How to Clean Almost Anything: An A-to-Z Guide
Your waffle maker is crusty; the knives are rusty. It’s time for an all-around spruce-up. Whether you need shortcuts for the regulars (sinks) or how-tos for the rest (air mattress?), this story spells it all out for you.
Air conditioners: When your A/Cs are in use (say, from May through September), it’s smart to clean them monthly so they don’t get listless (or conk out completely) on the hottest days of summer. First turn off the power and pop off the front panel. Remove the spongy filter and soak it in the sink in equal parts warm water and white vinegar for about an hour. Use the vacuum’s crevice attachment on the coils. After you’ve replaced the filter (wait until it’s dry) and the front panel, dust the exterior and the control buttons with a disinfecting wipe. Have central air? Once a season, unscrew the vent covers and clean the slats on both sides with a damp cloth.
Air mattress: For an item that’s used only occasionally, an air mattress accumulates a surprising amount of dirt and dust. Next time you inflate yours for use, give every side of it a once-over with the vacuum’s upholstery attachment or a handheld vac. Then wipe the mattress top (getting into all those little grooves) with a chemical-free wipe (Seventh Generation Disinfecting Wipes, $3, target.com) and air-dry.
Apron: If machine washing hasn’t conquered those greasy food stains, try a presoak treatment that uses an oxygen-based stain remover, such as OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover ($9.50, walmart.com). Let the apron soak for up to 6 hours in 2 to 4 scoops of powder with 1 gallon water, then machine wash as normal, using detergent and more OxiClean. (Follow the package directions.)
Baking sheets: Place the gunky baking pan in the sink and top with a Bounce dryer sheet. Fill the pan with warm water and let soak overnight. Rub clean with a sponge, then rinse well. Don’t use steel wool on stainless pans; it will leave scratches.
Baseboards: If you want to skip the bending, employ the Baseboard Buddy ($20, baseboardbuddy.com), a long-handled dusting tool that hugs nooks and crannies. Otherwise use the vacuum’s brush attachment and follow with a cloth dampened with diluted dishwashing liquid. For extra credit, wipe out scuffs with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser ($4 for two, soap.com).
Blinds: Take matters into your own hands. Put on a pair of white cotton gloves (Walgreens 100 percent cotton gloves, $4, drugstore.com) and dip the fingers of one hand into a solution of equal parts warm water and white vinegar. Run your fingers through the slats, redipping into the solution now and then. Use the other hand to wipe dry. Replenish the formula when it looks dirty. When you’re done, swipe the blinds with a dryer sheet (a used one is fine). Its residue will repel dust, giving you a nice, long stretch before the next white-glove treatment is needed.
Camera: Remove dust from the lens, viewfinder, screen, and body—paying special attention to nooks, like the memory-card slot—using a camel-hair brush ($15, bandh.com) or a bulb-style blower (Sensei large air blower, $8, bandh.com). A smudge on the lens can become permanent if not tended to, so grab a clean microfiber cloth, breathe on the lens (rubbing a dry lens can grind in dirt), and gently rub in circles. If the smudge is still there, gently rub with a cloth dampened with an alcohol-based lens-cleaning fluid, like ROR Lens Cleaner ($9, adorama.com). Never use a tissue or a paper towel; they’re too abrasive. Finish by gently wiping all over with a fresh microfiber cloth.
Ceiling fan: For safety, first tape down the fan’s switch. Place a drop cloth or an old sheet on the floor, covering an area about twice the span of the blades. Fill a spray bottle with water and 2 tablespoons white vinegar and spritz generously into an old pillowcase. Climb up on a tall step-ladder and slide the pillowcase over the blades one by one, rubbing gently to dust. Dirt will fall into the pouch, not on your head. For a ladderless method, use the Ceiling Fan Duster ($10; and six-foot telescopic pole, $11: neat-home.com for info). This adjustable tool cups each blade to clean both sides simultaneously. (Be sure to cover your hair, though!)
Doorknobs: Fast, weekly cleanings with antibacterial wipes are the best way to degerm knobs. Stash canisters around the house, and stick to one wipe per room to prevent the spread of bacteria.
Eyeglasses: Dip specs in a bowl filled with cold water and a drop of dishwashing liquid and swirl for a few seconds. Wipe dry with a soft cotton cloth or, for a lint-free finish, a coffee filter.
