Every home — big, small, apartment or vacation home — gets dirty. And while there’s not just one way to clean your living space, there is a smarter way to get the job done. Take this guided tour of your home — from the kitchen and bathroom to the bedroom and living areas — to learn the basic rules of cleaning as well as some tips and short cuts that will help you clean thoroughly and efficiently, starting now.
The Sweethome, a New York Times company, has spent hours testing cleaning products and you’ll see I reference them when they’ve reviewed products I recommend.
How to Clean the Kitchen
Keep Dishes Clean
If you’re a person who tends to let dishes pile up in the sink to avoid washing them, try this simple trick to put the effort involved into perspective: For a few days, as you think of it, set a timer before you begin washing the dishes, and make note of how long it took to clean up. If you know the task will take just minutes to complete, it will be less difficult to convince yourself to take care of those dishes now.
How to Clean a Burned Pot: To clean a badly scorched pot without scrubbing, cover the burned area with a liberal amount of baking soda and pour in enough boiling water to fill the pot a third to halfway up. When the water is cool enough to touch, head in with your sponge and use the baking soda solution to scrub away the scorch. Dump the solution and wash the pot with hot, soapy water.
The Dishwasher Debate: While there isn’t an absolutely correct way to load a dishwasher (and what would couples bicker over if such a directive were carved in stone?), there is one universal rule: It is much easier to load from back to front.
The sink, especially the faucet, can be wiped free of bacteria and food particles with an all-purpose cleaner. And we all should probably clean the faucet more often, considering it’s something we touch with raw-chicken-covered hands.
Sponges should be cleaned frequently, too, either by running them through the dishwasher or microwave. If you use a microwave, first make sure the sponge does not contain any metal, then get the sponge very wet and nuke it for two minutes; be careful when you remove it, as it will be quite hot.
Has your sponge holder developed mold or bacterial buildup? Use a toothbrush dipped in bleach or white vinegar — but never both, as the combination creates a dangerous chemical reaction — to scrub away mold. Follow by washing the sponge caddy with hot, soapy water or run it through the dishwasher.
Wipe your counter and stovetops with an all-purpose cleaner after use. Stovetops in particular benefit from this type of regular, quick cleaning, as splatters, drips and grease become baked on when left too long.
How to clean a stovetop: Something tough will be required to scour away baked-on splatters and greasy film. A Dobie Pad, which is a nonscratch scrubbing sponge, combined with a gentle powder cleanser will make short work of stubborn messes. When cleaning stainless steel, scrub with the grain, rather than in a circular motion, to avoid scratching, and use a gentle touch, allowing the product, rather than force, to do the bulk of the cleaning work.
How to clean small appliances: The exterior of small appliances like toasters, coffeemakers and blenders that sit out on countertops should be wiped frequently using all-purpose cleaners to prevent the buildup of splatters and greasy film from cooking. For deeper cleaning, take off all removable parts and wash it by hand or in the dishwasher. Give the exterior a once-over with all-purpose cleaner using tools like cotton swabs or an old toothbrush to get into tight corners and other hard-to-reach spots.
An easy way to keep tabs on a refrigerator is to add one simple task to your trash day routine: When bagging up the garbage, open the fridge and eye its contents. Are there leftovers that have gone bad? Toss them. Has any produce liquefied in the crisper drawer? Dump it. Are the last few eggs in the carton about to go off? Make a note to have omelets for dinner, and congratulate yourself for being mindful of not wasting food.
How to Clean Spills in the Refrigerator: When sticky spills happen in the fridge or pantry, make short work of cleaning them by making a compress of sorts. Soak a sponge or rag in very hot water (mind your hands) and wring it so that it’s not dripping. Then, press it onto the sticky spot until the compress begins to lose its heat. If the sticky spill has loosened sufficiently, wipe it away; if it’s still clinging stubbornly, repeat as needed until the substance loosens up, and then wipe clean.
Here is a hard truth: Time will not make your trash situation better. Take care of it now.
How to Clean the Bathroom
Scrub the Shower and/or Tub, Sink and Toilet
Many products designed for cleaning the shower and/or tub, sink and toilet do much of the work for you, provided you let them. The instructions will tell you how best to apply a product, and for how long to let it work before wiping or scrubbing away. It’s always a good idea to test a new product on an inconspicuous spot to ensure that it doesn’t cause discoloration.
