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How to Properly Clean Hardwood Floors

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated October 6, 2021
clean living room with hardwood floor
Jodie Johnson/Stocksy -

Keep your hardwood floors clean and protected, even in the most high-traffic areas of your home

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Whether cherry, hickory, or walnut, hardwood floors are the gold standard of flooring. Depending on its finish, hardwood floor cleaning is a more involved process than simply mopping with an all-purpose floor cleaner.

Here’s a step-by-step guide for how to clean hardwood floors with a few commonly found household items.

Difficulty: 1/5

Time: 20 minutes

Tools Needed:

  • Vacuum

  • Microfiber mop

  • Hardwood floor cleaner

  • Grade #000 steel wool (for stains)

  • Dish soap

  • Hydrogen peroxide

1. Vacuum and Dust Your Floors

medium brown shiny hardwood floor
angelo sarnacchiaro -

While it may be tempting to mop and shine your hardwood floors to perfection once a week, you won't need to deep clean them more than once every two months or so. Overcleaning wood floors, especially with too much water or the wrong solution, can cause them to warp or fade.

That being said, dusting and vacuuming is an excellent weekly ritual to keep grit, dust, and tumbleweeds of cat hair from accumulating on the wood. You can, of course, move the deep clean up on your schedule if the floor had a particularly messy week from muddy boots, a wet dog, or recent home renovations.

When vacuuming, keep the beater bar turned off and, if possible, opt for a floor-cleaning attachment for a thorough once-over. Dusting floors is an important step before deep-cleaning, so if you're breaking out the cleaning supplies, you'll want to start here.

2. Check the Floor’s Finish

Your floors will either feature a surface or a penetrating finish. Surface finishes include a top layer of protective polyurethane or urethane to keep out water and most stains. Because of this, you won't have to worry as much about water-based cleaning solutions as you would with penetrating finishes. Overall, they're much easier to clean and maintain.

Penetrating finishes include a stain, such as linseed oil. Older floors typically include this variety and can be trickier to clean due to their susceptibility to water absorption.

Speak with your floor’s manufacturer or a local hardwood flooring repair specialist if your floors significantly pre-date your time owning the home. These pros can identify the hardwood floor finish and recommend the best cleaner.

3. Choose the Best Floor Cleaner

One of the biggest hardwood floor-cleaning conundrums is determining what type of cleaning solution—either store-bought or homemade—is safe to use.

Don’t Put These On Your Floor

Here’s a list of what not to use:

  • Heavily water-based cleaners or a soaking mop

  • Steam cleaners meant for carpets and upholstery

  • Highly alkaline or acidic solutions

  • Cleaners or waxes with high levels of oil or petroleum

All this being said, some hardwood floors—typically those with a surface finish—can stand up against these cleaners in the short term. However, over time these cleaning solutions can end up breaking down the finish, fading its color, or warping the floorboards. 

Always test a small area of your floors before starting. Even if the bottle advertises its specific wood-safe formula, be sure it applies to your floor’s finish.

4. Focus on Stains and Smells

Just as you would with a stained piece of clothing, you can pretreat stains and odd odors before the overall clean.

Controlling Odors

For example, remove dog urine smell from your floors with a bit of hydrogen peroxide and dish soap to neutralize the scent.

Be wary of the vinegar-and-water tactic unless it is properly diluted, you've tested a small area, and you're certain you have floors with a surface finish.

White Stains

Another common stain on hardwood floors is white water rings or spots. A white stain is typically caused by a stain that didn't permeate the finish or from too much moisture or heat applied to the wood. These stains will either dry up on their own or can be removed by applying a cotton ball with a solution made up of one cup of cleaning-grade hydrogen peroxide and a gallon of water.

Food and Oil-Based Stains

If you have significant build-up from food spills and dirty shoes, begin by removing the hard and sticky residue with a cloth. If necessary, delicately pry up food with the back of a butter knife.

You can then opt for a very fine, grade #000 steel wool to remove the stain coupled with a bit of dish soap diluted in a gallon of water.

5. Damp-Mop Your Floors

someone cleaning hardwood floor with mop
Grace Cary/Moment via Getty Images

Now that you're ready to give your floor a thorough cleaning, choose a microfiber mop, especially those that pick up floor cleaner sprayed directly on the ground. 

As noted above, too much water can lead to warping, buckling, or discoloration over time, eventually leading to repair or replacement.

6. Let Floors Thoroughly Dry

Sit back and take a break as your floors dry out from the solution. If you live in a particularly humid area, turn on a fan or dehumidifier as the floors dry to ensure a quick and steady process.

The best way to keep your hardwood floors clean is to understand how they respond to water, oil, and other cleaners. Whenever in doubt, call your local hardwood cleaning specialist for your first cleaning and tips for the future.

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