Food processor: If your machine is in need of a deep cleaning, soak any removable parts (blade, bowl) in warm water and dishwashing liquid and use a fresh toothbrush on crevices; rinse well and dry blades before replacing. After every use, do this quick wash to prevent the machine from getting crusty: Fill the processor halfway with water and a couple of drops of dishwashing liquid. Run it for a few seconds, then rinse and wipe dry.
Garbage disposal: Pour 3 tablespoons Borax into the chamber, let sit for 1 hour, then flush with hot water. To combat lingering odors and keep blades sharp, freeze ½ cup white vinegar mixed with water in an ice-cube tray, toss in a few cubes, and run the disposal. And to break up grease deposits that could collect, feed the disposal a small fruit pit or a chicken bone every now and then (nom nom).
Garden tools: Tap to remove dirt clumps, wipe clean with a cloth, and follow with a gentle exfoliation treatment: Fill a 5-gallon bucket with builder’s sand (sold at hardware stores), then pour in 3 cups mineral oil to make the sand damp. Insert the metal blades or tines of tools, plunging them in and out a few times. The sand will act as an abrasive, and the oil will condition the metal. To prevent rust during the off-season, store tools in a bucket of fresh sand and oil.
Gutters: You’ll need a ladder; heavy work gloves, plus latex or rubber gloves to wear underneath; and two buckets for this twice-yearly task (spring and fall). Put a trowel and a scrub brush in one bucket and climb the ladder. (For safety, the top of the ladder should be no lower than your waist as you work; have a helper hold the ladder steady if possible.) Hook a bucket to each side of the ladder. Starting near a downspout, use the trowel to move leaves, twigs, and other debris into the empty bucket. Have your helper hand you the hose to flush out finer material. Use the scrub brush to dislodge stuck-on dirt as the water flows. Clogged downspouts? Loosen debris by poking the hose up through the blockage. (No need to turn on the water.)
Hardwood floors: A once-a-week treatment picks up dirt that can otherwise get ground in and cause scratches. First dust with a dry mop. Then, if your floors are polyurethaned (most are), slightly dampen a mop with a mixture of 1 cup white vinegar and 1 gallon water and swipe the surface, going with the grain. Shine by buffing with a soft cloth. (Cloth diapers work well.) If your floors are waxed rather than polyurethaned, skip the damp mop (these floors are not watertight) and just vacuum.
Ice maker: Over time ice can absorb odors, so empty the bin monthly to prompt the appliance to make a new batch. And every few days, give the cubes a stir with a long wooden spoon to keep them from clumping.
Jewelry: Generally you don’t need to clean jewelry unless you see dirt spots, tarnish, or dust. But if you notice earrings getting a little funky, clean posts and backs with a cotton ball dipped in rubbing alcohol. Diamond ring looking dingy? Soak it for 20 minutes in a solution of 1 cup warm water and ¼ cup ammonia, then swirl it around in another bowl of warm water and a few drops of dishwashing liquid; scrub gently with a clean soft toothbrush, rinse with fresh warm water, and air-dry. If your pearls are dusty, rub each gently with a cotton cloth dipped (not soaked) in a solution of 1 cup warm water and a drop of mild dishwashing liquid. (Don’t submerge pearls—the string could stretch.) Let dry. To remove tarnish from a silver piece, wipe with a silver-polishing cloth.
Kettle: Those bluish green flecks you sometimes see inside? They’re mineral deposits that can build up, especially if you have hard water—harmless, but not so nice to look at. To remove them, fill the kettle with equal parts white vinegar and water, bring to a boil, and let stand overnight. Rinse, then heat plain water to get rid of the traces of vinegar.
Knives: Good ones (you know, the kind you bother putting in the knife block) should never go in the dishwasher, because harsh detergents can pit the blades and high heat can damage the handles. Instead, hand wash with hot, soapy water and towel-dry. Never soak knives; this can cause handles to shrink and blades to rust. To remove stains on blades, dip a clean wine cork in mild dishwashing liquid and rub. For rust marks, use Bar Keepers Friend ($5, williams-sonoma.com). Another all-natural (if slightly aggressive) alternative: Stab a large onion a few times; the onion’s acid will remove the rust.
Lampshades: Run a lint roller over the inner and outer surfaces, then blow dust from seams with a hair dryer or a can of compressed air.