How to clean tile and grout: Let the product do the work for you. Apply a mold- and mildew-eliminating product and let it penetrate the grout before hitting the surface with a stiff-bristled scrub brush. This will make much shorter work of what can be a tedious and exhausting chore.
How to remove soap scum: Water spots and soap scum that build up on glass shower doors can drive you crazy, but try this strange tip: Wet a dryer sheet and scrub the glass in a circular motion. A milky white film will form, which can be wiped away using water and a squeegee, paper towels or a microfiber cloth. The dryer sheet doesn’t need to be new; you can press a dryer sheet that’s been used for laundry into double duty for this task.
Hair is a particular issue in bathrooms. In general, hair pickup should be a dry proposition. Start by vacuuming, sweeping or dry mopping; if you introduce, say, a wet mop to a hairy floor, you’ll end up with wet strands stuck to the floor. In the sink and around the toilet bowl, use paper towels or rags to pick up hairs before you introduce liquid cleansers.
How to keep bathroom floors clean: Store a small handheld vacuum in the bathroom to make staying on top of loose hairs a cinch.
How to Clean Your Bedroom
Make Your Bed
At the risk of unleashing your latent sullen teenager, it must be said that making the bed every day is a good habit. Would you like some reasons?
- It makes the bedroom look pulled together, and that’s nice to come home to.
- If you have pets, making the bed helps to keep hair, dander and drool off your sheets.
- Turning down the bed at night is a ritual that can signal to the brain that it’s time for sleep.
- Getting into a made bed just feels so good!
It’s also worth saying this: Many people think that making the bed is a waste of time, and that’s O.K. We’re not all moved by the same things, and what a tidy-looking bed does for one person may not do a single thing for another.
If you prefer to let the bedlinens air out during the day, make the bed with the sheets exposed by folding the blanket and top sheet halfway down toward the foot of the bed .
How to make a hospital corner: Do you love a tightly tucked bed? Hospital corners are easy to master, once you know the steps to take:
- Spread the flat sheet over the bed, with overhang on the sides and foot of the bed.
- Starting at the foot of the bed, tuck the sheet tightly under the mattress.
- Take the sheet on one side of the bed and lift it up, creating a 45 degree fold up the side of the mattress. Then, tuck the excess fabric under the mattress.
- Bring the lifted portion down, square the lines with the corner of the mattress and tuck it tightly.
- Repeat on the other side of the bed.
Ideally, the bed should be made with a clean set of sheets once a week or once every other week. The timing depends on a whole bunch of factors, such as:
- Do you sleep in the nude?
- Are there multiple people sleeping in your bed?
- Are you frequently having sex in the bed?
- Are you a person who sweats at the night?
- Are children co-sleeping with you?
If you answer yes to a few of these, you should consider changing your sheets more often. The choice also depends on how much time you have for the chore, and on how much you care about having clean sheets on the bed.
To make the job of stripping the sheets and remaking the bed seem less terrible, consider the reward: Later that night, you’ll get to slip into fresh sheets. Fresh Sheet Day is worth the work.
Make putting away your freshly laundered clothes part of laundry day. You wouldn’t bring bags of groceries into the house, set them down in front of the refrigerator and call it a day. Same with clean clothes: Part of laundry duty is putting them away.
A feather duster may seem like a relic of the past, but in a bedroom — where we often use dresser tops and bedside tables to store books, eyeglasses, remote controls, etc. — that duster will make quick work of eliminating dust from knickknack-laden surfaces. The nature of gravity being what it is, dust first, vacuum second.
If you enjoy a cup of tea in the evening, or leave a glass of water by the bed in case you get thirsty in the night, make a habit of moving it to the kitchen in the morning to prevent dirty dishes from littering your bedroom by the end of the week.
Invest in a bedside table that has a drawer. It will allow you to stash small items like hand cream and lip balm so that they’re not cluttering up surfaces.
How to Clean the Living Room
Remove That Which Does Not Belong
The nature of the living room being what it is, items that do not necessarily belong in the living room often make their way in there. Items such as dirty socks, wine glasses and even Krazy Glue eventually should be put in their rightful places (the hamper, dishwasher and tool box, respectively).
Don’t underestimate the impact that taking a minute or two to fluff cushions, fold throw blankets and straighten decorative pillows can have on the look of your living room. Similarly, squaring up stacks of magazines and books is a fast and easy way to create the appearance of a tidy space. A quick pass of the feather duster over bookshelves and coffee tables will help get rid of dust with little fuss; microfiber cloths will eliminate fingerprints and smudges in a flash.
