Welcome to Spring Clean Your Life, your one-stop shop for gotta-try-those tips & bookmark-me inspiration to spruce up your kitchen and home this season—and well beyond.
There’s a difference between a space being clean and feeling clean, and I’m perpetually in search of the latter. My home is clean (or: the floors are swept, the clothes are folded, the bed is made, the kitchen sink is empty). But even after all that sweeping and folding and dishwashing, I’m left dissatisfied.
The disappointment is in the details. Specifically, the feeling of not-as-clean-as-it-should-make-me-feel is in the random tiny smudges on the walls and the thin layers of dust in small odd corners, and in the sense that a better person wouldn’t live like this. These overlooked areas don’t get much love, and keeping them clean is the key to making me feel like my house is clean…and, by extension, that I’m a clean person, a good person, a person whose life is on the right track. This clean-space feeling does something to my psyche that I thought was only possible through intensive psychoanalysis: It makes me feel grounded and justified.
So I’ve gone through my house and identified the little areas that cause me big stress. Maybe you’re stuck in that place where no matter how diligently you set aside weekend time for cleaning, you’re never going to achieve that feeling of righteousness that we all crave. Or maybe you, too, are seeking a feeling of cleanliness in your home that can only be remedied by cleaning the grout between the bathroom tiles. Well get off the couch and grab your spray bottle, ‘cause here we go.
Doorknobs, oven knobs, dresser pulls, cabinet handles: They’re not as dirty as the poles in the subway. But if you have little kids with perpetually sticky hands or pets who'll lick just about anything (or if, like me, you’re without children or pets, but you just haven’t taken the time to clean them in a while), your drawer pulls could be competing with the subway for "Surfaces I don't want to touch and then touch my face."
As someone who constantly touches her face (I can't help it!), I like to get these handles as clean and germ-free as possible. You can create your own solution, mixing equal parts water and vinegar (or even water and vodka, if you don't care for the smell of vinegar). Put the mixture in a spray bottle, then go through every room in your house spraying away. Grab a rag and wipe down every handle, knob, and pull in the order you sprayed them. Breathe a long sigh of relief and involuntarily touch your face with confidence.
It's important to look up every once in a while, not only to see the big blue sky, but also to acknowledge how much dust has gathered on the ceiling fan. Worse than being quite a depressing sight, a dusty ceiling fan actually creates lots more cleaning trouble: As it spins, the collected dust gently rains down, coating everything below. Clean the fan, and you'll have less dusting to do.
The best tool for this job is a long-handled duster or fan brush. It can take some work stabilizing the blades for long enough to get a clean swipe, but if you can wrangle someone else into helping you, give them something long-handled (like a broom) and have them hold the blade in place while you push your duster along the blade surface. Don't want to share this uniquely dirty task with anyone? Speaking from experience, it's totally possible to do this job solo. And it's very satisfying to look up when you're done.
I live in a small Brooklyn apartment, which means that every available surface is used for something. The top of my refrigerator, for example, currently holds a wooden salad bowl that's filled with boxes and bags of dry goods, along with enormous glass jars of dried beans. Is it a practical storage solution? Not particularly. But it's the space that I've got. And one thing that happens when you're using all your surfaces for storage is that sometimes they go untouched for a while—it's storage space, after all—which also means it's very likely very dusty.
The same is true for the top of the microwave: It's high up, it's got stuff living on it that hardly ever comes down from its perch, and now it's where a layer of dust has taken up permanent residence. Grease also naturally collects in the air in a kitchen, and when greasy air (that’s the scientific term) mixes with dust, it forms a filthy substance that sticks.
The solution to this congealed dust is simple, and it only has to be done every few months: Take everything you’re storing up there down, wipe the surface with a dry cloth, spray the surface with an all-purpose cleaner of equal parts vinegar and water (add a few drops of essential oil if the smell of vinegar turns your stomach), wipe with a rag, and put everything back in its place. You also get the perk of forcing yourself to evaluate those things you've been storing up there. When did you buy that bran powder? Where did that bag of chocolate-flavored granola come from? And into the compost it goes.
The last time I cleaned out my catch-all utensils drawer, here are some things I found that were not utensils: a tortilla chip broken into 27 tiny pieces, a few quarter-inch pieces of vermicelli, three coffee beans, a dusting of something that looked like za’atar but may have been...who knows, one small dried chili, and a concerning amount of my own hair.
This is the place where I keep clean knives, clean serving spoons, my wood-handled cheese plane that I adore; I put these clean objects in this filthy drawer and hope by the power of cognitive dissonance that they'll still be clean when I go to use them next. Yuck. Clean the drawer.
A handheld vacuum is very helpful for sucking up the smaller bits of chips (or whatever falls into your drawers) and that all-purpose 1:1 vinegar-water cleaner and a rag make sure that whether it was dried spices or something else, it's gone. This same treatment applies to the bottoms of all cabinets in the kitchen, especially the ones that hold food or are positioned directly under the countertop, as those are the places where stray food is most likely to casually accumulate.
