How to Use a Steam Cleaner—Plus What to Use One For

This handy cleaning tool has a wide variety of uses.

steam cleaning a faucet
Photo:

Getty Images / SaevichMikalai

Project Overview
  • Total Time: 1 hour
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Steam cleaners—small canister-style machines with a nozzle that can be fitted with an assortment of attachments—use high-temperature steam to clean and sanitize hard surfaces. While not new to the market, thanks in part to TikTok and the high-impact visuals of steam cleaning, these machines are experiencing a surge in popularity.

But what exactly do steam cleaners do, and does one deserve a space in your cleaning arsenal? Learn how to use a hard-surface steam cleaner (also called a multi-surface steam cleaner) and the pros and cons of using these small but powerful machines.

Understanding the Different Types of Steam Cleaners 

The term "steam cleaner" is used to describe several different types of steam-cleaning tools. Among them are fabric and clothing steamers, steam mops, and hard-surface or multi-surface steam cleaners. Carpet and upholstery cleaners are sometimes referred to as steam cleaners, though typically these machines don't use steam, even in models that employ a heating element.

Fabric and clothing steamers come in handheld and upright models, and are used to steam out wrinkles and/or freshen fabric.

Hard- or multi-surface steam cleaners, like the highly-rated Bissell SteamShot, can be used to deep clean and sanitize sealed hard surfaces like tile, grout, and plumbing fixtures.

Steam mops are exactly what they sound like—mops that employ steam in addition to water and/or cleaning agents. 

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Steam cleaner
  • Broom, mop, or vacuum

Materials

  • Tap or distilled water
  • All-purpose cleaner
  • Microfiber cloth

Instructions

How to Use a Steam Cleaner

Before using a steam cleaner, consult the manufacturer's instructions for details on the correct attachments and heat settings to use on different surfaces.

When working with steam, use caution to avoid painful burns.

  1. Prep the Surface

    Before deep cleaning with steam, clean the surface to remove dust, dirt, and grit, which can clog the steamer's attachments or scratch the surface when steam is applied. If cleaning floors, sweep, mop, or vacuum; if cleaning walls or flat surfaces like countertops or household appliances, wipe them clean with a microfiber cloth and a gentle all-purpose cleaner.

  2. Choose the Right Attachment

    Most hard-surface steam cleaners come with a small suite of attachments that can be used for different tasks. When purchasing a steam cleaner, pay particular attention to its attachment sets to be sure you have the right tools for the jobs you want to perform. Some attachments to look for are:

    • Brushes: The most common attachment, brushes work with the steam to scrub surfaces, sloughing off buildup and sanitizing the area.
    • Squeegee: A squeegee attachment is a rubber blade that wicks water and buildup off of glass and tile surfaces.
    • Scraper: A scraper blade attachment helps to remove buildup and debris loosened by steam.
    • Soft cloth: Use a soft cloth attachment when cleaning delicate surfaces to protect against scratching.
  3. Set Up Steam Cleaner

    Fill the tank with water; if you live in an area with hard water, using distilled water in the steamer's tank will yield a better result. Select the appropriate attachment for the task at hand, and affix it to the machine. Turn the steamer on and allow it to heat up before beginning to clean.

  4. Steam and Scrub

    Working in sections, apply steam to the area and use the attachment to scrub, scrape, wick, or polish the surface. When cleaning vertical surfaces, work from the top down.

  5. Rinse Surface

    Before moving onto a new section, rinse the area you've cleaned so that dirty runoff doesn't settle onto the surface.

  6. Refill, Repeat, and Rinse

    Refill the machine with water as needed, continuing to work in sections—steaming, scrubbing, and rinsing—until the task is finished. Once the job is complete, go over the entire area with a clean, damp cloth to remove any residue from cleaning.

steam cleaning a mattress

Getty Images / DZIANIS BARYSAU

What to Use a Steam Cleaner On—and What to Avoid Cleaning with Steam

Hard-surface steam cleaners can be used on sealed hard surfaces. Consult the manufacturer's instructions for usage guidelines. If you are unsure whether steam is safe for the surface, test it on an inconspicuous spot and wait at least an hour and up to overnight to check for damage. Steam damage typically appears as warping, puckering, water staining, or melting.

Most sealed hard surfaces can safely be cleaned with steam, including:

  • Sealed countertops
  • Tile and grout
  • Vinyl 
  • Faucets
  • Toilets
  • Kitchen appliances, like the refrigerator, oven, range, and dishwasher
  • Sliding door and window tracks
  • Glass (but not cold glass)

However, the heat and moisture involved in steam cleaning can cause irreversible damage to many surfaces. Steam should not be used to clean the following:

  • Unsealed, polished, or waxed wood flooring, cabinets, or furniture
  • Laminate flooring
  • Painted surfaces, including walls
  • Furniture and fabrications made of paper, wood, plywood, or composite cardboard
  • Fine woodwork, including musical instruments, and antiques
  • Delicate fabrics
  • Nylon mesh screens
  • Cold glass

When using any type of steam cleaner, whether it's a fabric steamer, a steam mop, or a multi-surface steamer, take care to avoid coming in contact with the hot steam. Steam, as well as hot steam plates and attachments, can cause severe burns.

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