Topic of the Week: House Cleaning Tips Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Topic of the Week: House Cleaning Tips

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A rubber-gloved hand wipes grime from the screen. A feather duster is popping up in the background.

Despite the recent interest in television programmes showing us exactly how disgusting other people's homes are, most of us would still rather spend our free time enjoying ourselves rather than vacuuming the living room.

I am a great believer in using things such as vinegar but I just felt I had to share a hilarious incident with you regarding my 16 year old step daughter and bicarbonate of soda! A couple of weeks ago my daughter came to me sporting a nasty stain on the front of a favourite white top; it had been there a while and so I firstly used white vinegar and then after rinsing daubed it with bicarb which removed the stain and amazed my daughter.
The following day I came home to find the kitchen full of bubbles. A quick glance told me that this was not the product of my daughter using too much laundry liquid so I quickly phoned her to find out what she had put into the washing machine.
Yes, you've guessed it, she had been so amazed she had tried the bicarb trick on all her whites, putting a FULL tub into the machine and then happily going out! The result was a lot of lovely white clothes and a lovely clean washing machine and floor - oh - and a very red faced 16 year old! So, the idea of using bicarb to remove stains from clothing remains aan excellent one - but remember- rinse thoroughly before machine washing.

Saving Money on Cleaning Products

I use very few conventional cleaning products - I mostly use vinegar and water from a spray bottle. It cleans, shines and kills more bacteria than many expensive purpose-made cleaners. I also use it to clean my cats' food and water bowls, mats, and litter trays. It doesn't leave any harmful chemicals for them to ingest, or any sickly lingering odours.

Vinegar is also very good for getting rid of odours inside (simmer a saucepan of vinegar and water on the hob for a while) and outside (eg on a patio if dogs or cats have used it as a toilet - wash down with vinegar and hot water). One word of warning - don't use vinegar on pet urine stains on carpets, as it tends to draw the odour into the carpet and pets may be more likely to go there again. For these stains, use plenty of hot water and a tiny bit of biological clothes washing liquid.

Conventional limescale removing cream cleaner is useful for the bathroom in areas of hard water. Vinegar gets rid of watermarks but struggles with limescale and tough dirt. Bicarbonate of soda and lemon juice works well on baths and in toilets.

Dust and Dusting

Have you noticed, the moment you start to clean up, you put your finger on a side table and wham, here it is, a very obvious clean spot in the middle of a perfectly uniform layer of dust, that nobody would've noticed if it were not for that clean fingerprint...

Just avoid touching anything that is dusty. Do not move anything on the top of your furniture (chances are, that would leave a very nasty clean circle on it !). If you really have to move it (like, your coffee mug?), put it back at EXACTLY the same place when you're done with it. And if (accidents happen), you've made a clean spot, find some vase or other piece of decorative china, and just cover-up !

Catch all the spiders in your home and tie small dusters to their feet... Set them free for dust free crevices.

Dusting with a wet cloth stops the dust flying up into the air, and just falling back down where you've just wiped, but eventually (after about six weeks), if you don't dust at all, it doesn't get any worse!

Ah, just remembered another tip, which works in a domestic environment just as well as in a studio. My work causes an awful lot of dust, which I don't like breathing in (great-grandfather died young of silicosis of the lungs from stone-dust). When I sweep up, fine clay particles will remain suspended in the air for about four hours. So I sweep up with a dust-mask on, and as soon as I've finished sweeping I get a pressurised water-sprayer (very cheap in garden centres) and mist all the air in the studio to wash down the dust particles. And WOW! does the air smell lovely after that!

Ostrich feather dusters have enough static electricity to pick up just about any dust, as long as the dust is not damp or sticky (like from cooking grease, or shower humidity), or really caked on because you haven't dusted in ages, that is. You just lightly pass it along the dusty surfaces, then take the duster outside and shake the dust out of it. It works best if you dust every day, but still works well even if you go a week or more between dustings, you just need to shake the dust out more often as you dust. Sounds like torture to dust every day, doesn't it? But it's not really, because an ostrich feather duster works so quickly (one swipe) that you don't need to move things to dust, and can even use it to dust delicate knick-knacks along the way.