Litter box: Every few weeks, place the whole kit and caboodle inside a garbage bag and shake to dump out every bit of old litter. To clean the box, cut down on the ick factor by wearing rubber gloves and scrubbing with disposable heavy-duty textured wipes (Litter Box Wipes, $10, naturesbestsolution.com for info). Never use bleach. It can react with the ammonia that naturally occurs in urine and potentially create toxic fumes.
Mirrors: To make them shine, dip a lint-free cloth in a pot of strongly brewed black tea (like Lipton); the tannic acid works magic. Rub in circles and follow with a fresh cloth to dry. Be careful not to saturate the mirror. If liquid seeps into the silver coating, it can leave behind black tarnish marks.
Napkins and other table linens: For all materials—linen, cotton, synthetics, blends—wash right after use in warm water (hot can cause shrinkage) and oxygen bleach if the care label allows; dry on low. Skip fabric softener, which can make table linens less absorbent. Fold and store right out of the dryer to prevent wrinkles. Got stubborn stains? Find easy fixes here.
Outdoor upholstery: When the weather warms up and your yard is back in use, give pillows and cushions a monthly scrubbing. (Unless the fabric is dry-clean only; check the labels.) Combine 1 quart warm water, 1 teaspoon dishwashing detergent, and 1 tablespoon Borax in a bucket. Dip a sponge in and scrub all sides of the cushion. Let sit for 15 minutes, then rinse with a hose and air-dry. If you see mildew, add 2 tablespoons bleach (again, check the labels first) to 1 gallon water and scrub with a soft brush. Patio umbrellas can also get mildewy. Open them up after rainstorms so moisture isn’t trapped in the folds. For a super-thorough cleaning, remove the canopy from the frame if you can, then sweep it, hose it down, and wash with a solution of water and mild soap (Dr. Bronner’s pure Castile liquid soap, $11, drbronner.com) using a sponge. Rinse, put back on the frame, and leave open to air-dry.
Paintbrushes: Synthetic brushes (recommended for water-based paint) are easy—just rinse each brush in hot water, squeezing the bristles with your hand until the water runs clear. For a natural-bristle brush (used for oil-based paint), take a deep breath: Fill a small metal container, like a coffee can, with mineral spirits (sold at hardware stores) and swish the brush around; let sit for 5 minutes. Then wrap the brush in newspaper and squeeze to release excess paint; repeat a few times. Dip in a fresh container of mineral spirits to rinse. Then gently roll the brush between your hands a few times to dry, using paper towels to press out any remaining moisture. Mold the bristles back into place and slip the brush into its package or tuck it into folded newspaper to maintain the shape. To keep brushes pliable, soak them for a few minutes in a coffee can filled with water plus a drop of liquid fabric softener; rinse, dry completely with paper towels, and store as usual.
Pillows: Twice a year, wash down and synthetic pillows in the washing machine (in pairs, to keep the machine balanced) with mild liquid detergent. (Powder can leave residue.) Dry on low instead of high heat, which can cause clumping.
Quilts: Those that are silk, antique, and/or hand stitched should be dry-cleaned, but you can wash others at home. (Read the care label.) For cotton or poly quilts, use the gentle cycle and a mild detergent and hang to dry. For wool, do the same, but use a detergent made for wool and add 1 cup white vinegar to the final rinse cycle to clear any residue.
Refrigerator drawers: Remove them and soak for 15 minutes in hot, soapy water in the sink. Drain, sprinkle the insides with baking soda, and wipe clean with a sponge. Still smell something? Use this age-old trick: Wipe down drawers with a cloth dipped in undiluted tomato juice, rinse with warm water, and dry.
Sinks: Swipe the basin daily with a soft rag dampened with warm water and dishwashing liquid, and scour weekly with a mild abrasive cleanser. For soap scum on stainless steel or porcelain, use white vinegar. (On marble or limestone, use stone cleaner instead; the acid in vinegar can erode stone.) After cleaning faucets with a microfiber cloth dampened with warm water and dishwashing liquid, buff dry.
Sliding-door tracks: Spritz tracks generously with all-purpose cleaner and let sit for a few minutes, then wipe up loosened grime with paper towels. To get into crevices, cover a flat screwdriver with a rag dampened with all-purpose cleaner. Finish with a few squirts of WD-40 for a smoother glide.
