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 a lot of homes, and finally found the one for you. It's within your budget, located in a good school district, and has a community with everything you could need. You may find, however, that the house having popcorn ceilings is a problem for you. Sometimes called acoustic or textured ceilings, popcorn ceilings resemble cottage cheese because of the treatment that is either sprayed or painted on that leaves a bumpy look. 

Homeowners might install popcorn ceilings because they don't want to finish the ceiling, or they couldn't otherwise conceal its imperfections. Some people may dislike them because of the potential asbestos problems, while some find them visually unappealing. If you find yourself wanting to remove the asbestos, follow the steps outlined in this article.

Key Takeaways

  • You can scrape away a popcorn ceiling by dampening it and using a blade attached to a push pole, but you may have to repair the plaster underneath.
  • If removing the popcorn ceiling is too much work, you may be able to camouflage it by painting over it.
  • Those with homes built before 1977 need to approach popcorn ceilings carefully—textured paint used before that year may contain asbestos.

Removing the Popcorn Ceiling

You can leave the popcorn ceiling 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 is perfect to you. 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 and applying a joint compound is an art, and not every contractor or homeowner is capable of doing a great job. Here are steps to safely dealing with popcorn ceilings:

© The Balance, 2018
  • Wear protective clothing: Pros recommend that you wear a respirator mask and don't expose body parts to the texture in the ceiling. Wear a long shirt and pants, cover your feet, hands, and 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.
  • Dampen the ceiling: Use a garden hose set to a mist option, and work in small areas at a time.
  • Scrape the ceiling: Use a push pole with a blade to do this. It 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: This can be done 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.

Testing for Asbestos

Not all popcorn ceilings contain asbestos. Its use in textured paint was banned in 1977 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, so yours might not contain the substance if your home was constructed later than that. If it was built before 1977, take caution; asbestos fibers can cause lung disease, scarring of the lungs, and lung cancer when inhaled in large quantities. Asbestos isn't dangerous if it's undisturbed or contained, however.  

You might not want to run the risk in your home at all. You can't tell if a surface contains asbestos unless you test it because 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 take the sample and arrange for testing if you don't want to risk coming in contact with asbestos.

While wearing a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) mask for protection, and plastic gloves to avoid contact with the surface, follow these four steps: 

  1. Fill a spray bottle with water mixed with a few drops of liquid detergent.
  2. Use a putty knife to cut out a sample.
  3. Seal it in an airtight container or plastic bag. 
  4. Take the sample to an asbestos testing lab.