7 Ways to Clean Hardwood Floors Without Damaging Their Natural Beauty

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Reviewed by Asya Biddle
Updated September 14, 2022
clean living room with hardwood floor
Photo: Jodie Johnson / Stocksy / Adobe Stock

It's time to clean up our act on how we clean hardwood floors

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Whether newly installed or over 100 years old, hardwood floors are the pride and joy of your home. Learning how to clean hardwood floors, on the other hand, requires a bit of care and consideration to avoid the dreaded scratches, stains, and—dare we say it—water damage. 

Thankfully, the job isn’t as tricky as it sounds. Once you find the best hardwood cleaners and tools for your unique floors, it's easy to get into a rhythm that will keep your floors as clean as the rest of your home.

Why Do Hardwood Floors Require Special Care?

Wood and water don't have a history of getting along, which puts us in a pickle when it comes to keeping hardwood floors clean. Even newly finished floors can experience "cupping" when oversaturated with water—aka, when the water reaches the base of the board and results in warping. Additionally, hardwood floors can get scratched, dinged, and stained, even from small pieces of grit tracked in on our shoes or from a pass with the vacuum.

Begin by investigating the type of wood and finish you have. Water-based finishes—such as water-based polyurethane—are often more durable against water than oil-based finishes used in older homes. When buying hardwood floors, you'll also learn about the unique softness or hardness of wood varieties as well as the more durable stains and finishes.

If you're in doubt about the type of wood used in your floors or the type of finish, contact a local hardwood flooring contractor for guidance.

Preparing to Clean Hardwood Floors

medium brown shiny hardwood floor
Photo: angelo sarnacchiaro / Adobe Stock

First of all, there's no need to obsess over cleaning or waxing your hardwood floors on a weekly basis. In fact, you only need to deep clean hardwood with a mop and cleaning solution every one to two months, depending on foot traffic. In between deep cleans, remove dust and grit with a dry mop or vacuum about once a week.

Prepare to clean your hardwood floors by determining the type of wood, stain, and trouble areas that need special attention. For example, is there a chair leg slowly creating a scratch line on the floor? How about a water spot in the mudroom where the kids always put down their boots?

Next, you'll want to choose the gentle tools and hardwood-approved cleaners for the job, many of which we've noted below. "The safest way to remove stuck-on dirt and grime from your hardwood floors is to utilize a non-abrasive, pH neutral cleaning solution with a lightly damp string mop," says Asya Biddle, Angi Expert Review Board member and manager of The Dust Busters janitorial company in Williamsport, PA.  Always avoid:

  • A soaking-wet mop

  • Brooms with touch bristles

  • Ammonia or window cleaner

  • Bleach

  • Steam cleaners

  • All abrasive cleaning chemicals

If you're concerned about a natural or commercial cleaning product, test a small portion of the solution on a hidden spot on your floors. 

How to Clean Hardwood Floors

Despite its peculiarities, cleaning hardwood floors should not be as time-consuming as scrubbing bathroom tiles or kitchen floors. Fewer deep cleans overall make this a relatively easy project once you get the hang of it.

Sweep or Dry Mop

Not only does grit stick to your bare feet when it builds on floors, but it can also scratch hardwood over time. Choose a soft-bristled broom or microfiber dry mop to remove dust, dirt, grit, and pet hair at least twice a week. Pay extra attention to trouble rooms like the foyer, entrance hallways, or mudrooms.

Vacuum

Vacuuming once or twice a week is an excellent alternative to sweeping or dry mopping, but we do have a word of warning. Test your vacuum in an inconspicuous spot to ensure the wheels and brushes do not scrape your floors. In most cases, a vacuum does not pose a threat, but be sure to keep the rotating brush feature turned off. Some vacuums also include a flat floor attachment with a soft, removable pad.

Commercial Wood Floor Cleaner

When it comes to choosing a store-bought cleaner for hardwood floors, a good rule of thumb is to keep it simple. Trusted brands that advertise removing residue and dirt are your best bets. These options often feature natural oils and avoid harsh chemicals both to avoid damaging your floors and avoid potent volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) spreading through your home.

