How to Clean Dust Properly (Yes, There's a Right Way!)

succulent with dust
Photo: Ted Cavanaugh

Sadly, those tiny specks floating around your home were not created by magic fairies. Here's what really makes up the grime that settles all over, well, everything, and how to give it the ultimate brush-off.

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succulent with dust
Ted Cavanaugh

Sadly, those tiny specks floating around your home were not created by magic fairies. Here’s what really makes up the grime that settles all over, well, everything, and how to give it the ultimate brush-off.

Dust, like taxes, is no fun to deal with, but equally inevitable. And now there’s even more reason to stay on top of it: According to a recent study by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., dust isn’t made up of just lint, pollen, skin cells, and animal dander. That sniffle-inducing soot may also contain -- hold onto your hand vac -- 45 potentially toxic chemicals, including TDCIPP (a flame retardant found in some furniture), the phthalate DEHP (in certain plastics, vinyl floors, and electronics), and phenols (used in some cleaning products).

“These are all chemicals that have been associated with health problems, includ- ing cancer and central- nervous-system damage,” says Kenneth Spaeth, M.D., chief of occupational and environmental medicine for Northwell Health in Long Island, New York.

His advice: “Minimize your exposure.” Try our streamlined approach and smart strategies, and you’ll have nothing left to sneeze at.

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Work Top-Down


“If you start cleaning on the ground, you’ll stir up dust rather than get rid of it,” says New York City pro home stager Tori Toth. That’s why the best way to blast it is by vacuuming your ceiling and walls once a month. Work your way toward the floor using the dust-brush tool.

If you have ceiling fans, defuzz them with a tube sock: Stretch it over each blade and pull it off, says Toth; then spritz the blades with a solution of three parts water and one part vinegar, and wipe dry with a microfiber cloth, which will grab teensy particles a regular rag would miss. To kill dust mites, toss socks and cloths in a super-hot wash cycle with a few teaspoons of vinegar.

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Follow the Seven-Day Rule


Keep plenty of those microfiber cloths on hand, because they’re perfect for polishing dressers, tables, and picture frames once a week (twice, if you have dust allergies), says Toth. The same goes for carpets, another dust magnet: Give them a pass at least weekly with your trusty vac -- ideally one with a HEPA filter, so particles won’t escape back into the room. The soft-brush attachment will whisk blinds and curtains clean, and the carpet hose can squeeze into tight spots, like under large beds and behind heavy furniture.

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Use the Force

Living Room Sofa

To remove dust from upholstered furniture, put on a rubber glove and rub it over the surface. “It will create static and pull out dust, hair, and fur,” says Boston-based green-cleaning coach Leslie Reichert. Then follow with a thorough hoovering with the upholstery tool.

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Baby Your Books

Matthew Hranek

While you build your digital library, your treasured paper one is forming a layer of lint. Try this tip from Toth three to four times a year: Vacuum the tops and spines with the soft-brush attachment, starting on the top shelf. Then slide books out three or four at a time and wipe the back of the bookshelf with a damp microfiber cloth to grab whatever’s lurking there.

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Try a Steeped Solution


A simple Lipton tea bag can help you gently condition dusty leather furniture, says Reichert. To renew shine, mix 1/2 cup olive oil with 1/4 cup plain brewed black tea and 1/4 cup white vinegar; shake well, then gently apply the mixture to leather couches and chairs with a micro-fiber cloth.

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Power-Clean Your Plants


Grime gives plants grief, too. Even a thin layer can block sunlight and slow leaves from making the energy they need to stay healthy. Their leaves accumulate dust just like everything else in the house. Take them outside and spray each leaf with a blast of compressed air (yes, the can you keep by your keyboard), then wipe them down with a damp cloth, says Toth. This is a better option than spritzing with water, which can actually encourage mold growth.

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Finish with the Floor


Mop weekly, and tackle low-to-the-ground details while you’re at it. Dryer sheets, which contain antistatic agents, are great for removing tenacious grime like pet hair from base- boards and corners, says Toth. They also create a static barrier that prevents dust from building back up quickly -- so the job will be even easier next time.

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Be Smart About Electronics

Mike Krautter

Cell phones, laptops, and TVs may put out toxic emissions like lead, phthalates, and flame retardants, which end up in dust. But some makers -- Acer, Apple, LG, Lenovo, Microsoft, Nokia, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony- Ericsson, and Toshiba -- have phased out those chemicals, says Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior sci- entist at the Environmental Working Group, in Wash- ington, D.C. Consider that when buying new electronic devices, and dust older ones at least once a week with a microfiber cloth.

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Get Savvy About Furniture

Annie Schlechter

If you’re in the market for a new sofa, pick one made without flame retardants, which manufacturers are no longer required by law to use, Stoiber says. Some brands advertise this; otherwise, ask. If you have an old chair or couch (from between 1970 and 2005) that’s made with foam, re-upholster it, or consider swapping in new, retardant-free foam. At a minimum, make sure the cushion covers are intact, since exposed foam can leak chemicals more quickly.

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Use Green Cleaning Products

Kana Okada

Choose formulas without irritants like bleach or ammonia, and avoid fragrances, which can contain phthalates. (Check for safer options.)

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