Clean Like You Mean It

13 Essential Cleaning Tools Ready to Tackle Every Mess

Plus, the other items that never leave my cleaning cart.

March 20, 2022
Photo by Ty Mecham

Clean Like You Mean It shows you how to tackle the trickiest spots in your home—whether they’re just plain gross or need some elbow grease. You’ll get the cleaning secrets we’ve learned from grandma, a guide to our handiest tools and helpers, and so much more. Pull on those rubber gloves and queue up the tunes: It’s scour hour!

A couple months ago, a friend reached out with a “burning question”: Was there any way to clean a window and not leave streaks? “Sure,” I said, “use crushed newspaper along with your favorite glass cleaner.” To which she responded: “But who has newspapers around anymore?” Fair point. I mean I do, because I love the tactile pleasure of a good weekend edition, but that aside, old newspapers are, and always have, been an uncompromisable part of my cleaning toolkit.

My anachronistic advice must still have made an impact because later that morning she sent me a request: Would you put together a list of your can’t-live-without cleaning tools for me? That ask left me beaming because truly nothing makes me happier than discussing my cleaning routine.

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So, here we are: my most-reached-for, tackle-any-mess cleaning tools—for when you’re moving to a new home or just looking to upgrade or update your kit. Of course, there are plenty of specialty brushes and display-worthy brooms and assorted personal favorites you can tack onto these, but I like to count on these as my absolute essentials. My other rule? If it doesn’t fit on my cleaning cart, I probably don’t need it.

Photo by Dyson

1. Vacuum

Whether it’s a Roomba, a Bissell, or a secondhand workhorse that you acquired from your local Buy Nothing Group, you definitely need one of these to keep your floors (and rugs and blinds) clean. If you’re short on storage space, consider a lightweight, cordless stick vacuum that can be hung up behind a closet door. My favorite remains the Dyson V10 that has transformed my clean routine—it might well be the best money I’ve ever spent!

Photo by Amazon

2. Wet mop

Wiping down your floors can often feel like a tricky (and sticky) situation, so it’s no wonder that so many of my friends admit to rarely doing it. However, truly nothing makes my home feel cleaner than a wet mop. There are mops for every taste—flat mops, wring mops, and spin mops but my favorite one is this rotatable mop. It comes with a bucket that’s equipped with an easy mechanism to dip-n-wring, so it’s entirely hands-free. And the best part? The mop pads can be thrown in the wash.

Photo by Rocky Luten

3. Sponge cloth

I use the Five Two sponge cloths on literally every surface in my home. I love that they come in different colors so I can split them up by room, and it never ceases to amaze me how absorbent they are—they’re ready to take on the biggest of spills. Plus, they’re designed to break down within six weeks in a home compost! So many wins!

Photo by Amazon

4. Microfiber cloth

Market editor Jada Wong depends on her microfiber cloths for everything from wiping toothpaste stains off the bathroom mirror, to dusting her plants, even washing her car. “It’s a versatile jack rag of all trades, and it washes nicely in the machine with plain ol’ laundry detergent. Just make sure to run them in their own cycle, separate from your usual laundry, to avoid runoff,” she says.

Photo by Rocky Luten

5. Latex-free Gloves

I’d never used gloves for cleaning, until one fine day when my hands decided they’d put up with enough. I love that these gloves are latex-free (bye-bye, allergies) and are so easy to slip on and off. Your hands deserve (and will appreciate) the care—and oh, while you’re at it, treat them to a hand cream, will ya?

Photo by Bed, Bath & Beyond

6. Scrub brush

The list of things you can use a stiff-bristle brush for is very, very long! These work on almost any surface (tile, concrete, etc.), get messes out of rugs, soot off your fireplace, gunk off your shoes… and don’t even get me started on how effective they are on grout!

Photo by Julia Gartland

7. Toilet brush

While I love a good DIY toilet bowl fizz ‘n’ flush routine, you really cannot avoid a good scrub with a sturdy toilet brush. This toilet brush by Blomus is strong, well made, and looks good, too. The tumbler on this keeps brushes and bristles protected, and the brush sits atop a tray instead of sloshing about in any accumulated water below (gross). It also comes in eight gorgeous colors! Truly, nothing transforms a bathroom like functional objects that are sleek and streamlined.

Photo by Grove Co.