Your couch has a secret. Upholstered furniture comes with a code that should be used to determine what products should be used to clean it. The code can be found on the care tag, which is usually on the underside of the piece of furniture. It will read either W, S, SW or X. That code can be interpreted as follows:
- W = Wet/water cleaning only. You can clean these with a number of methods: diluted dish soap and a rag, upholstery cleaner or upholstery cleaning machines.
- S = Dry solvent cleaning only. Use a specialized upholstery cleaner for these fabrics, as water-based cleaners can cause damage.
- SW = Dry solvent and/or wet cleaning. You can use either wet or dry solvent methods.
- X = Professional cleaning or vacuuming only. These couches should only be vacuumed, and you’ll have to find a professional to tackle stain removal. If you have children, pets, and/or an active social life, please avoid purchasing an X-code couch.
How to Clean Your Floors
Your Basic Tools
The basic tools in a floor cleaning arsenal: vacuum, mop (wet, dry or steam) and broom. And, while absolutely no one wants to hear this, there is a lot to be said for getting down on your hands and knees to do the floors with a scrub brush and rags.
If you have carpet or area rugs in your home, owning a vacuum is pretty much non-negotiable. The best vacuum is the one you’ll use frequently, which sounds facile, but the most souped-up vacuum in the world is no good to you if it’s too heavy to lift out of its storage space. It may be helpful to consult The Sweethome’s guide to vacuum styles, Which Vacuum Should I Get? For stains, a carpet and upholstery cleaner is a good thing to have when inevitable spills happen.
Before you can clean wood flooring, try this trick to figure out if you have surface-sealed, or oil- or penetrating-sealed wood floors: Run your finger across the floor: If there’s a smudge, the floors are oil- or penetrating-sealed; if not, they’re surface-sealed.
When cleaning surface-sealed wood floors, avoid very hot water and abrasive cleaners. Use warm water to dilute dish soap, white vinegar or ammonia for these floors. Glass cleaner also works well. Oil- or penetrating-sealed wood should be cleaned with a broom or dry mop and vacuumed; avoid products that contain acrylic or water-based wax.
Laminate flooring should not be cleaned with soap, abrasives or products that contain abrasives. Instead, clean the floors routinely with a dry or damp mop. If a cleaning solution is needed, diluted ammonia or white vinegar can be used sparingly.
Linoleum should also not be cleaned using very hot water, abrasives or with wax- or solvent-based products. Instead, clean the floors routinely with a dry or damp mop. If a cleaning solution is needed, diluted ammonia or white vinegar can be used sparingly.
Tile and natural stone flooring should never be cleaned using abrasives or a vacuum with a brush roll attachment, both of which can cause scratching, nicking or cracking. The brush roll is a rotating brush that’s great on carpeting for getting deep into fibers, but that shouldn’t be used on hard surfaces. Ceramic and porcelain tile can be cleaned using oxygen bleach, chlorine bleach or diluted dish soap.
How to Clean Your Car
How to Clean Your Car’s Floors and Seats
A handheld vacuum will do wonders for the interior of your car, without requiring a whole lot of work on your part, making it possibly the most crucial tool to own if you want to keep a tidy-looking vehicle. Pet hair, Cheerios, dirt and gravel, stray French fries and so on will be gone in no time, and you’ll be surprised at what a simple vacuuming can do for the appearance of the seats, especially ones covered in fabric upholstery.
How to clean stains on car upholstery: Stains on fabric seats can be removed using an upholstery cleaner. It can be helpful to use the cleaning agent in concert with a white or light-colored rag, which will allow you to see how much of the stain you’re picking up. Upholstery cleaner can also be used to clean stains from the headliner (the fabric-covered interior roof), but it’s important to apply the cleaner to a rag, rather than directly to the headliner, which shouldn’t be saturated with liquid. Use the rag to gently scrub in the direction of the grain, and let the headliner air dry before repeating if needed. Leather seats and interior detail can be cleaned using leather conditioner or, in the case of very bad stains, saddle soap. When choosing a product to clean leather seats, look to leather shoe cleaners (you may even have one already).
