Taking care of the floors in your home can be challenging given the everyday conditions of a family and pets. But keeping your home looking good is crucial to maintaining its value. This is how to clean three types of residential flooring: real wood, laminate, and luxury vinyl.
There are two types of hardwood flooring—both made from real wood.
Solid hardwood floors are made of planks milled from a single piece of timber. Hardwood flooring comes both finished and unfinished; sealed and unsealed. While not completely waterproof, solid hardwood flooring can be sanded down and refinished should it become water damaged. Solid hardwood floors are the most expensive option.
Engineered hardwood is man-made from layers of material including HDF (High-Density Fiberboard which is a wood by-product) that have been glued together, with a thin layer of real hardwood on the top. Typically engineered wood comes finished with a clear protective coating or finish.
Engineered hardwood flooring is not waterproof. In the event of water damage, it is not suitable to be sanded down and refinished because the top layer of real wood is quite thin. Engineered hardwood is considerably more affordable than its solid cousin.
Like engineered hardwood, laminate flooring is also manmade, but from all synthetic products. It consists of a core made from HDF (High-Density Fiberboard which is a wood by-product) mixed with resins, then a top layer of plastic photographic material that is made to look like wood plus a clear protective finish.
All of those layers are fused together in a factory using a lamination process. Laminate flooring is not waterproof. A major water spill or a flood of any kind will most likely require the floor to be replaced. That center HDF core acts like a big sponge.
Very similar to laminate flooring, luxury vinyl flooring uses PVC instead of HDF for its core, which makes it 100% waterproof. Luxury vinyl can handle major spills and floods.
Is it finished?
Don’t know what you have exactly? No worries. When it comes to cleaning wood floors (solid, engineered, laminate, or vinyl) the only thing you need to figure out is whether or not your floors have a finish. You don’t really need to know the type of finish. The important fact is whether the floors have been treated in some way to make them resistant to standing water, which is the enemy of all wood and wood-like floors.
To discover if your flooring is finished, drop a single drop of water on the floor. If it beads and just sits there, the flooring has been finished. If the drop of water soaks in and disappears leaving a dark spot, the wood is not finished.
What follows is for finished solid or engineered wood, laminate, and vinyl flooring only. Unfinished hardwood CANNOT be mopped since it will damage the flooring.
CAUTION: If your floor is unfinished, or if it’s an old wood floor and some of the finish has started to wear away, then don’t use any moisture or product on the floor at all. Just dust-mop it with a flat-head mop.
Wood floor cleaners
The key to making your own wood and laminate floor cleaner is similar to the commitment of a physician: First, do no harm. The trick is making a product that will clean well without harming the finish of your floors, even when used repeatedly over many years.
White vinegar is a fabulous cleaning product because it cuts through dirt well. But it is highly acidic and used repeatedly will over time attack the finish on your wood, laminate, and vinyl floors, making them look dull at first, then ugly as the years go by. Vinegar can also soften the finish, making it feel gummy or sticky. So let’s just agree that when it comes to cleaning wood or laminate floors, no vinegar.
Alcohol is also a fantastic cleaning product. Rubbing alcohol (70% is most common, but 91% works well, too), denatured alcohol, even gin or plain vodka all work. Alcohol is also a disinfectant, as you know from visiting a doctor’s office or hospital.
The great thing about alcohol as a cleaning agent is, like water, it has a nearly neutral ph—neither acidic nor alkaline. This makes alcohol the perfect ingredient in your homemade cleaner. It not only cleans but also protects and preserves beautifully finished wood and laminate floors. And it makes floor cleaning solution dry faster.
Your regular tap water, while safe to drink, may leave watermarks and hard water build-up on your floors over time. The best way to avoid this is to use distilled water in your floor cleaner (available in any supermarket) to eliminate streaking, hard watermarks, and mineral build-up.
A very small amount of Blue Dawn will break the surface tension of the water making the cleaner much more effective—but not so much that it requires rinsing. Blue Dawn, unlike any other variety of Dawn or other brand liquid dishwashing soap, contains a greater number of surfactants than any other. It has grease-cutting properties unequaled in other liquid soaps. It is amazing. It’s the power in this floor cleaning recipe. It takes only a few drops.
Homemade Floor Cleaner
This all-purpose recipe is ideal for finished hardwood, engineered hardwood, laminate, and vinyl flooring. It requires no rinsing when use as follows.
- 1 part alcohol
- 4 parts distilled water
- 2 or 3 drops Blue Dawn
Example: 1/4 cup alcohol, 1 cup distilled water, 2 drops Blue Dawn. Or 1/2 cup alcohol, 2 cups distilled water, 4 to 6 drops Blue Dawn.
Mix this up in a spray bottle each time you clean the floors, or you can make it up ahead. No rinsing required. Be sure to label it well and keep it out of the reach of children.
- MORE: Measuring By Parts
How to clean
Sweep or vacuum the floor (you’ll read more about this below). Spray the cleaner in a small area, scrub well with a cloth or sponge and immediately wipe the area dry with a mop fitted with a microfiber cloth.
The secret is to spray, scrub, and wipe dry immediately. If you do not want to do this on your hands and knees, I recommend this Microfiber Spray Mop for both wood and laminate floors. It sprays the cleaner from its removable bottle that lets you make your own cleaner. It has a large surface mop and machine-washable microfiber pad, which makes scrubbing wood and laminate floors a breeze.
Vacuum or sweep
Here’s an easy routine to care for your wood and laminate floors: At least twice a week vacuum (or sweep) your wood or laminate floors to remove the real enemies here: dirt, sand, grit, pebbles, and grime. It comes in on your shoes and gets ground into the finish and surface of your beautiful floors every time you and the kids walk on them.
At least once every two weeks, clean and scrub the floors with your homemade cleaner (recipe above) and a good mop that cleans and wipes the floor nearly dry in a single effort.
Protect your wood and laminate floor from scrapes and scratches with felt furniture pads. The kind of felt pads that are self-stick are inexpensive, easy to apply, and will last for many years. Felt reduces friction which makes it easy to slide chairs in and out and also cuts the noise.
Taking good care of your wood and laminate floors will not only keep your home looking great, but you’ll also be protecting your home’s value—which is likely one of the biggest investments you will ever make.
First published:9-16-15; Revised & Updated with new information 1-13-20.