Old Bathtubs Aren’t Impossible to Clean, You’re Just Not Doing it Right

updated Sep 28, 2022
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Anyone who has ever rented an apartment (or at least one that wasn’t totally brand new with a sparkly-clean bathroom) has felt the struggle of dealing with an old, not-quite-clean bathtub. If it seems like no matter how much elbow grease you put into cleaning your tub, your rental’s bathtub is still stained, it might just be that you haven’t tried the right solution yet. You’re going to need more than your typical bathroom cleaner spray to clean your old tub.

How to Clean the 3 Most Popular Tub Types

First thing’s first—before you do anything, make sure you know what kind of bathtub you’re working with. Is it acrylic, enamel, or porcelain? Some solutions work like a charm on one type of tub but could do permanent damage to others, so it’s important to figure this out in advance. Once you’re sure of what you’ve got, you can get on to the cleaning process.

(Note: These are the three most popular types of bathtubs and what we’re covering in this guide, but you might have one made out of another material).

Acrylic Tubs

Most modern homes have acrylic tubs, according to Merry Maids. It’s fairly easy to tell if you have one (if you don’t already know for sure)—essentially, if it looks like it’s made out of plastic, you have an acrylic tub.

Acrylic tubs are prone to discoloration and cracking, so it’s important that you avoid using anything abrasive (that includes scrub brushes and scouring pads, Merry Maids explained) when you’re cleaning one.

Cleaning expert Jolie Kerr suggests using a cream cleanser like Soft Scrub for regular cleaning, noting that prolonged exposure to the cleanser might help with stubborn stain removal—try leaving it on for at least 30 minutes to see if it takes care of any discoloration. If that doesn’t work, Kerr suggests using a Magic Eraser.

Enamel Tubs

Enamel tubs, which are actually made out of cast iron or steel and coated in enamel, are also pretty popular, according to Merry Maids. If your bathtub sounds metallic or you have an old claw-foot tub, it’s probably enamel.

When it comes to enamel tubs, you have to watch out for chips, cracks and dulled surfaces, so you’ll want to avoid scouring pads and acidic cleaners that can degrade the surface of your tub. Instead, both Merry Maids and Kerr suggest reaching for a powder cleaning solution (though they should be used sparingly because they’re still abrasive) and using gentle cleaning tools.

Bon Amis is probably the gentlest alternative, Kerr noted, but you can also use Comet or Ajax. For stains, try making a paste out of the powder and letting it sit for 30 minutes before rinsing and wiping it clean. You can also make a paste of 2 parts baking soda to 1 part hydrogen peroxide and follow the same 30-minutes-then-rinse formula.

Porcelain Tubs

Porcelain tubs are older, heavier, and expensive, and therefore less common, so unless you live in a historic home, you probably don’t have one. They look similar to enamel tubs, but according to Kerr, you can tell the difference by placing a magnet on the tub—if it sticks, it’s enamel; if not, it’s most likely porcelain.

According to Merry Maids, porcelain tubs have a higher tolerance for cleaning agents, so you can fight scum with a mixture of vinegar, dish soap, and cornstarch. You can also use cleaning screens (like lightweight sandpaper for your tub).

Kerr suggests using a pumice scouring stick to scrub away stains, noting that they also work well on stained porcelain toilets. Reader’s Digest also noted that you can use oven cleaner (but only on white porcelain tubs, as it can cause other colors to fade).

Tips & Tricks

  • Be sure to spot test any cleaners that you haven’t used before prior to using them on your entire tub, just in case it causes damage.
  • Always start with the gentlest method and work your way up to more serious, stain-fighting ones.
  • You can safely use dishwashing liquid for regular cleanings on acrylic, enamel and porcelain tubs.

Finally got your bathtub stain-free, but now you’re stuck with some gross-looking grout? This tutorial (which involves baking soda, vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide) should help you take care of it.