One Common Cleaner You Shouldn’t Ever Use on Hardwood Floors

updated Sep 30, 2022
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Bleach is one of the most effective ways to disinfect common household surfaces of potentially harmful pathogens, including the novel coronavirus, according to the CDC. You can use a bleach-water solution to clean your counters, fixtures, and certain types of flooring—but some surfaces aren’t cut out for bleach or bleach-based cleaners, including hardwood floors.

How you clean and disinfect your floors ultimately depends on whether they’re porous or non-porous, according to Brett Miller, vice president of technical standards, training, and certification at the National Wood Flooring Association.

Some of the least porous floors include plastic-type floors, like linoleum and sheet vinyl. On these floors or on any non-porous surface, bleach or alcohol would be an appropriate (and safe) cleaning solution.

But typically, Miller says, any wood-type floors are porous, including hardwood, hardwood with finish, and engineered wood floors that contain real wood. “The more finish you put on the floor, the less porous it becomes, but it’s still going to be a porous product,” he says. 

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Two Things You Shouldn’t Use to Clean Wood Floors

To ensure proper cleaning, Miller recommends looking at the finish manufacturer’s suggestions. But in the majority of cases where wood floors are involved, there are a few types of products and cleaning methods you’ll want to avoid—assuming you want to keep your flooring in good shape.

1. Bleach

You’ll want to skip harsh chemicals like bleach if you want your wood floors to keep their look, says Susan Richardson, Ph.D, a professor of chemistry at the University of South Carolina.

Think about the way bleach colors your hair or clothing—it could do the same thing to your wood. “While bleach will likely disinfect porous surfaces, it’s possible that you could damage the wood or the finish, discoloring it or getting into the actual wood and damaging it,” she says. 

Ditto for any type of cleaning product that contains isopropyl alcohol, which Richardson says could strip or dissolve the wood finish: “It probably wouldn’t result in a bleaching effect, but it could still damage the floor.”

2. Steam Cleaners

Never use steam or steam cleaners on a wood floor, or even a mop with hot water, because water in vapor form can enter the pores of the wood and create damage, from cupping to finish degradation. “Steam is the big thing that people think is a great sterilizing product and cleaning method, but it’s damaging to wood floors or any floor covering that’s water sensitive,” Miller says. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

How to Disinfect Wood Floors Without Damage

Normally, you might not think to disinfect your floors to begin with. But now that experts know the coronavirus can linger on the soles of shoes, it’s a good idea to be extra careful.

To properly disinfect your floors without rolling the dice on damaging them, try a store-bought cleaning spray or wipe (like Lysol) that contains a chemical Alkyl Benzyl Ammonium Chloride, which Richardson says is a biocide that would be effective and safe on porous surfaces like wood. 

Of course, you’ll want to avoid any kind of heat or excess moisture when you clean, so Richardson recommends mopping with a cold, damp solution of water and Lysol or spraying Lysol on the floor and using a Swiffer-type mop.

But even then, proceed with care. “It’s always a good idea to test a small area to make sure the product or chemical you use won’t damage your flooring,” she says. 

The Good News About Wood Floors

Sure, you might have to do a little extra work to sanitize your floors, which can feel like a hassle. But one good thing about having wood floors, Miller says, is that wood doesn’t typically harbor as many allergens or allow bacteria to grow if it’s routinely cleaned and maintained. “It’s one of the safer floor coverings you can use,” he says. “If someone had a virus on their feet, normal, routine mopping should typically be able to clean it up.”

Also, he says, more and more wood floor finishes contain chemicals that don’t allow microbes to grow. If you’re curious about your flooring, check with your manufacturer. “It’s a trend we’re seeing with wood finishes, and we’ll likely be seeing more of it given the current situation,” he says.