This won't work with turkey feathers or chicken feathers because they have too much natural oil in them and really do just move the dust around. It only works with ostrich feathers, because they are extremely low in natural oils, and therefore have lots of static. If the ostrich feathers don't seem to have enough static (if you can see dust floating away as you dust), then you can wash the duster to remove any residual oils from the feathers (swish it in water with shampoo or dish detergent in it), rinse, then dry it with a hair dryer to really fluff it up and increase the static.

A combination of using the right dusting materials and an air purifier will help keep your house dust free for longer periods of time but for total dustlessness you would have to live in a bubble.

The Floor

It really looks bad, doesn't it ?

It's definitely important to keep a clean house. My mom has always harped about 'Cleanliness is next to Godliness'. From her I've learned the difference between 'area vacuuming' and 'in-depth vacuuming'...

First of all, pour yourself a nice cuppa' (tea/coffee/bourbon, whatever your favourite addiction). Now, pick the most obvious bits, socks, underwear, newspaper... Pour yourself a second cup. Move the furniture so the biggest stains can't be seen. Third cup. Pull the curtains, dim the lights, who wants the room to be so bright, anyway? Fourth cup. Sit and relax. It does not look that bad, after all? Can probably wait another week...

Pet Hair

I have five Himalayan cats. How does one capture cat hair tumbleweeds? Should I shave them bald and spare us all? The stairs looks like some movie set with trailing hairy mist. I sweep but then they run around after each other and it all comes back!
Oh, I have the same problem with dog hair, it was easier when I had rugs, I could just Hoover it up. But now I have old bare wood floors and sweeping just moves it around. Any solutions would be a help!
I'd say Hoover the bare boards rather than sweep... but what do I know?

Bile stains on carpet

You know that irritating habit that dogs have, of eating coarse grass so that they can puke up yellow bile on your carpet? Remove the grass, throw loads of kitchen paper or toilet roll on the mark, stamp well on it, ditto with more kitchen paper. Finally deluge the mark with a carpet cleaner, make a mental note to clean it up 'later', forget about it for several days, and by the time you remember the mark has mysteriously disappeared.

The Dishes

You need to cook something, and all the pots and pans have been used? Think you really need to empty that sink this time? Well, think again... All you need is a good memory, or a well organised piling system. Whatever you want to cook now, there must be something you had in the past week(s) that was similar, or that would go nice with... Dig up the plates, if you can't really remember, dip a finger and smell/taste to see if you can find the match. Here you go, that's your pot for today! And after a few weeks of that system, it will all taste the same, anyway!

My mum used to have a chip-pan she never washed, just changed the fat occasionally. The chips of my youth used to taste fantastic.

Of course this was in the days of lard - when chips were real chips, fried eggs were real fried eggs, and heart attacks through clogged arteries were real heart attacks through clogged arteries.

Pots with Cooked-on Mashed Potato

When you lift the lid of a pot, and find that it's been sitting on the heat for an hour and the potato is glued all over the inside... a tip is to pour some water in (can be warm, but not necessarily), replace the lid tightly, and leave overnight. The water steams a bit inside the closed pot, dampens everything down nicely, and in the morning you can just scoop everything out. Sides, lid, everything has been soaking overnight in the condensation. It saves submerging pots in water and leaves more room in the sink for everything else!

If you've REALLY banjaxed a pot, burned it dry with black stuff caked all over the inside like enamel - put a dishwasher tablet or denture cleaning tablet in the bottom, add hot water, and soak.

Or, of course, grab a knife/spatula/chisel and scrape for all you're worth. If you still have a layer of stuff that just won't come off, liberally apply washing up liquid to the pot, add a fast stream of really hot water, and leave until cold. Everything will become wonderfully loose.

One way I've found of cleaning really baked on stuff is to leave the pot/casserole dish outside in the weather for some time (days, weeks, months). It will eventually come off.

Alternatively, buy non-stick cookware, non-stick being inside and outside. Throw the other stuff away, or donate to a worthy thrift store. Cooking is fun, cleaning isn't. Waging war on a crusty burned pot is a waste of time.

