When it comes to safely cleaning and protecting hard floors, there are several universal truths (plus a few key differences, depending on type).
Basic Floor Care
Leave shoes at the door. The absolute best long-term cleaning defense for hard flooring is to avoid tracking in grit, tiny pebbles, and oils that scratch, etch, permeate, and cause virtually all hard flooring types to appear dull over time.
Sweep and vacuum often. Even when you leave shoes at the door, it’s impossible to keep damaging debris from falling. Frequent sweeping (dare we say daily?) and at least weekly vacuuming is also a must.
Wipe spills immediately. Except for wood laminates and glazed tiles, hard flooring types are essentially—and to varying degrees—porous. That makes them highly vulnerable to staining, so it’s imperative to pay prompt attention to spills.
Damp mop only, then dry! The same porousness that makes hard floors susceptible to staining also makes them vulnerable to long-term damage from moisture: warping, mold/mildew growth, and so forth. The rule, then, is to damp (versus wet) mop, then physically (versus air) dry after cleaning.
Go pH neutral and avoid abrasives. While certain hard flooring types can withstand a little diluted acid (such as lemon juice) to remove dulling soap buildup, or mild abrasives to attack tough stains, many others will sustain serious damage from both acidic and alkaline cleaners (such as ammonia) and abrasives. Best rule of thumb is to use a pH-neutral cleaning solution that’s designed to bond with and pick up dirt and oils (versus just swishing them around). Rinse your mop frequently with clean water and never skip the rinse step where you focus on removing soap residues after you’ve picked up all the dirt.
These basics will get you most of the way with cleaning, protecting, and extending the lifetimes of hard floors.
Stone. Common varieties include limestone, slate, travertine, granite, and marble. Avoid acids like the plague, use the least possible amounts of water, and always dry after cleaning. For softer varieties, such as travertine and limestone, periodic resealing is also a must to protect against staining.
Laminates. Virtually indestructible on the surface, wood laminate floors are still susceptible at the seams. Seeping water can break down adhesives over time, causing unsightly warping, peeling, and bubbling.
Wood (surface sealed). Most contemporary wood floors are sealed with polyurethanes, meaning it’s perfectly safe to damp mop using the basic guidelines above. Never use oils or furniture polish—hello skating rink! And, despite all your best efforts, these floors will still dull over time as the finish deteriorates, so expect to sand and refinish every 7–10 years.
Wood (unsealed). Unsealed may be too strong a word as older hardwood floors tend to be at least oiled, lacquered/shellacked, or treated with so-called penetrating sealers. Nonetheless, these wood floor types are united in their hatred of water and should NOT be damp mopped. Address serious stains directly, using the least possible amounts of cleaners and water. These high-maintenance floors also need regular waxing, which is a three-step:
- strip the old layer
- apply a new layer of either paste or liquid wax
- machine buff to a high shine
Ceramic tile (glazed). When glazed tiles start looking dull, it’s generally okay to use a mildly acidic solution to remove soapy residues. Grout cleaning is also a must on occasion and can be addressed safely with a strong nylon-bristled brush, a commercial grout cleaner, or, if you have the time to let it sit, a paste of baking soda and water. A few drops of bleach in your solution can also be used on tough grout stains, but it’s important to note that bleach works simply by turning dirt white versus removing it.
Ceramic tile (unglazed). Unglazed ceramic tile is typically durable…but also more susceptible to staining than glazed varieties. That means you might need to get down on your knees and scrub with a brush to get it truly clean. Unglazed tile is also more susceptible to mold and mildew, so be sure to dry physically after cleaning.
Linoleum. While there are cleaners specialized for linoleum, a pH-neutral cleaner (or even a bit of dishwashing liquid in hot water) will work perfectly well, too. Stay away from high-pH cleaners—such as ammonia—which can damage linoleum. You can make these floors really shine with specialized linoleum polish.