Steer clear of cleaning solutions that promise to "shine, wax, or enhance the color" of your floors, even if it appears to work on the first pass. Harsh chemicals may look good temporarily but can wear down the finish and even patina of the natural wood over time.

Most importantly, follow the instructions on the bottle for distilling and cleaning your floors with the product.

Vinegar Solution (But Test First)

There's a lot of debate about whether to use a solution of vinegar and water on hardwood floors, particularly if you use it often. Vinegar solutions are best for floors with a strong water-based finish such as polyurethane or urethane. In either case, always test your solution on an inconspicuous area before cleaning the whole floor. When you're ready to clean the whole room, here's how to go about it:

  1. Combine one cup of distilled white vinegar with one gallon of water.

  2. Dip your mop or cloth in the solution and heavily ring it out before applying it to the floor.

  3. Pass over the floor once with the mop and let the floor fully air dry.

Dish Soap for Oil Stains

Let's say you drop a bit of food on the floor and it leaves a dark grease mark that won't come up with your regular cleaner. Rub a few drops of standard dish soap on the area and wipe it away with warm water on a clean cloth. The soap will break up the grease in the same way it cleans food off dishes. Just be sure to let the spot fully dry and avoid standing water.

Dark stains can also be a sign that something penetrated the finish of your floors. If dish soap doesn't do the trick, buff the area with the finest steel wool—often called grade #000 steel wool—and a bit of mineral spirits or floor wax to break up the stain.

Mineral Oil for White Rings

A white stain on your hardwood floors is often a good sign that the culprit hasn't penetrated the finish. In many cases, the white mark will fade on its own as it dries, just as it does when you place a water glass on a wooden table without a coaster. However, it's important to treat the wood if the white stain sticks around. Here's how to handle it:

  1. Dust the area with a cloth to remove surface dirt.

  2. Add mineral oil to a new cloth and lightly scrub the area around the stain.

  3. Let the oil stay on the floor overnight and remove it with a damp cloth in the morning.

Buff for Extreme Cleans

If it's been a minute since your floors got some serious TLC, you may need to buff the hardwood. Buffing is best when you have several surface stains, scratches, and dings across the whole room but not deep scratches or water damage that calls for refinishing or replacement.

You can rent a buffer from your local hardware store for about $50 a day. After sweeping or vacuuming up grit, pass over the floor with a slightly damp mop to ensure it's dry and ready for the buffer. The machine may also include instructions on how to prepare your floor for the process.

Buffers can either run dry without a cleaner or with a specific hardwood floor buffing solution. The process should smooth out basic imperfections on the surface for a smoother shine.

How to Prevent Hardwood Floor Damage

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

As is the case with most things in life, prevention is the best medicine. Keep your hardwood floors from losing their luster, getting scratched, or suffering stains with a few care tips. For example:

  • Never allow standing water to pool on your hardwood floors.

  • Consider refinishing your floors every 10 years.

  • If you have pets with sharp nails, consider laying down area rugs.

  • Pay extra attention to high-traffic rooms.

  • Address stains quickly.

  • Limit traffic in shoes that could scratch or leave grit throughout the room.

  • Avoid hard chemicals or over-cleaning your floors.

  • Remove grit at least once a week to avoid scratches.

  • Place protective pads on the legs of all furniture.

  • Apply a sunproof finish if your floors are in direct light.

DIY vs. Hiring a Pro

Cleaning hardwood floors is a standard job for a professional home cleaner. While most cleaning professionals charge between $30 and $50 an hour, they may include add-on services like waxing and polishing floors for an extra flat fee of $25 to $50. Once you get into hardwood floor refinishing, costs can range from $400 to $6,000, but keep in mind that this only happens about once a decade.

If you decide to clean your own hardwood floors, you'll likely pay anywhere from $10 to $50 for the tools and cleaning solution, in addition to the $50 a day rental fee for the buffer if you choose to go that route. Cleaning hardwood floors is an easy and affordable DIY, but hiring professional cleaners will ensure your floors stay clean and shiny all year round.

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, you can mop hardwood floors with a damp flat or string mop as long as it is not soaking wet. Always avoid leaving standing water or fully soaking your hardwood floors, even if they are properly finished. Slightly let mope with or without cleaning solutions, will not damage the wood.

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