Dust! Again! On cookbooks, on novels, on poetry, on essays. The thing about dust is that it's easy to wipe off. The thing about a dusty library is that you're in for a lot of wiping. If you wait until the dust has really settled, you're in for a two-part dusting solution: Use a microfiber or feather duster to dust the pages of the book, and a dry cloth to wipe the cover, spine, and back.
I did a quick tally of my personal collection and I own somewhere around 500 books. At 14 seconds per very dusty book (I timed myself and my books were very dusty), that's about two hours of book dusting. There are way better things we could be doing with our time, like cleaning the bathroom. Dust books regularly and you won't find yourself in this book-by-book cleaning situation.
Oh boy, this one is a real annoyance—but it's the move that makes me feel best, because nothing makes me feel more like I’m heading towards a solo Grey Gardens existence like a dust-covered dresser and also the raccoon that’s taken up residence in my closet.
Grab a cardboard box that you've been meaning to recycle and a dry rag. Take all the perfumes and pots of lotion and lipsticks off the dresser; take the snow globe your dad gave you and the random collection of found seashells off the mantle; take the Bluetooth speaker and the decorative ceramic bowl and its bundle of dried sage off the top of the bookshelf; take the vermouth and the whiskey and the bitters and the jigger off the bar cart.
As you take each object down, wipe it clean with the cloth, then place it in the cardboard box. Soon, the dresser and the mantle and the top of the bookshelf and the bar cart will be empty, and you can wipe them down with a dry cloth, then an appropriate cleaner. For wood, mix up a solution of 1 cup water, 1 cup vinegar, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. For acrylic, use a solution of one-part vinegar and two-parts water. For glass, use a solution of 2 cups of water mixed with 2 tablespoons of vinegar, and a couple drops of dish soap.
Once you've done your washing, let the surface dry completely and then put everything back. In the process, you might find some things you don't need or want anymore, or you might find a new decorating scheme. It's a lot of little work, but a dust-free dresser feels deeply satisfying.
Recently, I gave up on trying to make my bathroom feel clean because no matter how well I washed the tile floor, it always still looked grimy. I've spent hours on my hands and knees scrubbing each square of tile, only to have very sore knees afterward and no clean feeling. That's because the key to a clean-feeling bathroom floor is clean grout. Grout is porous, which means that it absorbs dirt in ways that tile doesn't—which translates to a dirty look and feel that can only be solved with elbow grease, time, and this handy 3-step plan.
First, give the grout a quick wipe down with warm water to get rid of any obvious surface dirt. Second, make your cleaning solution. Most of the time a simple 1:1 solution of distilled vinegar and water will work; mix up the solution, put it in a spray bottle, and pull the trigger. Let the solution sit on the grout for a few minutes, then start gently scrubbing. An old toothbrush works well for this task, as it allows for targeted cleaning. (If you have marble tile floors, which are more porous than ceramic tile, you might not want to use vinegar, as the acid can potentially stain the tile. Instead, mix one-part hydrogen peroxide with two parts baking soda, spread the mixture onto the grout, and scrub away.)
It's a labor-intensive activity, but the feeling of satisfaction in finally having a bathroom floor that feels clean is 100% worth any temporary joint pain.
This is gonna get a little gross, but it's really important, so brace yourself. There are rings of grime that build up around drains—bathroom sinks, kitchen sinks, bathtub drains—and they must be cleaned. A Q-tip and some dish soap is usually enough to get rid of them. Depending on how long it's been since you last de-grimed your drains, you might need something stronger: That handy 1:1 vinegar-water solution works well here.
Once these pinkish-brown rings are gone, there will be gleaming porcelain or stainless steel or enamel in their places, and a feeling of cleanliness that is unrivaled. In the absence of the grime, there is only calm.
Bathrooms are humid places, which means that not only does all the detritus of body-cleaning collect, but then it combines with the steamy air to glue itself to whatever surface it lands on. The floors are simple enough to clean, as are the bathtub, the sink, the toilet bowl (and the top of the toilet tank!). But don't forget about the tiny ledge where the bathroom tile lining the lower half of the room meets the plaster walls.
In my bathroom, this ledge runs around my bathroom at chest level and then jumps up to about a foot above my 5-foot-4-inch head around the bathtub. It’s coated in that moisture-enabled congealed dust, and it calls for more than a quick swipe of a rag to remove. Depending on when the last time you undertook this task was, you may have to do some real scrubbing to remove this crud. Start with a quick wipe with a dry rag, then spray on that all-purpose vinegar cleaner, let it sit for a few seconds, and scour away. It’s just as important to clean the top of the tile as it is the bottom of the plaster, as the dirt on your post-scrubbing rag will evidence.
Looking around my small apartment, I now only see the little areas that need cleaning: the slightly grimy window ledge, the dusty tops of picture frames hanging on the walls, the mirrors that are due for a wash, the plant whose leaves could use a gentle wipe with a damp rag. But I feel calmer. I’ll get to those other areas in good time; there will always be more dust, there will always be more places to clean. Like everything else, it’s a process.
What are the overlooked areas in your home? Share your cleaning adventures with us below!