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The Dirt on Steam Cleaning

Learn about how steam cleaners function and what they can't do before you put yours to work

Cleaning Vapor

Photo by Virgil Bastos/Time Inc. Digital Studio

With so much interest in cleaning without chemicals, steam is being touted as a greener option. The latest appliances—in stick-mop, handheld, and canister versions—let you blast many common household surfaces with a surge of vapor to loosen grime and kill germs. Here's what to know before you invest.

How Steam Cleaners Work

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Water is heated past the boiling point and forced out as pressurized steam through a nozzle, brush, or other attachment. The vapor loosens dirt and kills dust mites, mold, staph, and other allergens and harmful bacteria. No suction is required, since the high-heat moisture dries quickly. For heavily soiled surfaces, some manufacturers suggest steam-cleaning first, then wiping away dirt with a cloth before the moisture dries.

Where They Can Be Used

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Steam works well on hard, impervious surfaces, such as countertops and bathroom fixtures, and floors made of vinyl, laminate, polyurethaned wood, or tile. Some models can clean upholstery, mattresses, and curtains, too.

What Shouldn't Be Steam-Cleaned

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Painted walls and unsealed floors, including hardwood, cork, and unglazed tile, may be damaged by the moisture. The heat from steam can also cause cold window glass to crack.

Which Features Are Worth Considering

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Look for a machine with a quick warm-up time; some produce steam in just 30 seconds, while others take 3 minutes or more. Handheld units provide around 10 minutes of cleaning time before needing a water refill. Larger canister versions can last up to 45 minutes but are harder to maneuver. Some machines require you to hold the stream of steam in place for up to 15 seconds to ensure proper sanitization, which can mean a long cleaning session for, say, a kitchen floor. Others take just 1 to 3 seconds. And there's also price: Stick-style mops run around $35 to $55, while canister versions cost $100 and up.