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How to Clean Hardwood Floors Without Damaging Them

Want your hardwood floors to shine? From vacuuming to mopping, discover how to clean your hardwood floors & what to use to without leaving lasting damage.

Clean wood flooring that shines. Alex Hayden

Properly cleaned floors are not hard to obtain, especially if you stay ahead of the game. Put down tough-bristled mats, park gritty boots and shoes at the door, sweep, dry-mop, or vacuum often, and when the floor looks dull, get into all the nooks and corners with a damp mop and a neutral solution.

Hardwood Floor Cleaning and Maintenance Steps

In most households, wood floors should be cleaned at least four to six times a year.

Floor installer Michael Dittmer, who lives outside Chicago, dispatches a robot vac daily to keep an eye on his entire first floor. “Then I clean the kitchen floor weekly and in other rooms twice a month.” Of course, he has a yard, dogs, and teenage boys. For many households, this regimen should do the trick.

4 Methods To Clean and Maintain Your Floors

  1. Choose a soft-bristled broom angled. Take preemptive action to get into corners and wide enough to swiftly do the job—moving with the grain, of course.
  2. Vacuum with a soft floor nozzle; carpet beaters and brush rolls can damage the finish. Robot vacs do the work for you; shop for one that won’t vacuum itself into a corner and will last at least an hour before stopping to recharge.
  3. Attack sticky debris ASAP with a damp clean cloth, a mini squirt of wood floor cleaner, and a vigorous rub; if you don’t like to crouch, plant one foot on a rag. Lift off dust and pet hair with a microfiber mop head, ideally treated with a positive electric charge so it can capture negative-ion ephemera. Keep the mop head moving, again with the grain.
  4. Use a damp-mop with a flat-head mop and microfiber pad or a microfiber string mop that has been thoroughly wrung out when it looks dingy. Move with the grain, and control the amount of cleaning solution by using a spray bottle, aiming for a heavy mist or gentle squirt of about a half teaspoon per 2 square feet. No need to rinse. No need to buff either, but cloth diapers and soft socks do work well here.

5 Ways to Avoid Major Damage

  1. Don’t ignoring wet or sticky spills. They won’t go away on their own. Did an ice cube just shoot under the table? Go get it.
  2. Don’t bring on the heavy equipment. You can damage the finish by attacking with a broom meant for the garage or a floor-cleaning machine designed for tougher flooring.
  3. Avoid applying the wrong cleaning product. Experts say Murphy Oil Soap can leave a residue on polyurethane. Paste wax simply makes it slippery. As for acrylic polishes that claim to remove the glow while putting more on? They can dull polyurethane—just remove the grime and it will shine.
  4. Be aware of flooding the zone. Standing water and overly wet mops shoot moisture between boards and through tiny tears in the finish that form when wood shrinks and expands with the weather. Over time, moisture can damage the wood.
  5. No steam cleaning. Never on wood. Save it for tile, linoleum, and vinyl.

What To Use To Clean Hardwood Floors

For a neutral solution, you want a pH level of about 7, or matched to cured poly; higher is too alkaline, and lower is okay for an all-purpose cleaner, but not here. One example is Bona’s free & simple Hardwood Floor Cleaner ($18; Bona).

Is it Safe to Use Vinegar to Clean Hardwood Floors?

Don’t use vinegar or baking soda solutions. Old-fashioned remedies involving vinegar or dish detergent can’t do the same job as today’s multi-functioning solutions and can actually damage or dull polyurethane.

Unfortunately, the cure is sometimes worse than the grime. “Too much water, any amount of steam!” says Brett Miller, a technical expert at the National Wood Flooring Association.

Other no-no’s: strong vinegar or baking soda solutions that can degrade polyurethane, and “glow” enhancers that sound as if they would work on your hair.

What Makes Wood Floors Shine?

Here are the key components to look for in ready-made solutions engineered specifically for wood floors:

  • Solvents: Speed the drying process, reducing exposure to moisture and making the job go faster; they also minimize streaking and filmy buildup. Method’s Squirt & Mop Wood Floor Cleaner contains two solvents, one derived from cornstalks ($5).
  • Surfactants: Loosen grease and dirt and emulsify them so they can move to the mop head; they’re the key ingredient in Rejuvenate’s Hardwood Floor Cleaner ($15)
  • Chelators: Found in Method’s cleaner, fight water spotting and snow-melt salts.
  • Citric Acid: Breaks up dirt and combines with alkaline ingredients to help achieve a neutral pH.
  • Oxidizers: Release hydrogen peroxide to bust up dirt on long-neglected floors and are in extra-strength solutions like Bona’s PowerPlus ($21; The Home Depot).

Wood Floor Cleaners and Tools

Broom and Dustpan
Regular soft sweeping does the job. Try Casabella’s Wayclean Wide Angled Broom ($13; Casabella); for $2 more, you can have its Neon Broom and Dustpan set. Or wrangle those crumbs skulking under the table with the tony horsehair and waxed-beechwood Room Broom ($58, with handle; Nessentials).

Vacuum Cleaner
Choose one that’s easy to pick up and maneuver and has a soft roller head, like Dyson’s V8 Absolute ($600; Dyson).

Microfiber Mop
Look for a swivel head and a fluffy, reusable pad for dry mopping and a denser one for damp mopping. (Wipes should be formulated for wood floors; Bona’s come as a 12-pack, $9).

Some spray mops have refillable tanks riding on the shaft, such as Libman Freedom Spray Mop ($30). O-Cedar’s Dual-Action Microfiber Flip Mop ($20) has pads for dry and wet mopping—throw them in the wash but avoid fabric softener, which can cause streaking.

Or go for a microfiber string mop that can be wrung out till just damp, like Casabella’s Spin Cycle Mop ($30; Casabella).