9 Things You Can’t Clean With “All-Purpose” Cleaner, According to Experts

published May 5, 2020
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all purpose cleaner spraying counter
Credit: Joe Lingeman

The Swiss Army knife of cleaning, all-purpose cleaners work their magic on a variety of surfaces, and, as a result, in a variety of rooms. Grease on your stainless stovetop hood or grime on your laminate kitchen counters? Reach for your multi-purpose cleaner.

People love using all-purpose cleaners because in many scenarios, they’re both efficient and effective. But there are some places you shouldn’t use them. Here’s the intel on what all-purpose cleaner is good for, and when not to use it.

What, Exactly, is All-Purpose Cleaner? 

The short answer? Basically, all-purpose cleaner is soap and water, according to Melissa Maker, founder of Clean My Space. “All-purpose cleaner is a general cleaning solution, which is great for getting most surfaces clean—but of course, there are some specialty situations that need to be taken into situation,” she says. 

Another thing to keep in mind: When you’re using an all-purpose cleaner, the tool you use to apply it can also have an impact on how clean something gets. For example, a textured cloth is a bit more abrasive than, say, a paper towel, so all-purpose cleaner on a cloth will be even more powerful at dislodging dirt and grime.

Maker says her approach to cleaning is to immediately go for the most effective product and tool so she doesn’t waste a second of time. And despite the name, there are some things that all-purpose cleaner isn’t the best at cleaning.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

9 Things You Shouldn’t Clean With All-Purpose Cleaner

To save your own time and get better results, here are some situations where you should skip the all-purpose cleaner and opt for something more specialized. 

1. Anything that needs to be disinfected

Worried about cross-contamination? It may be time to bring out the big guns. Soap and water paired with the right tool can remove and kill germs, Maker says, but there are certain moments when you want to level up with a disinfectant—especially when it comes to high-touch surfaces like light switches, doorknobs, and cabinet handles. “I trust all-purpose cleaner, but if there are specific germs you need to clean up, bring out a disinfectant,” she says.

2. Glass

When you’re cleaning windows, glass, or mirrors, opt for a glass-specific product or DIY glass cleaner solution. “Soap will leave streaks on your glass, but vinegar or ammonia-based glass cleaners are designed to cut grease and leave no residue behind,” Maker says. 

2. Mold or mildew

If you’re doing general cleaning, all-purpose cleaner is a good call. But a specialty job, like cleaning mold or mildew, will require a specialty product. “When you’re cleaning mold and mildew, think about what’s going to deal with the problem at hand—it’s not soap and water,” Maker says.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. Your oven

Using all-purpose cleaner to clean the baked-on grime caked on your oven probably wouldn’t be harmful, but it wouldn’t be very efficient or effective either. Maker says for oven-related jobs, it’s best to use a proper oven cleaner, whether that’s a commercial product or a DIY option. 

5. Any kind of stain

All-purpose cleaners aren’t created to remove stains, so Maker says it’s always best to use stain-specific products if you have a spill or mess. For pet or human fluids, she recommends an enzyme-based cleaner. “You always want to go with the thing that will work the best, in the fastest amount of time,” she says.

6. Your shower and bathtub

Pro tip: Don’t use soap alone to clean soap buildup from your shower or bath. Instead, Maker recommends a more powerful scouring agent, like a mixture of dish soap and baking soda or a specialty tub and tile cleaner.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

7. Unfinished surfaces

Angela Bell, a Grove Guide with Grove Collaborative, says all-purpose cleaner isn’t a good match for unfinished surfaces like raw wood, concrete or unsealed stone, as the cleaner can seep into the material and potentially leave discoloration. “Unfinished surfaces can simply be cleaned with a microfiber cloth and water, or refer to the manufacturer’s instructions,” she says.

8. Upholstery or fabric

Upholstery and fabric are another area where all-purpose cleaner doesn’t belong. Much like with unfinished surfaces, Bell says all-purpose cleaners can potentially leave discoloration on upholstery or fabric. Instead, she suggests using an off-the-shelf product that’s specifically designed for cleaning upholstery, which is likely to have targeted ingredients that won’t harm porous materials. 

9. Luxe surfaces (that you haven’t spot-tested)

If you have specialty surfaces like marble or copper at home that you’d prefer to keep looking luxe, take a pause before spraying with all-purpose cleaner (or any cleaner, really). Bell says to always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions (the company’s website might have more details than the product’s label about which surfaces are safe). And before you spray with abandon, spot-test in an inconspicuous area. “Copper can be cleaned with a simple vinegar and salt solution, followed off with a microfiber wipe down to give it a good shine,” she says. “Marble can be harmed by cleaners that are too acidic, so using diluted dish soap or castile soap and a soft cloth can be the best option for these.”