How to clean a vacuum filter – simple steps for all filter types

For more suction power and a healthier vacuum, learn how to clean your HEPA, cartridge, foam or robot vacuum filter.

Man using cordless vacuum cleaner
(Image credit: Alamy)

Knowing how to clean your vacuum filter will help it perform better when cleaning your home and keep it in its best condition for longer.

A dirty or congested filter will cause the vacuum's motor to over-work, damaging the vacuum in the process. People often don't realize they can be cleaned, and instead replace the filters entirely or upgrade to one of the best vacuum cleaners, as they believe their current vacuum doesn't work as well anymore.

But knowing how to clean a vacuum will give you a lot more time before having to make that investment, particularly if you have one of the best vacuums for pet hair. Read on to learn how to clean cartridges, foam, HEPA, and robot vacuum filters.

How to clean a vacuum filter

Before taking your vacuum apart, make sure it's unplugged and switched off. Empty any dust bins or canisters, then locate your vacuum's filter and remove it.

Different vacuum cleaners will have different filters. Read your vacuum's manual to see if they have specific instructions for cleaning the filter, but if not, the below steps are helpful guidelines for the various types you'll find.

Vacuum cleaner on wood floor

(Image credit: Alamy)

How to clean a cartridge filter

Cartridge filters are cylinders, usually made with pleated paper or some type of synthetic material. They're easily replaceable (often referred to as disposable), but regular cleaning can make them last a very long time.

Pleated paper cartridges can be cleaned by brushing away any larger, visible debris and tapping away the dust that lives within the filter. You can do this by tapping the filter on the side of a garbage can, or some people clean them more thoroughly by placing the filter in a bag and shaking until all the dust becomes loose. Be careful, however, as paper cartridge filters can be quite delicate (gentle tapping is best).

Synthetic fiber cartridges can be cleaned in the same way, but as they're not made of paper, they can be run under water to clear out even more dust. Always check your vacuum cleaner's directions to be sure, as wetting the wrong filter can damage it. Then, wrap it gently in a microfiber cloth to absorb all the moisture before putting it back into the vacuum cleaner.

How to clean a foam filter

Many modern, bagless vacuums use foam filters to capture dust under the canister where air passes through.

'You can be more thorough in your cleaning of a foam filter as it's a bit sturdier,' explains Delah Gomasi, CEO of MaidForYou:

  • Fill a bowl with warm water and dish soap and submerge the filter.
  • Gently squeeze the filter and move it around the warm water to pass the cleaning solution through the foam's pores.
  • If the water becomes murky, empty it and re-fill the bowl with fresh water. Do this until the water runs clear. 
  • Rinse out all the suds and pat it dry with a microfiber cloth, then let the filter air dry for as long as possible before putting it back into your vacuum filter.

How to clean a HEPA filter

HEPA filters are capable of trapping 99.97% of small airborne particles larger than 0.3 microns, and the filters have very fine fibers to be able to do so. Ideally, they shouldn't be cleaned. Cleaning HEPA filters can damage these fibers, making them less effective.

You can give HEPA filters a light clean by carefully tapping away any dust. But if you find yours is getting quite dirty, it's likely time to replace it. HEPA filter replacements are pretty cheap, and you can find them for all brands at Amazon and Home Depot or from the brands themselves like Dyson or Shark.

However, some vacuum models will specify that their HEPA filters are designed to be washable. Follow the instructions if so, but it's likely that they'll just need a simple rinse under cool water.

How to clean a robot vacuum filter

The best robot vacuum cleaners automate a lot of your cleaning for you, but they still need maintenance here and there to keep them at their best.

You can clean robot vacuum filters similar to cartridge filters. Tap them on the side of a trashcan to remove the dust, then use a paper towel to softly wipe away the rest of the debris. 

Now that your vacuum filter is clean, it might be a good idea to learn how to stop your vacuum cleaner from smelling.

If you're finding that your vacuum needs cleaning a bit too often, it could be smart to upgrade to one of the best cordless vacuums or best upright vacuums.

Dan Fauzi
Home Tech Editor

Dan is the Home Tech Editor for Homes & Gardens, covering all things cleaning, smart home, sound and automation across the Solved section. Having worked for Future PLC since July 2023, Dan was previously the Features Editor for Top Ten Reviews and looked after the wide variety of home and outdoor content across the site, but their writing about homes, gardens, tech and products started back in 2021 on brands like BBC Science Focus, YourHomeStyle, Homes & Antiques and Gardens Illustrated.

Dan is based in Bristol, UK with a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Magazine Journalism. Outside of work, you'll find them at gigs and art galleries, cycling somewhere scenic, or cooking up something good in the kitchen.