It's amazing how a good hot water soak overnight will lift off most stuck on stuff,vI throw in some baking soda. I'm talking about baking pans though, my pots and pans are all non-stick!

The Benefits of Rhubarb

When making rhubarb tart, there is no need to clean the baking dish. This is because rhubarb contains a lot of oxalic acid, an organic compound that cleans the dish all by itself. The only problem here is that oxalic acid is poisonous, though that didn't stop my organic chemistry professor's granny from force-feeding him the stuff.
My grandma used to boil up rhubarb leaves fairly regularly in the teapot, to remove the staining. Me, I run it through the dishwasher.
Umm. I hate to be a pain, but rhubarb stalks (ie the bits you eat) don't contain oxalic acid. If they did, everyone would get sick or die of eating rhubarb. The leaves - that we were all warned to keep away from - do contain high quantities of oxalic acid. Green potatoes, and potato eyes contain oxalic acid. Avoid them especially if you are pregnant.

Cleaning Ceramic Hobs

Being a very very, very lazy person, I bought a hob that has no knobs. When it really needs cleaning I use a mild biodegradable brush-on oven cleaner that doesn't smell (don't know if I'm allowed to say who makes the product, but it's by Lakeland). Leave for three minutes, then wipe off. Don't like all the scraping and scouring necessary with conventional hob cleaners.

Cleaning Stainless Steel

Keeping a stainless steel anything (kettle, toaster, food jars, bin) clean can be a real pain, and most cleaning products will tend to smear, leave new marks or not even do much at all. The best thing for cleaning stainless steel things like this is glass cleaner; either the spray on sort, or the more traditional cream stuff. They get rid of fingerprints, leave it shiny, and help it resist getting mucky again.

Lemon juice and white vinegar come highly recommended as a descaling agent.... for one Researcher itworked on a really ratty shower head that would otherwise have been ready to be binned!

Pet dishes

If you have a dog or a cat, but don't like washing their dishes in the sink, save all those plastic dishes that things like mushrooms, green beans etc come in. The life-cycle of a dish then is...first it's a water dish for a couple of days. Then it becomes a food dish, as a new water dish comes into action. The food dish is used for a couple of days, then stick it down the loo for a couple of hours to soak, run the flush over it, and dump it in the plastic recycling bag. Water dish then becomes food dish, and the whole thing starts over.

If you are in a habit, or it happens just occasionally (honest!) of using microwave meals, or having take aways, then once you've eaten you could feed your pet from the plastic tray. It's bound to have gravy or other leftovers on it, so it makes sense. Just watch it for skidding all over the floor and leaking – they are rather light.

Or feed the dog dry dog food. There's nothing to wash off! What not to try is buying a huge bag of dried dog food, open it, and leave it in a downstairs bathroom beside the toilet with the seat up.

The Bathroom

Make sure you put a sponge and a bottle of your favourite cleaning product, say, on the floor next to the toilet. Anyone coming in to use your bathroom will understand that you were about to do the tiles, clean the sink, brush the toilet bowl and change the shower curtain... That's all we want, that they understand...

Wash hand basins get a scum around the water-line that's very difficult to clean off, requires a lot of elbow-grease and scrubbing. However, if every time you empty the basin you use the flat of your hand on the scum line, it's a most efficient cleaner-offer of scum. Rinse round with fresh water, and the scum never builds up.

Cleaning Glass and Mirrors

Clean with a damp microfibre cloth and polish with a dry microfibre cloth for shiny, streak-free glass! Cheap, easy, and the cloths last for ages and can be washed when they get grubby. They can be used to dust too.

Alternatively, to save loads of money get bitten by a vampire - then you won't need to look in the mirror.

Great Cure for Stained Silverware

Take a pot and a sheet of aluminium foil, fill the pot with water (not bottled, the simple kind!), put the foil down in the pot, heat it until it's just not yet boiling and add a handful of ordinary salt. Put the silver in it and watch. In most cases the black stuff on the silver disappears like magic, sometimes it's necessary to wipe with a soft cloth.

