The Secret to Deep Cleaning

Article in New York Times. By Tim McKeough

If you’ve been cooped up at home for a couple of months, it’s time to clean house — and not in a superficial way. Here’s how the pros do it.

One trick professionals use to make a bathroom sparkle (like this one in Watermill, N.Y., designed by Jennifer Cohler Mason): Apply cleaner, but don’t scrub right away.
One trick professionals use to make a bathroom sparkle (like this one in Watermill, N.Y., designed by Jennifer Cohler Mason): Apply cleaner, but don’t scrub right away.Credit…Brett Beyer

There’s no way around it: When you rarely leave home, things get dirty faster.

Windows are left open longer, kitchens and bathrooms are used more frequently, and bits of pencil shavings and cereal crumbs somehow manage to elude the trash bin.

Keeping up with the mess can be a challenge — especially when you have only a couple of minutes to give the floors a once-over before jumping onto your next Zoom call.

You may as well admit it. Your home is in need of deep cleaning.

“With the house getting so much use, it really does need more attention,” said Sabrina Fierman, the vice president of the cleaning company New York’s Little Elves.

We asked her and other cleaning pros for advice on what to do.

Most cleaning jobs around the home can be completed with a few key items: a vacuum, a mop, microfiber or cotton terry-cloth rags (or paper towels, but they create more waste) and an all-purpose cleaner.

It’s possible to make your own all-purpose cleaner, Ms. Fierman said: “Add half a cup of white vinegar, one pint of rubbing alcohol, one teaspoon of dish soap and enough water to make a gallon.” Then pour the mixture into an empty spray bottle.

“This is a really good cleaning product for the whole house,” she said. “It’s eco-friendly, it’s hypoallergenic, and it’s really effective.”

If you don’t have rubbing alcohol, try mixing equal parts white vinegar and water, and adding a couple of drops of dish soap, she suggested.

For bathrooms and kitchens, some specialty supplies, like tub-and-tile and toilet-bowl cleaners, will be required. Surfaces like natural stone, stainless steel and wood may also benefit from cleaners created specifically for them.

“The advantage of using cleaners that are designed for a particular surface is that they won’t damage that surface,” said Hedi Modaressi, the senior director of formulation and fragrance at Method Products. “You don’t get more cracks and crannies on the surface, which, in the end, become more of a good environment for bacterial growth or dirt to build up.”

A well-scrubbed Manhattan kitchen designed by Ben Fuqua, with interior design by Eve Robinson, cleaned by New York’s Little Elves.
A well-scrubbed Manhattan kitchen designed by Ben Fuqua, with interior design by Eve Robinson. Credit…Peter Margonelli

Because deep cleaning involves targeted scrubbing in hard-to-reach areas, trying to tackle a whole home in one afternoon could prove impossible. “Deep cleaning involves a lot of detail, a lot of time and a lot of labor,” Ms. Fierman said.

To make the job more manageable — and for a quick sense of satisfaction — start by focusing on the room that needs the most attention, whether it’s a bedroom, bathroom or kitchen.

“That way, you can feel like you’ve accomplished something,” she said, which may inspire you to keep going.

Dust falls to the floor during cleaning, so it makes sense to start by cleaning the ceiling and then working your way down.

“Look for cobwebs in the corners,” said Kadi Dulude, the owner of the New York cleaning company Wizard of Homes, and inspect ceiling fans and light fixtures. “Most people don’t look up, so these are things that are missed all the time.”

Most cobwebs can be vacuumed away, but stubborn ones should be coaxed off the ceiling with an extendable duster or soft broom, Ms. Dulude said.

Ceiling fans are often covered with a thick layer of dust and require a two-step cleaning process: First, remove all the dust you can with a damp cloth, then use an all-purpose cleaning spray for a final polish. Suspended light fixtures can be treated the same way.

Cover furniture below with an old bedsheet, Ms. Dulude advised, to catch falling debris.

During the coronavirus pandemic, most of us have learned to be wary of high-touch surfaces in public. But high-touch surfaces at home — doorknobs, light switches, cabinet and appliance pulls, faucet handles — can also be problematic, as they tend to collect grime, or what Ms. Modaressi called “biofilms.”

We touch these surfaces multiple times a day, she said, but “these things are rarely wiped down or cleaned.”

Wipe them with a cloth and an all-purpose cleaner, she advised, and polish until they look new again.