Children’s car seats take a terrible beating. Spills, diaper blowouts, carsickness, crumbled cookies, and on and on and on, will make a mess of a car seat. That handheld vacuum you used on the adult seats can also be used to clean up smashed Goldfish. When messes occur that are beyond what a vacuum can clean up (see the aforementioned messes), remove the unit from the car to make it easier and less back-breaking to clean. Tip: Try a little WD-40 to remove sticky messes. (Remember to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for laundering car seat covers.)
Compressed air can be used to blow crumbs, hair or dust from hard-to-clean spaces like cupholders and door side pockets. Sticky spills that have dried can be given the same hot compress treatment as sticky spills in the fridge: Wet a sponge or rag with very hot water, being careful not to burn your hand, and press it on the spill until it begins to loosen, at which point it can be wiped away. Keep a pack of bathroom wipes in your car for quickly addressing spills, both on hard and upholstered surfaces.
How to clean your dashboard: Be careful when choosing dashboard cleaning products, as many can cause glare. Avoid any products that contain ammonia or alcohol, which can cause cracking. Simple as it sounds, the best thing to use to clean a dashboard is a damp microfiber cloth. For stubborn stains, add a small amount of dish soap to the cloth. Vents can also be wiped clean using a damp cloth, and a dry paintbrush or toothbrush can be used to remove dust and crumbs from vents and control buttons.
When your car takes on a terrible odor, forget the dangling trees from the rearview mirror and opt for a canister- or brick-style odor eliminator, like the Bad Air Sponge or Innofresh Auto Odor Eliminator. Good old Lysol is also excellent at quickly deodorizing and disinfecting the interior of the car or trunk.
Tidying Up After Pets and Kids
How to wash stuffed animals: Plush toys, whether they belong to the family pet or a child, can be laundered, either in the machine or by hand. Most toys can take a spin in the washer, but in the case of especially beloved or fragile plush companions, washing by hand will provide a gentler experience for precious friends.
When machine washing, use the gentle cycle, cold water and a mild detergent. Place small toys, or ones with hair or embellishments, in a mesh wash bag to prevent tangling and snagging. Add towels to the load when washing toys that have hard parts, to prevent damage to your machine and a horrible racket.
How to wash plastic toys: Cleaning hard plastic toys is as easy as washing dishes: You can put them on the top rack of the dishwasher or wash a big load of them by filling the sink with hot water and a few drops of dish soap. If the household includes a child or an adult with a compromised immune system (or if the idea of commingling your dinner plates with your pet’s water bowl grosses you out), wash pet items in a separate load.
The first rule of fluid cleanup is to absorb as much liquid as possible using paper towels or dry rags.
Are fruit juice and wine stains common problems in your household? Get a bottle of Wine Away. Do pets or children have frequent accidents? Nature’s Miracle is indeed a miracle at eliminating urine stains and smells, regardless of origin. Do you have toddlers who are prone to frequent vomiting? Super-Sorb will greatly improve the process of cleaning up those messes.
Frequent vacuuming goes a long way in keeping tumbleweeds of dog or cat hair from drifting around the home. You don’t need a specialty vacuum if you have pets, but if they’re especially furry, avoid bagged models.
Is pet hair on the couch or bed driving you mad? Try running a rubber glove or grooming mitt over fabric surfaces, which will pick up clumps of hair.
The Cleaning Supply Closet
Seventh Generation Dish Liquid
Read more about the best dish soap pick from The Sweethome.
Puracy Natural Multi-Surface Cleaner
Everyone needs an all-purpose cleaner, and this is the best of the bunch. Read more about the best all-purpose cleaner picks from The Sweethome.
An old-school choice that can be used in the kitchen and bathroom. It’s gentle, so it won’t scratch porcelain or stainless steel.
Want to make short work of cleaning the bathroom? You need this foaming cleaner in your life.
Many glass cleaners are good; Windex is consistently great.
Carpet and W-Code Upholstery Cleaner
It’s important to check that a carpet cleaner is safe to use on the textile in need of cleaning, but this will be the right choice for most.
S-Code Upholstery Cleaner
Again, make sure you check that an upholstery cleaner is safe on the fabric. But Blue Coral and Guardsman offer upholstery cleaners that can safely be used on S-code fabrics.
Pet Stain Remover
Good at both pet and human messes.
Wine Stain Remover
Great for fruit juice and cranberry sauce as well.
Liquid Clean Up
Great for a major, or very gross, liquid mess