Spanish Verbs for Cleaning: ‘Lavar’ vs. ‘Limpiar’

Words have similar meanings but aren’t always interchangeable

three workers cleaning windows
Los trabajadores limpian las ventanas. (The workers are cleaning the windows.).

Daniel Lobo / Creative Commons.

Lavar and limpiar are Spanish verbs meaning "to clean," and while they're sometimes interchangeable, they're often used in different ways.

How To Use Lavar

When talking about the body or things associated with the body, particularly clothing, lavar is the verb of choice. One way to remember this is to notice that lavar comes from the same Latin root as does the English word "lavatory," sometimes called a washroom. Indeed, one way of thinking about lavar is as a synonym for "to wash."

  • La forma en que lavas tu cabello es muy importante para mantenerlo sano. (The way in which you wash your hair is very important for keeping it healthy.)
  • Los profesionales de salud piensan que se lavan las manos mejor y con más frecuencia de lo que realmente hacen. (Health professionals believe they clean their hands better and more often than they really do.)
  • ¡Odio cuando me lavo la cara y me entra agua por la manga! (I hate it when I'm washing my face and water gets up my sleeve!)
  • Si lava las camisas a mano, nunca escobille cuellos y puños. (If you wash shirts by hand, never use a brush on the collars and cuffs.)
  • Los vaqueros debemos lavarlos siempre al revés. (Jeans should always be washed inside-out.)
  • Lava (or limpia) tus dientes después de cada comida. (Brush your teeth after each meal.)

Because lavar is used when referring to the laundering of clothes, in an adaptation from English similar to a calque, the word also is used to refer to the laundering of money: Se acusa al ex presidente de ser el jefe de una asociación ilícita que lava dinero. The former president is accused of being the head of an illegal group that launders money.

Lavar is often used in situations where water is used in cleaning (although limpiar can sometimes be used too):

  • Hoy a la tarde pensaba lavar el coche. (This afternoon I was thinking about washing my car.)
  • Las verduras eran lavadas y sumergidas en agua muy fría. (The vegetables were washed and placed in very cold water.)
  • No cometas el error de usar jabón de lavar platos. (Don't make the mistake of using dishwashing soap.)

Lavar is sometimes used in references to the process of erosion: La erosión lavó la roca sedimentaria, exponiendo el granito. The erosion washed away the sedimentary rock, exposing the granite.

Finally, the limpia form of limpiar can be used to form compound words: limpiabarros (boot cleaner), limpiabotas (shoe cleaner), limpiametales (metal polish), limpiamuebles (furniture polish), limpiavidrios (window cleaner).

How To Use Limpiar

Limpiar, which is derived from the adjective for "clean," limpio, can be used in most other situations to mean "to clean":

  • Limpiamos absolutamente todo con este producto. (We clean absolutely everything with this product.)
  • Te limpiamos tu casa en 15 minutes. (We clean your house for you in 15 minutes.)
  • Más de 30 estudiantes limpiaron la zona. (More than 30 students cleaned up the area.)
  • Limpié el ordenador y se fue el problema. (I cleaned the computer and the problem went away.)
  • ¿Cómo limpias el filtro de partículas en tu Volkswagen? (How do you clean the particulate filter in your Volkswagen?)

Limpar can be used to mean "to clean" or "to clean up" in a figurative sense:

  • No es difícil limpiar su PC de spyware y malware. (It's not difficult to rid your PC of spyware and malware.)
  • El gobierno desea limpiar el deporte con una nueva ley. (The government wants to clean up the sport with a new law.)

Limpiar is also used to refer to the removal of undesired parts from a fish: Limpiar el salmón retirándole la piel, la grasa y las espinas. (Clean the salmon by removing the skin, the fat and the bones.)

The lava form of lavar is used to form various compound words: lavacoches (car wash), lavamanos (sink for washing hands), lavapelo (a beautician's chair for washing hair), lavarropas (washing machine), lavavajillas (dishwasher, dishwashing soap).

Other Verbs for Cleaning

Lavar and limpiar are by far the most common verbs for "to clean," at least two others are used in certain circumstances:

  • Ordenar can be used when the emphasis in putting things in order. Cada abril ordeno el garaje. (Every April I clean the garage.)
  • Purificar, a cognate of "purify," is sometimes used when the emphasis is on removing impurities. Mi amiga usa la crema cara para purificar la cara. (My friend uses the expensive cream to clean her face.)

Key Takeaways

  • Lavar is often used when talking about cleaning the body or clothing, or when the cleaning involves washing with water.
  • Limpiar is used for most other situations as the equivalent of "to clean."
  • The conjugated forms lava and limpia are frequently used to form compound words.
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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Verbs for Cleaning: ‘Lavar’ vs. ‘Limpiar’." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 27). Spanish Verbs for Cleaning: ‘Lavar’ vs. ‘Limpiar’. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Spanish Verbs for Cleaning: ‘Lavar’ vs. ‘Limpiar’." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).