But, for the majority of us who would prefer not to have that dated look in our homes, it can be removed. But, caution must be used. Removing popcorn ceiling isn’t just a matter of annoying scraping and sanding. It requires special care due to the possibility of contamination with asbestos.

Asbestos and the popcorn ceiling connection

Asbestos was a popular additive to building materials until it was discovered to cause asbestosis, which is a deadly lung disease. It was banned from production by the Clean Air Act in 1978 but was allowed to remain in use into the 80s because manufacturers were given permission to use up their current stock. So, unfortunately, there’s a good chance, although, not a given, your popcorn ceiling may have been made with some asbestos.

If you want to tackle popcorn ceiling removal, you need to take quite a few precautions before you start the actual process of scrapping and sanding. The first step you should take is to have a sample tested in a lab to know whether or not you’re dealing with a potentially dangerous material.

The amount of asbestos in old cottage cheese ceilings range from 1% to 10%. Exposure at any amount should be avoided, but the higher the concentration the more dangerous.

Asbestos is inert when it’s undisturbed and poses no risk to a person’s health. It’s only when it becomes friable (crumbly) that it becomes a problem. Unfortunately, to test your popcorn ceiling, you need to scrape some off.

*This guide is in no way intended to substitute the expert advice or work of a professional asbestos abatement specialist. Check with your state and local laws regarding asbestos removal and disposal. There is always a risk to your health when dealing with asbestos no matter how many precautions you take; therefore, hiring a licensed asbestos abatement contractor is recommended.

How to test for asbestos in your popcorn ceiling

You can purchase a kit at a hardware store to be sent to a lab after you procure a ceiling sample. Or, you can hire a professional to do the test for you.

It’s not difficult to perform the test yourself, but you do need to take some precautions. To collect a sample, you’ll need the following

  • Protective eyewear
  • Face mask
  • Disposable Tyvek suit
  • Paint scraper
  • Spray bottle
  • Dish soap
  • Tarp
  • Plastic baggy

Mix one teaspoon of dish soap with water in the spray bottle and then suit up. After you’ve laid the drop cloth and are fully protected, saturate three to four spots with the soapy water. After it has soaked in a bit, get your scraper and chisel off a one square inch section of popcorn ceiling from each of the three or four areas into a sealable baggy. Send these samples to an approved lab with around $20-$30 and wait about two weeks for the results.

If your ceiling samples are negative for asbestos, you are in the clear and can scrape and sand away with no worries to your health. However, if the test is positive, you’ll need to suit up and take other protective measures for popcorn ceiling removal.

Why is asbestos dangerous to your health?

While, 1% asbestos and a one-time exposure seems like a minuscule risk, health officials can’t say what a safe amount of exposure is. Asbestos fibers are thinner than a human hair and cause extreme irritation and scaring to the lungs; which in turn, over time, causes COPD or lung cancer.

Because the particles are invisible to the human eye, you have no way of knowing if and how much you are inhaling. Are you going to drop dead from one exposure to asbestos? No, you’re not, thankfully. But, asbestos fibers linger for an indeterminant time, so for your safety and the long-term safety of your family, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

What you’ll need to safely remove popcorn ceiling from your home

I’m going to lay out the popcorn ceiling removal as if it contains asbestos because a lot of the steps still apply simply due to the mess it causes.

  1. First, cover everything in the room. In fact, if you can move it out of the room you’re working in, that’s even better.
  2. Tape up a disposable drop cloth on the walls using painters tape.
  3. Turn off the electrical power to the room.
  4. Remove all fixtures in the room as well the light bulbs from recessed lighting.
  5. Stuff the empty recessed lighting with newspaper or some other wadded up paper to protect the socket from water damage.
  6. Tape up electrical outlets to prevent water from damaging the wiring.
  7. Cover vents and registers so dust from the ceiling can’t make its way into other rooms. Turn off your home’s heating and cooling system.
  8. Tarp the floor with a double layer because the room gets very damp from the water constantly being sprayed on the ceiling. Also, you can remove the top layer while still having a barrier of protection over the flooring. Some people find that brown butchers paper works best because it does not slide around as plastic does.
  9. Mix dish soap with water at 1/2 cup to 2 1/2 gallons of water, which works as a solvent and keeps the dust particles to a minimum. Use a multi-use sprayer to distribute the solution. Let it set for 15 minutes before you begin scrapping.
  10. Use a scraper on the end of a painters pole so you don’t have to 1) constantly climb up and down a ladder and 2) don’t have popcorn ceiling failing directly in your face. You’ll still get some ceiling material on you, but you won’t be directly in its path the entire time.
  11. Have at it. Happy Popcorn Ceiling Removal!

Be prepared for hard work and a big mess during the removal process

Some people tape the scraper to a wet/dry vac to suck up the mess. This may be too cumbersome to manipulate comfortably, so affixing a garbage bag beneath the head of the scraper is probably an easier way to catch the mess. Of course, you can always just let the debris land on the trap to be cleaned up later.

