How to Clean Hardwood Floors

By: Beth Krietsch and Lucy Huber
Beautiful bamboo hardwood floor with a central vacuum cleaner.

Hardwood floors are a durable, aesthetically pleasing addition to any home, but they do require regular care in order to stay in top condition. With the right care, your floors will stay impeccable for years—in fact, many hardwood floors actually appear to improve as they age. Here’s the best advice on how to clean hardwood floors so you can keep them looking their best.

Step 1: Prevent hardwood floors from accumulating dirt

The first step to cleaning hardwood floors begins before you even reach for the broom—there are several preventative actions a homeowner or renter can take to ensure their floors stay clean.

Areas in your home with heavy foot traffic are the first to appear dirty and need cleaning. To protect hardwood floors, many homeowners ask guests to take off their shoes at the front door so no additional dirt or grime enters the house.

Another prevention strategy is to place doormats or area rugs in entryways to high-traffic rooms or along corridors in your house that get regular use. Placing floor protectors under your furniture will also protect the wood from discoloration and scratching. This is an excellent and simple method—and the floor protectors will help you move furniture out of the way when giving your floors a more thorough cleaning.

Pro tip: When choosing carpets to put over hardwood floors, be sure to ask professional advice on whether the carpet is suitable for your floors. Some carpets can stain or scratch hardwood floors.

Step 2: Know your hardwood: Sealed or unsealed

There are two different types of hardwood floors—floors sealed with a protective waterproof coating and unsealed floors, usually coated in wax. How you clean them will depend on type. If you are unsure if your floors are sealed or unsealed, you can find out with an easy test. Put a small drop of water on the floor. If the water stays in a bead, the floor is sealed. If the water is slowly absorbed into the floor, the floor is unsealed.

All hardwood floors—whether sealed or unsealed—must first be swept or dry mopped to remove dirt and debris. You may also want to vacuum your floors to be sure you’ve gotten rid of all the dirt, dust, and pet hair, that may have settled in the cracks. When you vacuum, be sure to use the floor brush attachment and not the beater bar, as it may damage the surface of the floor.

Step 3: Clean the hardwood based on its type

If your hardwood floors are surface-sealed floors with urethane, polyurethane, or polyacrylic, you can clean them by using a mop, water, and a small amount of gentle dish soap. Another option is to use a wood-cleaning product such as Murphy’s Oil Soap. For a natural cleaner—and to get your floors looking shiny—soak two tea bags in boiling water and use a cloth to gently wipe your floors. When cleaning with any product and water, always wring out the mop until it is just damp. Even though sealed floor are water-resistant, they can still be damaged by too much water. Always be sure to mop with the grain of the wood.

Special considerations for unfinished hardwood floors

Most hardwood floors are sealed and finished. However, if your hardwood flooring is unfinished and lacks a sealant, cleaning it becomes a bit more complicated. As many of the cleaning products recommended for sealed flooring are abrasive or wet, they might damage unsealed wood flooring.

To clean unfinished hardwoods, sweep and vacuum regularly—but only use a broom designed for indoor use and ensure your vacuum is set to the proper height or that the bare floor attachment is installed. You will occasionally need to do a deeper clean to remove build up.

Though you can use a small amount of water to clean a sealed floor, typically with a damp mop, never use water to clean unsealed flooring. The wood will quickly absorb the water and potentially warp or crack the floor. This is the same reason why you’ll want to avoid liquid floor cleaning products. Instead, use mineral spirits, white vinegar, or Murphy’s Oil Soap to clean and sanitize your unfinished hardwood floor.

Additionally, you can keep your unsealed hardwood floors in great condition by applying a petroleum-based waterless wax or by treating the floor with natural oil, such as linseed oil, once a month. Apply the oil to the floor with a cloth, let it sit for a few minutes, and wipe with a dry mop. To restore the shine of unsealed floors—and to make them safer and less slippery—strip and re-apply a new wax coating at least once a year.

Room with hardwood floors

What to avoid when cleaning hardwood floors

To keep your hardwood floors clean and well maintained, avoid cleaning with:

  • Wet mops—Excess water can damage the wood and dull the finish of your floors. If you are going to use a wet mop to assist in cleaning the floors, wring it out before every use. Think damp—not wet.
  • Steam cleaners—Steam cleaning is great for carpets but will destroy your hardwood floors. Steam cleaners work by using pressurized boiling water, converted into steam. Because water will warp wood floors—especially unfinished wood flooring—avoid steam cleaning.
  • Tile and vinyl cleaning products and waxes—Tile cleaners are not all-purpose cleaners. These products are specifically designed to clean tile—not flooring. If used on wood, these products will leave a residue and can potentially create a slippery, unsafe surface. Furthermore, they’ll dull the color of your hardwood floors. Vinyl cleaning products fall under these same guidelines and should be avoided when cleaning your wood floors.
  • Ammonia and alkaline products—These products will scratch the finish of your floors and may also dull the color of your flooring. Protect your floors by staying clear of ammonia and alkaline products.

How often you should clean your hardwood floors

Daily sweeping using an indoor broom designed for hardwood floors is an excellent maintenance technique and can protect your floors for years. Vacuuming weekly—or more—will help ensure your floors stay in top condition.

Floor cleaners can be used to clean hardwood floors quarterly or monthly depending on the level of traffic in the household. There are many floor cleaning products available at hardwood stores and big box stores. If you plan to use a floor cleaner, make sure it is suited for the specific wood flooring in your home.

Black and White Cat on Wood Floor top view

How to remove spills and scuff marks from hardwood floors

With spills, time is of the essence. As soon as a spill occurs, wipe up the liquid with a dry or slightly damp cloth. If a spill is left to sit for too long, it will damage your hardwood floor.

Most light scuff marks can be easily removed with a clean, damp sponge, and a teaspoon of baking soda or a dime-sized dollop of toothpaste. Toothbrushes, sponges, and erasers all remove scuff marks. You could also try using steel wool—but only on darker floors.

Non-toxic cleaning solutions

Many commercial floor cleaning products contain potentially toxic chemicals—it’s up to you to determine if you’ll want to bring those into your home environment. There is at least one good non-toxic cleaning option—a homemade cleaning solution with one part white vinegar to one part vegetable oil.

  1. Combine equal parts white vinegar and vegetable oil in a spray bottle.
  2. Spray the cleaner onto the wood floor.
  3. Use a mop to move the mixture around—the vinegar removes dirt while the vegetable oil helps condition the wood and keep it shiny.
  4. Wipe any residue off the floor with a soft towel in a circular motion to bring out the shine.

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