8. Sponge

A sponge might vie with a scrub brush for the most versatile tool on the list—going efficiently from sink to stovetop to bathtub to grill. Nothing against sponges from a regular grocery store but my favorite is this one by Grove Collaborative that’s made from a combination of natural plant material and recycled plastic fibers, and despite all that is completely non-scratch. So, go ahead and use them on your favorite non stick pan without a care in the world.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Goo Gone, or an equivalent, for all the spots that get the awful cooking steam+dust grime, and taking the labels off containers when reusing.”
— M

Or you can follow Associate Editor Caroline Mullen's advice and pick up one of these. She explains her love for Scrub Daddy sponges: "They’re really functional! They’re pliable in hot water, and stiff in cold (for extra scrubbing power), and they never, ever start to smell like regular dish sponges or brushes. The good news? They now come in gray and dye-free, which I will happily leave out by the sink, since they don’t clash with the rest of my kitchen color palette."

Photo by Bed, Bath & Beyond

9. Extendable duster

There will always be more dust, even if you're the most fastidious cleaning person—and especially where the eye can’t see (think: mouldings, baseboards, tops of closets and cabinets, fans etc). Enter: this OXO duster that extends and adjusts to reach the highest surfaces and furthest corners, even rotating so you can switch angles. Best of all? Yup, you can throw the microfiber head in the wash.

Photo by Amazon

10. Squeegee

This handy tool belongs in your shower, especially if you have glass shower doors and want to keep water stains and soap scum away. They're also great for your window-cleaning routine—yes, in the absence of old newspapers. To get the most life out of your squeegee, make sure you store it carefully to prevent damage to its blade.

Photo by Amazon

11. Bucket

A good-sized bucket isn't just great to stow all your cleaning supplies in, it's good for a number of other household tasks: from soaking your delicates to filling water for your plants and organizing things under the kitchen sink. While you can certainly just pick up the first one you see at your local hardware store, think about things like size (will it fit comfortably under the tap for filling and then removing? Where will you store it?) and other features like a comfortable handle or a spout. If you live in a small apartment, you might also want to consider a collapsible one like this.

12. Old newspaper

Back to this again. I cannot sing enough praises, but I already have, so I’ll stop. Oh, they make great liners for your shelves, too.

13. Retired toothbrush

Your toothbrush has a life beyond its retirement from your sink-side. An old toothbrush is one of the most underrated cleaning supplies ever, whether to use for scrubbing tiles, getting marks off walls, cleaning grout, or to get into a bunch of tight spots in the kitchen. Just don’t store it next to the toothpaste afterward.

Other must-haves in my cleaning caddy

Not in my caddy but still an essential:
- A great cleaning playlist

What's in your essential 101 cleaning toolkit? Share it with us in the comments below.

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.

Photo by Ty Mecham; Design by Angelyn Cabrales.

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.


Mercy283 February 28, 2023
A rubber broom is a versatile cleaning tool made from natural rubber. It is designed to sweep and clean floors and carpets, but it can also be used for a variety of other cleaning tasks. The rubber bristles are soft and flexible, allowing them to bend and adapt to the surface being cleaned. This makes the rubber broom especially effective at picking up pet hair, dust, and dirt from carpets and hard floors.
M March 21, 2022
Goo Gone, or an equivalent, for all the spots that get the awful cooking steam+dust grime, and taking the labels off containers when reusing.
Liz S. March 20, 2022
A little repeat from the last cleaning post, but I happened on AngelaBrownCleaning channel on youTube recently ... learned/learning a LOT on both tools and methods. She has one video on window/glass cleaning and addresses the newspaper issue. AND, she touts the best solution as water and 2 separate cloths AND a Z pattern to wash and wipe. I was a little skeptical, but I've been using steam lately so maybe it would work. And it did! And this includes a sliding door that is prone to dog and cat slobber inside as well as splash up dirt outside. No streaks, no chemicals, no need to find newspaper. It did take 2 goes and the part of the door with the slobber.

She also touts the OXO Deep Clean Brush set over toothbrushes. I have had the Oxo brushes for some time and have to agree. Between the 2 brushes and the kind of soft crevice/spatula on one end, I have found they do a great job of getting gunk out of areas around sinks, faucets, etc. I also have an OXO Electronic "brush" ... soft brush on one end and the crevice/spatula point on the other - great for keyboard.

I just ordered that collapsible bucket! I second the various microfiber cloths and microfiber duster.

Steam is my absolute favorite cleaning method and tool!! I have had a medium sized steamer, then a "carry on luggage" sized steamer on wheels and now, my favorite: Bissell Steam Shot and Bissell Steam Mop. The steam shot is small, handy to get out and do small jobs as well as for more extensive jobs (see walls and cabinets). I have all wood floors with throw rugs and it is easy to roll back the rugs and do a room in about 20 minutes with the steam mop. I found that I am more likely to get out the smaller, easier tools and do more maintenance cleaning than getting up the will to get out the larger thing and do a lot at one time.