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Sparkle and Shine: Cleaning Tricky Household Surfaces

When my husband and I bought our home a few years ago, I first experienced “old wood floor” heaven. Beneath the previous owner’s horribly nondescript grey-blue carpets were the original oak planks of our Tudor revival house, built in the 1920s. As soon as the ink dried on the contract, we removed the carpeting and had those gorgeous floors sanded, stained a warm shade of walnut, and sealed with a polyurethane satin varnish. And after we were given the green light by our contractor to move into our house, the first thing I did was to lie in the center of the living room floor and bask in the beauty of old wood. 

Over the years, we’ve gone through every painstaking renovation and improvement project big and small, and I’ve lost sleep over the materials we’ll use. Terracotta tiles for the basement family room? Granite for the kitchen countertops? Though I’ve often made my decisions based on impulse, one question that I try to keep in mind is, “How would I clean it?” 

Whether you’re researching materials for your next home improvement project or curious to know exactly how to care for that poured concrete countertop in your kitchen, these facts will shine some light on how to care for many types of surfaces in your home. 

For wood floors, use a dust mop like a Swiffer for daily cleaning, and once or twice a week, use a damp mop with only water. Be sure to go over the entire floor twice. 

For more rigorous cleaning, use a neutral Ph cleaner like a wood wash (Scott’s Liquid Gold is a good one) that’s biodegradable. Low pH cleaners such as vinegar-based solutions won’t be able to cut grease or dirt; high pH cleaners can dull the floor finish as well as harm your skin. 

Butcher blocks, countertops, and tables made of wood are usually not sealed. Oil the surface regularly with mineral oil, a transparent and colorless by-product of petroleum distillation. Mineral oil can penetrate the wood grains to keep it resistant to stains. Always try to clean up spills as soon as they happen to avoid stains. Due to the porous nature of wood and its ability to absorb bacteria, try to clean it after every use with a heavily diluted liquid dish soap and water solution. Never use scouring cleaners or scouring pads—use only a soft cloth or sponge. 

If you place raw meat or poultry on top of a butcher block or wooden countertop, apply a mixture made of one-tablespoon bleach and one-gallon warm water to it regularly to kill bacteria. To remove food odors, sprinkle baking soda over the surface immediately after use. Use a sponge moistened with warm water to wipe down the counter, and rinse away any excess baking soda.

Vinyl or Plastic
For linoleum or vinyl tiles, use an all-purpose cleaner and non-abrasive mop, and be sure to rinse thoroughly. Avoid vinegar-based cleaners as vinegar will cause the floor to become dull over time. Use a floor wax or a sealant periodically to maintain the shine. 

Pergo floors should never be waxed, polished, sanded, or refinished. Cleaning it should entail a daily dry dust mopping and damp mopping with just water once a week. Any cleaners—even as mild as liquid dish soap—may dull the finish. 

On Formica and other laminate type countertops, you only need to use a clean, damp, non-abrasive cotton cloth and a mild liquid detergent or household cleaner. Rinse with clean water, using a clean, non-abrasive cotton cloth. Do not flood the laminate, especially near seams, since water can penetrate and cause the substrate to swell. Dry the surface with a soft, clean, non-abrasive cotton cloth. 

Marble and Granite
Natural marble (as opposed to cultured marble, a manmade material that’s basically plastic) and granite floors should be dry dust mopped daily. If the floors are protected with a floor finish, the finish should be buffed or burnished and should be replaced at regular intervals. 

For natural marble or granite countertops in the bathroom or kitchen, use a neutral pH cleaner like Howard Naturals Granite and Marble Cleaner (it’s eco-friendly, too) and polish it dry. Clean up spills quickly by blotting them rather than spreading them. 

Clean cultured marble and certain types of granite with an all-purpose or disinfectant cleaner and a soft cloth. Always keep the area wet while working. Never use scouring cleansers or pads. If the surface is worn and looks dull even after cleaning, a polishing compound may bring back the glow. A little appliance wax, car wax, or silicone sealer will also help fill fine scratches and restore the shine. 

Stainless Steel
To clean stainless steel countertops that are dry, wipe them down with a microfiber cloth. For wet cleaning, use a soft cloth and a little liquid dish soap. For occasional tougher cleaning, use a mild abrasive. Rinse the surface, and dry thoroughly with a clean, soft, dry towel. 

For daily cleaning of your stainless steel appliances, all you need are microfiber cloths. Add a little water and wipe down. For more thorough cleaning of those smudges and fingerprints, try dabbing a little bit of olive oil directly onto a dry lint-free cloth before wiping down the appliance surface. There are stainless steel cleaners available at hardware and grocery stores, but give the olive oil method a try before buying anything. 

Poured Concrete
Wipe down food or liquid spills from poured concrete floors and countertops as soon as possible. Spills that are left standing on the surface for a long time can stain the sealant on your concrete countertop permanently. Use a mild non-ammoniated sap like Simple Green or Dr. Bronner’s Natural Soap with warm water and a clean cloth or sponge for daily cleaning. Avoid using abrasive items to clean these counters. If heavier cleaning is necessary, use a neutral pH cleanser to protect the sealer. (Wood wash is probably a safe bet.) 

Ceramic Tile
Ceramic tile floors and countertops are the most common surface in any home. To keep floors clean, sweep or use a dry mop daily. When using a wet mop, use clear water or a few drops of liquid dish soap. To clean the grout and/or any porous tile of any color, use oxygen bleach, which is non-toxic and comes in powdered form. Mix with water and apply to the floor. There are no fumes, and the oxygen bleach will not harm the color in the grout. 

So before you clean those household surfaces, do your due diligence first. There are many non-toxic options to bleach or ammonia-based cleaners. When in doubt, always reach for a non-abrasive cloth or sponge to wipe a spill. And try to come up with a daily regimen of light cleaning to avoid a difficult cleanup later on.