Everything You Need to Know About Cleaning Hardwood Floors, According to the Experts

published Dec 21, 2019
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Hardwood floors make any space look polished and sophisticated. The problem? There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the best way to clean them.

It’s not just a matter of preference, either. Use the wrong cleaning solution or method, and you risk ruining those beautiful floors. To help you avoid a costly mistake, we asked the pros to set the record straight. 

What is the best cleaner for hardwood floors?

The best cleaning solution is always the one you have on hand. You can make your own hardwood floor cleaner with a common cleaning staple: dish soap. In a large bucket, gently mix two tablespoons of dish soap with a gallon of warm water. 

Of course, you can also buy a cleaning solution specifically made for hardwood floors. Look for something that’s pH-neutral—not alkaline or acidic, says Brett Miller, VP of technical standards, training, and certification for the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA). You should also stay away from any product that says it adds anything to the floor, such as shine. Over time, this can be harmful and affect the performance of the finish on the floor, he says.

Here are some worthy choices: 

Credit: Amazon

Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner

This spray comes from flooring manufacturers, so you know it’s right for the job.

Buy: Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner, $7.97 from Amazon

Credit: Amazon

Bona Free & Simple Hardwood Floor Cleaner

This formula is as effective as the original, but free from dyes and scents. It’s also certified by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation. 

Buy: Bona Free & Simple Hardwood Floor Cleaner, $12.40 from Amazon

Credit: Amazon

Minwax Hardwood Floor Cleaner

Also created by a company that specializes in wood finishes, this cleaner is a formula that’s tough on grease and grime—but not your floors.

Buy: Minwax Hardwood Floor Cleaner, $10.98 from Amazon

Credit: Target

Method Squirt + Mop Hardwood Floor Cleaner

Get the job done with this no-wax plant-based formula that’s gentle on floors, humans, and pets. 

Buy: Method Squirt + Mop Hardwood Floor Cleaner, $4.99 from Target

Is it safe to use vinegar to clean hardwood floors?

Though vinegar is acidic, it’s a good cleaning agent that’s technically safe to use on hardwood floors—as long as you don’t use concentrated formulas or clean with it too often, says Miller. It’s only for deep cleaning; no more than once per month, he says. With excessive use, it can eventually break down the finish on your wood floors. 

The general rule of thumb is to mix about one capful of white vinegar with one gallon of warm water in a large bucket. (White vinegar is the best cleaning agent, because it’s more potent, but you can also use apple cider vinegar if that’s what you have on hand.) Then, clean with the solution using a damp mop. 

How to Clean Hardwood Floors

Life gets messy—and every household is different, based on foot traffic and lifestyle factors, like kids and pets. But as a general rule of thumb, the NWFA recommends sweeping daily, vacuuming weekly, and doing a deep clean with a wood floor solution monthly. 

When it’s time for the big clean, you’ll need a vacuum, as well as a bucket and your cleaning solution of choice. Depending on your method of choice (per instructions below), you may also need a second bucket. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

1. Start by sweeping and vacuuming. 

Sweep and/or vacuum the floor thoroughly to remove dirt and dust. This is especially important for hardwood floors, because any lingering debris will scratch the surface of the floor as you mop.

2. Prepare a bucket of cleaning solution. 

Make sure the head of your mop fits inside the bucket. Use the provided diluting instructions for any commercial cleaners. If you’re using dish soap, mix 2 tablespoons of dish soap per gallon of warm water. If you’re using vinegar, mix a cap-full of white vinegar per gallon of warm water.

3. Dip and wring your mop. 

The mop should be damp, not sopping wet. It’s very important with hardwood floors to wring your mop out as much as possible so it’s never too wet, and so you’re not spreading dirt across your floor. You can also use the vinegar and water solution in a spray mop, if it’s recommended by the manufacturer.

Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

4. Mop your floors. 

It helps to work in small sections to keep track of the areas you’ve mopped. And always move backward as you mop to avoid walking over freshly-mopped floor. If you’re using a sponge mop or one where a cloth is pulled taught over the mop head, mop in straight lines; if you’re using a string mop or loose rag mop, mop in a figure-eight pattern.

When you encounter an especially tough or sticky spot, work the mop head over the spot, applying downward pressure. Avoid adding extra cleaning solution. If the spot remains, try hand-mopping the area with a sponge or rag.

5. Rinse the floors, if necessary. 

If you used dish soap, you’ll need to rinse the floors with fresh, clean water. If you used vinegar, there’s no need to rinse—your floors should be air-drying very quickly if you’ve wrung out your mop sufficiently. If you used a commercial cleaner, follow the directions on the label for rinsing and drying instructions.

Are steam mops bad for hardwood floors?

The short answer, says Miller: Yes, they’re bad. Don’t use a steam mop on hardwoods—even if the mop’s literature says it’s safe. 

“Steam is vapor water, and when water is in vapor form it finds its way into the wood cells and floor boards easier than it does in liquid form,” he says. By using steam on your wood floors, you can damage the finish, wood, and even the subfloor below, says Miller.