The Best Way to Clean and Brighten Grout and Tiles
With tile, the difference between dingy and dazzling often comes down to the grout in between. "Grout is incredibly porous-like a giant sponge, which means it will absorb any grease, grime, oils or spills it comes into contact with," says Leslie Reichert, green-cleaning coach and author of The Joy of Cleaning ($9.47, amazon.com). And while the culprit may vary from room to room (mildew in the bathroom, cooking splatters in the kitchen, mud stains on the foyer floor), you don't need specialized systems to get gross grout—and surrounding tiles!—clean again. Here's a fail-proof strategy to help your wall and floor tiles sparkle.
Clean the Tiles
For most types of tile, including porcelain and ceramic, a DIY grout cleaner of warm water and dish soap will do the trick. "Diluted vinegar is a common recommendation, but vinegar is very acidic," says Robb Roderick, a technical trainer at the National Tile Contractors Association. "If the solution is too strong, you'll weaken and damage the grout, and vinegar can etch stone tiles." Instead, spray the gentler solution of water and dish soap, then wipe with a damp microfiber towel or cloth.
Use Steam to Scrub Bathroom Tiles
In the bathroom, you're probably dealing not only with surface dirt and debris, but also soap scum residue, which can be harder to remove. Make it easy on yourself by spritzing the tiled floors and shower walls with surface cleaner, then cranking the hot water for five minutes until steam builds. Wait 20 minutes and the tiles will be noticeably easier to wipe clean with a cloth.
Scrub the Grout Lines
Time to turn your attention to the grout lines between those clean tiles. How grimy the grout gets may come down to what it's made of: Traditional grout is a mixture of sand and cement, though more modern options include latex and other polymers to help boost their stain-resistance. No matter what stains you're facing, water and patience will be your two best tools. Start by spraying the grout with hot water and scrubbing with a stiff bristle brush or a grout brush, to lift any dirt or grime on the surface. "If you have a steam cleaner on hand, that's especially effective," says Melissa Maker, author of Clean My Space ($15.01, amazon.com). Apply steam directly to the grout, then use your brush to scrub in a circular motion. "Blot any moisture away with a rag, and once the grout dries it may look good as new."
Why Water Works Best
Water has a neutral pH (at 7) and is particularly gentle and safe for grout, says Rodderick. That's less true for highly acidic cleaners (such as vinegar, with a pH around 2) and highly alkaline cleaners (such as bleach, with a pH around 12), so you want to use them very sparingly.
Attack Stubborn Grout Stains
If your grout still looks dull, grab a cleaner that's pH neutral (such as Neu's Tub & Tile Cleaner). Then grab that stiff brush again and give it another scrub. "Elbow grease really is the most important ingredient," says Donna Smallin Kuper, certified house cleaning technician and author at Unclutter.com. A Magic Eraser can also make quick work of stubborn stains but know that you might go through more than one to get a room full of tiles sparkly. After scrubbing, use a damp sponge or microfiber cloth to remove any remaining grout cleaner. Just make sure you're using a clean cloth and fresh water, says Maker. "If the sponge is dirty or you're using dingy mop water to rinse, the grout will soak it up and become discolored again in a snap."
For super-stubborn stains, the Tile Council of America recommends alkaline cleaners (such as Mr. Clean or Spic and Span) over-acidic options. For any non-neutral cleaner, Rodderick suggests doing a quick test in a small, inconspicuous spot. Wait a few minutes to make sure you don't spot discoloration or damage before moving on to the rest of the grout lines.
Hot, humid bathrooms with limited circulation are like dream environments for mold spores. While bleach does effectively kill mold on non-porous surfaces, like tiles and countertops, it's not as effective on porous surfaces like caulk, drywall, wood, and grout. Smallin Kuper recommends Zep Tile Mold Stain and Mildew Stain Remover ($1.98, homedepot.com) to send mold stains packing for good. Then make it a habit to open a window or run the bathroom fan after showers, to lower the room's humidity.
Seal Your Success
Sealers fill the grout's pores, preventing grime, grit, and mold from infiltrating the porous material. How often you need to seal grout depends on how high-traffic a tiled area is, but aim for at least annually-and for most areas in the home, twice a year is a solid goal, says Maker. Just be sure to wait at least 24 hours between deep-scrubbing and applying the sealer, to make sure the grout is completely dry. DuPont Grout Sealer ($19.95, amazon.com) is one well-rated option.
Make Some Daily Tweaks
With your tile floors, if you notice certain areas are particularly grimy-say, by the back door or near the laundry basket—consider putting down a rug to better protect those areas from dirt and debris or make sweeping and mopping a more frequent habit, says Maker.
In the bathroom, you'll cut future grout-scouring time by half (or more!) if you keep a small squeegee or a clean microfiber cloth near the shower, to quickly wipe down the tiles after you turn off the water. "You'll hardly have to deep clean, because there's nothing building up on the tile's surface," says Reichert. Tell your family to open a window or run the exhaust fan for 10 to 20 minutes after a shower as well, to quickly pull humidity and moisture from the room and help prohibit mold growth on the grout.