Once you have removed the popcorn ceiling, you will need to sand the area until it’s smooth as well as patch any imperfections in the ceiling before it can be painted. The average cost of popcorn ceiling removal ranges from $1-$3 a square foot.

Dispose of the waste in well-sealed and labeled bags to an approved facility that can process hazardous waste.

Potential issues with removing a popcorn ceiling

Speaking of being painted, if your popcorn ceiling has been encapsulated under a layer of paint, it’s going to make removal much more difficult because you’ll need to sand or strip the paint to scrape the textured ceiling away.

If you do decide to move forward with your ceiling project despite the extra hurdle and hassle, use a paint stripper meant for ceilings as it is a thicker gel and less likely to drip.

After you’ve successfully removed the layer of paint encapsulating the popcorn ceiling, proceed as you would normally.

A big word of caution about a painted popcorn ceiling that contains asbestos: asbestos fibers remain in your home indefinitely and removing painted popcorn ceiling that contains asbestos is especially dangerous. At this point, I highly recommend you ditch the DIY and hire an asbestos abatement company to deal with the situation.

Alternatives to removing popcorn ceiling

Because there are often strict laws on how one may dispose of asbestos materials and, not to mention, how time-consuming, messy, and difficult all of the suiting up, taping, tarping, and scraping is, many homeowners choose to encapsulate the ceiling instead.

Most popular methods of covering your popcorn ceiling

Of the three common ways you can completely change the look of a textured ceiling, two do not require removal, but instead, aim to hide the popcorn ceiling. Both skim coating and drywalling are as labor intensive as the scraping process, but they have their benefits.

First, you don’t have to worry about the asbestos becoming friable and causing health issues. You basically make a shield between you and the popcorn ceiling. Secondly, you’re not going to have as big a mess. Will you still be making a mess? Well, yes. Just not a massive one.

Skim coating your ceiling

Skim coating is the act of mudding drywall to make it smooth. And, it’s very difficult to get right. Many a DIYer has tried and failed. Or, only succeeded after days of doing and redoing until it’s right.

It costs about $550 a room if all goes well. But, if you keep messing up, you’ll be paying more in materials to fix your mistakes. It’s a great, fairly quick solution to changing up the look of your ceiling. It can be messy too. Just not as messy. Plus, the mud dries fast — as in under an hour. So, you can do the several needed coats fairly quickly.

Covering your ceiling with drywall

Hanging drywall or ceiling panels over your popcorn ceiling gives your room a completely updated look. It’s relatively inexpensive, but it can be labor intensive. Without a drywall lift, you might find it impossible to lift unwieldy large sheets above your head and affix them to your ceiling. You’ll also need to tape the joints and finish with at least three coats of drywall compound.

The drywall needs to fasten into the ceiling joists. The drywall is fairly heavy, so if your joists are weak, you may run into structural stability issue.

Generally, you shouldn’t have a problem, and with the right knowledge and skill, should find this a fairly quick and cost-effective project with the average price per square foot being about $1.50.

Painting over the popcorn ceiling

Painting is the path of least resistance when it comes to giving your dreary, old ceiling a bit of new life. It won’t get rid of the textured look, but it will make the room a bit brighter. Plus, you won’t have to worry about the popcorn ceiling crumbling if it gets scratched or dinged.

The best way to evenly and quickly coat a popcorn ceiling with paint is to use an airless sprayer. You will need to use more paint overall to do this to account for over-spray, which is also why you’ll need to tarp everything in the room to oblivion. But, you eliminate the risk of peeling off the popcorn ceiling.

Before you start painting, thoroughly and carefully dust the ceiling to remove the cobwebs that popcorn ceiling tend to collect.

If you do use rollers to paint, pick one that is 3/4 inch rap roller with the handle screwed into an extension pole. You’ll need to do at least two coats, and be sure not to roll back and forth. Paint in one direction only or else you risk peeling off the textured ceiling. Allow the paint to dry before you start the second coat, and this time work your roller perpendicularly to the first coat.

Be prepared to use plenty of paint

Popcorn ceiling is a thirsty material, so do not be surprised if you need to do more than two coats. Also, if there are discolored patched, you’ll need to prime those areas before you paint.

Keep in mind that a gallon of paint covers 400 square feet. It’s a good idea to measure and plan ahead generously with the amount of paint you need. You won’t want to run out to the hardware store once you’re halfway through and covered in paint with the messy project. Expect to shell out $150-$300 to paint an average size room.

If DIY textured ceiling removal isn’t for you

So, for all of you who think that cottage cheese belongs on your plate and not on your ceilings, don’t despair. You’re not stuck with it.

It is a lot of work, though. And, not just in manpower, but also skill. If you don’t want to suffer the mess, labor, and possible danger, it’s best to hire a contractor who is familiar with asbestos removal.

Let help you find the pros you need for your room renovation needs. Get your free quote today when you click on the link below.


The avatar of Rachel Polant

Rachel Polant

Apr 18