Speakers: To clean the exterior and erase any marks, use wipes meant for electronics (Endust Antistatic Wipes, $9.50, staples.com). If the speakers have cloth coverings, pop them off and rinse in the sink. (Just confirm with the manual; you can find the manual online if it’s been tossed.) Then set them aside to air-dry. Before replacing the coverings, gently dust the mesh grille with a microfiber cloth. (Make sure it’s dry—no moisture allowed here!)
Tabletop fan: Twice a year, unplug the fan and, if the grille is removable, use a scrub brush to eliminate dirt; rinse with warm water. Otherwise use a can of compressed air to dust the blades and the interior; wipe with a cotton cloth sprayed with all-purpose cleaner.
Toothbrushes: Every other week, swirl each toothbrush in ¼ cup warm water and ¼ cup baking soda. Let soak overnight, then rinse. Toss and replace every three months. (Yep, it’s time.)
TV screens: Make sure that the TV is off and cool; a warm screen can result in streaks. Because everyday cleaning products can damage delicate LCD and plasma screens, a specialized kit is best (HD Singles Kit, $13, klearscreen.com). Apply the pretreated polishing cloth in a light, circular motion. Don’t use a vacuum cleaner to dust the TV; it can create static and affect the picture.
Underarm stains: For fresh, day-old stains, dab a little shampoo on the spots before washing as usual. (Leave silk or wool to the pros.) If the stains are older and machine washing hasn’t removed them, create an enzyme paste. (Enzymes break down food proteins and help to remove stains caused by sweat.) Grind up 4 digestive-enzyme tablets (Nature’s Plus Digestive Enzyme, $14 for 90, vitaminshoppe.com), add 1 tablespoon water, and stir. Apply to stains with a soft cloth and let sit for an hour before washing as usual.
Utensil drawers: Monthly, clear out the contents and run the tray in the dishwasher (top rack), provided it’s plastic. For wooden, metal, or bamboo utensil organizers, wipe down with a damp, soapy cloth instead. Swipe the interior of the drawer, then cover a ruler with a damp paper towel to get those corner crumbs before reloading.
Vacuum: To freshen the room while vacuuming, put a few drops of vanilla extract on a paper towel, rip it into tiny pieces, and vacuum up. Use the crevice tool to vacuum dust from the bristles of the brush attachment, then empty the bin and wipe it clean. Last, wipe the casing, hoses, and attachments with a clean, dry cloth.
Waffle iron: To dislodge baked-on batter that you’ve been ignoring, cover the square end of a chopstick or the unbristled end of a toothbrush with a dishcloth and gently rub between the grooves. If the iron has metal plates, place a wet, soapy paper towel between the grids and let sit overnight. Then scrub with a soft toothbrush and rinse well. Ongoing maintenance is easy: A waffle iron is one of the only places where an oily residue is a good thing (yay!). It keeps waffles from sticking, so a quick swipe with a dry cloth after each use is generally all you need. Clean the exterior with a soft, damp cloth, not an abrasive sponge.
Watering can: Every spring, at the start of gardening season, fill the watering can with a solution of 1 part white vinegar and 2 parts water; soak the removable nozzle in the same solution and let sit for 1 hour. Scrub the inside of the can and the spout with a flexible bottle brush; rinse with clean water. After every use, store upside down to drain the water.
Xylophones, rubber duckies, and other toys: Once a month, sanitize small plastic toys by placing them in a mesh bag on the top rack of the dishwasher. (It’s fine to run dishes in the same cycle.) Mild, kid-friendly wipes (Dreft Multi Surface Wipes, $4, toysrus.com) are great for all other paraphernalia; use weekly or whenever those action figures seem to need a power shower.
Yoga mat: Most yoga mats can go right into the washing machine on the gentle cycle. (If in doubt, check with the manufacturer first.) Once a month, toss in your mat and use mild detergent and cold water. But to maintain the tacky finish, remove the mat before the spin cycle starts, roll it up in a towel to absorb some moisture, and hang it over the shower rod to dry fully. For a quick refresher after each class, swipe with a Josha yoga-mat wipe ($13 for 50, amazon.com). Give the mat a minute to dry, then roll it up.
Zebra rug and other animal skins: Regular-strength vacuuming can be harsh on hides. Instead, give these rugs a hearty shake outside. If the rug is too large to lug, dust it with a soft upholstery brush (Economy horsehair upholstery brush, $9, jondon.com). To brighten the fur, sprinkle cornmeal over the surface and let sit for a couple of hours. Then vacuum on low using the upholstery attachment with a piece of panty hose over the nozzle.