An immaculate Manhattan living room designed by Dufner Heighes, built by SilverLiving general contracting and cleaned by New York’s Little Elves.
An immaculate Manhattan living room designed by Dufner Heighes, built by SilverLiving general contracting.Credit…Nikolas Koenig

Left undisturbed for months or even years, the framed art and photos hanging on your walls can get downright furry with dust. During a deep cleaning, take the time to clean the frames and glass properly.

Ms. Dulude suggested following the same two-step process she uses for ceiling fans to clean picture frames: Wipe the dust away first, then use a cleaner. For the glass, finish with a glass cleaner like Windex or white vinegar sprayed on the cloth, not directly on glass.

“I like to use vinegar because it’s effective, it doesn’t leave streaks and it’s also good for taking away odors,” she said, as the vinegar smell dissipates.

Clean windows the same way. Many people don’t realize it, Ms. Dulude said, but most double-hung windows have sashes with clips at the top that allow them to be tilted in, so the inside and outside can be cleaned.

Finally, clean windowsills with a cloth and soap and water. And “if it’s really bad,” she said, “use a scrubbing brush.”

Most people clean bathtubs, showers and toilets as part of their routine housekeeping, but some parts of the bathroom are frequently missed.

Drains, for instance, are typically ignored until a clog or odor requires attention. To avoid that, clean them before they become problematic.

“When you open up the drain, there is usually some nasty stuff inside, because hair does get through, and it gets dirty, moldy and stinky,” Ms. Dulude said.

To take care of it, put on gloves and pull out the gunk, perhaps using the end of a wire clothes hanger. “Then pour a few spoons of baking soda and vinegar in, and let it bubble up,” she said. “Later, flush it with hot water.”

The areas where tiled walls meet bathtubs and shower enclosures can be breeding grounds for mold and mildew. To clean those areas, Ms. Fierman recommended using a specialty tile-and-grout cleaner like Tilex.

Apply the cleaner, let it sit and then scrub with an old toothbrush or other soft brush, she said.

Giving the cleaner time to work before scrubbing will make the job easier. “Letting the chemical penetrate is one of the key tricks” professionals use for difficult cleaning jobs, Ms. Modaressi said.

After scrubbing, rinse well and consider resealing the grout if it has been more than six months since it was last sealed, Ms. Fierman said.

A spotless kitchen in Southport, Conn., by Oliver Cope Architect, with interior design by Ms. Robinson, cleaned by New York’s Little Elves.
A spotless kitchen in Southport, Conn., by Oliver Cope Architect, with interior design by Ms. Robinson.Credit…Durston Saylor

Cleaning the kitchen is always a lot of work — but that is especially true when you’re cooking more meals at home.

Look for spattered grease above, below and beside the stovetop, and scrub it away with soap and water or degreaser.

Ms. Dulude also recommended inspecting areas you normally don’t see, like the top of upper kitchen cabinets. “You don’t think about it, but they collect gunk,” she said, offering a trick of the trade: Once the upper cabinets are clean, put down a layer of paper towels that won’t be visible from below but will make cleanup easier next time.

Wipe the front of cabinets with soap and water, she said, then unload them and clean the insides, too. Toss any expired food from the pantry while you’re at it, before putting things back.

A thorough cleaning of the inside of the refrigerator should also be on your to-do list, Ms. Fierman said.

Finally, wash out the trash bin and wipe down the area under the sink, as those areas are often the source of odors.

Once higher surfaces are sparkling, clean the floors.

Hard floors like wood, ceramic and stone should be vacuumed and then mopped, Ms. Fierman said. And if you have hardwood floors, the mop “should not be anything more than damp,” she said, because too much water can damage the wood.

For hardwood, Ms. Fierman uses Bona floor cleaner or a mix of equal parts white vinegar and water. She recommended tying a cloth around the end of the mop, rather than using the mop head itself, so it can be replaced with fresh rags as cleaning progresses: “We don’t like to use the same surface over and over, because we don’t want to just push the dirt around.”

When vacuuming carpets, furniture should be moved in order to clean the entire surface. “You have to actually move the furniture” Ms. Dulude said, “to make sure you get under everything.”

That includes rugs, which should be rolled up so you can clean beneath them. If possible, beat the rugs outdoors to remove embedded dirt.

If your carpets are looking a bit grungy, and perhaps even smelly, Jon Gholian, the founder of the New York cleaning company Cleany, suggested sprinkling baking soda over the surface before vacuuming. “Let it sit for half an hour,” he said. “Then go over it with your vacuum. That will take out a lot of the buildup and leave your carpet smelling great.”

Once you’re finished (and exhausted), try to maintain the new feeling of cleanliness with more frequent, lighter cleanings. That way, you can avoid having to do it all again for as long as possible.

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