Saw this tip being demonstrated on a program about Glamis Castle last week. I didn't notice that any salt was added to the water, though. She just scrunched up a sheet of tinfoil, dropped it in the simmering water, then submerged the silver in the same pot, sitting on top of the scrunched-up foil.

To remove Chewing Gum

Apparently, if you get gum stuck to your clothes, you can get rid of it by putting them in the freezer for an hour or so. When you remove them, the gum will be brittle and can be cracked off. If you get it on carpets, or anything that you can't put into the freezer, put some ice cubes on it, so that you can pick it off later. On surfaces, wait until it dries, then apply a trowel, chisel, or if stuck, a sharp knife.

Chewing gum in hair is the worst, my sister once accidentally (so she says) stuck some in my hair, luckily at the end so we could cut it out without making too much of a mess!
One thing we once found that was even harder to remove than chewing gum - acrylic paint on top of nail varnish! One of my friends had to wait about a week until it started to come off her nails on its own, we never wore nail varnish on days we had art ever again. I think the paint bonded with the varnish or something, and completely covered it, so nail varnish remover didn't work...

Taking care of clutter

  1. Remove everything from the room you are sorting out, except for furniture.

  2. Gradually bring stuff back in, replacing it in its proper place. Start with the big stuff.

  3. As you go along, toss any rubbish that turns up into the bin.

This simple strategy works like a charm, although one Researcher finds spending hours on h2g2 with her back to the room means that she hardly notice the clutter…

Only Handle It Once

For accumulated clutter, pick up each piece, and either give it away, toss in the trash can or put it where it belongs. For new potential clutter make a decision about it before you put in down. The trick is to make a decision before it hits a hard surface.

Another useful rule to apply when sorting through household stuff of any description that you can't decide what to do with is the 'One Year' rule. If you haven't looked at it, worn it, or used it for a year, the chances are that you don't need it and it can be safely got rid of.

In my case, this has led to two bin bags of rubbish and 3 bin bags of assorted stuff to go to a charity shop, all from one medium sized bedroom. I suppose it's a variation on 'Only Handle It Once', which is what I've been trying to do as well!

Failing all of the above, go and buy some cardboard storage boxes and some shelves, and hide it all neatly out of view


I put everything in all together, with some colour catchers (wonderful things that suck up all the colour that comes out of your clothes so you can put colours with whites and no problems). I ignore washing instructions and stick everything in the tumble dryer on a medium heat, then hang anything up that's still a bit damp. Not ruined anything yet, and I've been doing laundry like that for 3 years now... Might do it differently when I've got my own washing machine and tumble dryer, but that's the easiest way to do things in a laundrette that charges huge amounts for the machines!
I put everything in a 40 or 30 degrees with just normal powder and the only things that ever run are those 'ethnic' style clothes, so they all go in together.
Towels are supposed to be washed on a cold wash when new to 'set' the colour. I've never done this, but my mum always takes my towels away if she catches me with a new one.

Some people say don't use fabric conditioner in a towel wash, as apparently it helps clothes repel water, and you want your towels to soak it up. Others have used it for decades on the same towels which are showing no sign of losing their absorbency. Take your choice!

Always try to hang your clothes outside to dry, as any small stains still remaining will often bleach out in the sun - this especially works for babies and toddler clothes, bibs etc.

Fleece jumpers often smell bad when they have to be dried inside. Simply keep turning them inside out (and visa versa) every few hours. Or you can just spray the jumper with a a fabric freshener.

The Environment

I generally don't clean, but when I do, I just use water with the bare minimum of whatever the cleaning agent is.

It's important to remember the impact constant cleaning can have on the wider world. 'omemade cleaning products- bicarbonate of soda, vinegar, alcohol, beeswax etc can be much greener, and there's also commercial products that keep this sort of thing in mind - those funny plastic ball-type things that ionise the water to clean clothes without detergent. How much can this be taken into consideration and can environmentally-friendly cleaning be effective enough to satisfy?

Do the Funny Plastic Ball-type Things Work?

