The right techniques and the right tools mean less dirt in less time.

By Pilar Guzman and Jennifer Jafarzadeh
Updated July 30, 2004
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Canisters against a tile backsplash
Credit: Monica Buck

Chalky lime stains, soap scum, mildew, and other tenacious cleaning problems traditionally call for strong, very specific measures―and a surplus of patience. You can't, as it turns out, use vinegar as an all-purpose cleanser. "Despite our love affair with vinegar, it doesn't cut grease―only detergents and solvents do. You can't mop your floors with it in a pinch," says cleaning authority and author Don Aslett. But you can get rid of many stains with a little cleanser, water, and waiting.

The Basic Tool

Cellulose scrub sponges (3M Scotch-Brite sponges, $3.79 for a three-pack at mass retailers). Since the average kitchen sponge can harbor 4 billion living germs, most experts recommend replacing it every week or two. "Using sponges and rags over and over just ends up spreading germs," says Brian Sansoni of the Soap and Detergent Association. Cleaning them in the washing machine or dishwasher―or zapping them in the microwave for 20 seconds―kills germs between replacements. These sponges are good for doing dishes as well as deep-cleaning throughout the house.

The Basic Rules

  • Try the easy fixes first. To remove stains from any surface in the house, start with a wet sponge. If that doesn't work, "go to a liquid cleanser and a good brush," says Tara Tan, director of house-keeping at the W Times Square Hotel, in New York City. "When all else fails, use a steamer.”
  • Less is more. Use the weakest cleanser that works. Start with dishwashing liquid and Formula 409 before you move to Soft Scrub or a harsher cleanser.

Kitchen and Bathroom Tile

  • Regularly: Wipe grease and food stains from the kitchen backsplash and mop tiled bathroom floors using a mild detergent, such as regular dishwashing liquid (Dawn) or an all-purpose cleanser like Mr. Clean. For floors, start with tricky corners (around the toilet and pedestal sink) and work from the inside of the room to the door.
  • When needed: For mold and mildew, Naturally Yours Mold & Mildew Remover ($5 a quart, works on tile, grout, and caulking.

Shower Door

  • Regularly: Wet surfaces encourage soap scum and mildew. After each shower, dry the glass with a squeegee (Master Squeegee 12-inch-wide stainless-steel squeegee, $9.50, at home centers).
  • When needed: If you like to sleep in and you barely have time to shampoo in the morning, play catch-up once a week by using CLR Bathroom & Kitchen Cleaner ($7.50, and a squeegee to remove lime stains and soap scum. Neglected shower curtains and plastic liners can be tossed in the washing machine; use regular laundry detergent and hot water.


  • Regularly: With the CLR cleanser and a cloth or a sponge, you can remove mineral stains and soap-scum deposits (this also works for teakettles, humidifiers and dehumidifiers, and toilet bowls.
  • When needed: Neither all-purpose nor abrasive cleansers are effective at removing lime stains. The best remedy, according to Graham Haley, coauthor of Haley's Cleaning Hints (New American Library, $15,, is to pour some distilled white vinegar into an intact plastic grocery bag. Tie the handles in a knot over the shaft of the showerhead and secure them with rubber bands. Leave the showerhead soaking in it overnight. In the morning, rinse the showerhead with water.

Pots and Pans

  • Regularly: Carefully wipe the insides and outsides of pans with a soapy sponge while they are still warm, before grease settles and hardens. But never plunge a hot pan into cold water; it may warp.
  • When needed: Sometimes even the hottest, soapiest water won't cut the greasy residue of high-heat cooking. For scorched food residue on stainless-steel pots and pans, Chris Sommer of All-Clad Metalcrafters recommends the following recipe: Fill the pan halfway with water and add about a tablespoon of dishwasher detergent. Bring the solution to a simmer (but don't let it boil over, since it can stain the sides). Let boil for 20 to 30 minutes. Take the pan off the burner and let cool. Pour out the liquid, then use Bon Ami for a final scrub. Rinse.