They do work - the clothes also get softer (especially towels) and don't need fabric conditioner due to no detergent stiffening and roughening the fibres. Also, if I use washing powder on my bed-sheets I get horribly itchy rashes. So yeah, good for sensitive skin.

Not just the environment suffers from cleaning stuff. All those spray polishes are horrible to breathe in. Ditto bleach. Should we be disturbing dust, and getting it airborne? Is it doing anyone any harm trapped in the carpet?

My contribution to the environment is not to clean very often.


People clean too much these days and I swear that's the reason for the increase in childhood asthma and the like! I remember the days of eating sweets that fell on the floor and sharing chewing gum and lollipops with your friends and it certainly never harmed my health. I cringe whenever I see those adverts where the mother wipes every single surface with anti-bacterial wipes.

Constant cleaning of everything can actually be bad for children's health. This is because the chemical kill the germs, bacteria, and viruses in the vicinity. These then don't enter children's blood, so their immune systems don't fight them off and get the necessary experience. This means that, when they venture out into the wider world, they are suddenly assailed by all kinds of deadly parasites which they should be immune to, but are not.

if you keep your house too sterile when you have young children, their immune systems won't develop properly and they will be more prone to allergies in the future. Oh course, that's not the only cause of allergies and this doesn't mean you can totally let the place go to hell... Just don't be disinfecting every inch, every day... Let them go play in the mud outside as well... Give your child some germs! You can't wrap them in a plastic sterile bubble forever!


Let's face it; the main issue is not that the place looks (and smells) like a pigsty, 'cause if it were, we'd have done something a long time ago... No, the main problem is that someone might see it, and comment, and judge, and go on and on and on about it... like... our mother?!?
  • Lighter fluid: can salvage a CD from the brink of skipping oblivion... the clear fluid fills the scrapes and scratches and gives it a bit more time to make a recording. but sadly not a long term solution.

  • Toothpaste: can work as an effective silver cleaner... it can also work on brass and a few other metals as it is abrasive but wont scratch. It also works on CDs and is a longer-term solution. Just wipe it on and buff it off with a dry cloth.

  • Coke: ever get that ugly cruddy crap on Batteries and terminals just a little spalsh of good old coke-a-cola will eat it away... and it is nifty to watch.

  • Bicarb of soda: can be used on stains as already mentioned. It also works on coloured fabrics too, but please remember to rinse!

  • Pure Euclyptus oil: great at getting ink stains out.

Computer fans

Every spring it is time to clean the computer ventilator. Unplug the device and lay it upside down. Take your brush in your preferred hand and the hose of the vacuum cleaner in the other hand to assist. Make sure the airflow is set to minimal and keep some fingers over the mouth.

Only use the hairs of the brush to wipe loosen the collected dust from the 'ventilation' holes in the computer casing. Work from the front to the rear, this is the 'reverse' of the normal flow. This way you remove last the most sticky dust, from the outlet of the supply and first the easy parts.

Warning, the next step will void any warranty, only perform under adult supervision ! If you dare you can do this also on the inside of the box. Try to avoid touching any cables or components with anything, except for the hairs of the brush. Do not try to remove all dust, as some components move first and they usually break.(Well, the first few times).

For getting wax out,try the paper towel and iron trick. Place a layer of paper towel over the wax spot and lightly 'iron' it until the towel absorbs the now melted wax. It may take a few layers of paper towel, but it usually works. At least of other fabrics and carpet.

Extreme answers

Take everything you want to get rid of, throw it on the floor and push it into the hallway. Then into the elevators. Push it out the lobby, into the street and then just let them deal with it.

The Hat

Last, but not least : always keep a hat next to the door. That way, whenever someone rings at the door that you did not expect, pop the hat on before you open the door. If you really don't want them in, you were 'on your way out, what a pity, hope you can come and visit again some other time...' If you realise that they are actually welcome (because their place looks worse), then you are 'just back home, how lucky you are, look, I still have my hat on!'

You could also apply the 'we had a spontaneous party here yesterday.. sorry for the mess' excuse.

The absolute most lazy way to clean is to hire someone else to do it. The only problem is that it can get rather expensive.

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