Cleaning Tips for the Major Icks

Dreading your most disgusting chores? Experts and moms in the trenches give their best advice for tackling what's gross.

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The Ick: The Toilet Bowl


Hands down, cleaning toilets wins the vote from Motherboard Moms and pros for being the ickiest thing to clean in the house. "Toilets really are the most disgusting things to deal with," says Jennifer Toth, mom of two in Seattle. Her trick for trying to clean less: "I put bleach tablets in the tanks of our older toilets, to help prevent rings in the bowl."

Good move? Yes, says Julie Edelman, also known as "The Accidental Housewife" and author of The Ultimate Accidental Housewife: Your Guide to a Clean-Enough House. "For the bowl itself, you also can drop in two effervescent tablets, such as Alka-Seltzer, and plop-plop, fizz-fizz, they do the work for you," she says.

Another approach: Marla Cilley, aka "The Fly Lady" ( and author of Sink Reflections, recommends a daily "swish." She keeps a toilet brush next to the toilet in a large vase or decorative container filled with half soap (such as old bubble bath) and half water. "Use that for your daily swish before you leave the bathroom," she says. (If you need to keep cleanser out of kids' reach, use a disposable toilet wand that's kept on a high shelf.) Wipe up the area around the toilet with a wipe, and you're finished. "It takes less time to do it than it just took me to explain it," Cilley says. "And your toilet will always be reasonably clean."

The Accidental Housewife

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The Ick: Toilet Bowl Stains


Here's an environmentally gentle method to clean nasty hard-to-clean stains in the commode from Leslie Reichert, "The Cleaning Coach" and author of The Joy of Green Cleaning: Recipes to Make Your Own Green Cleaners. She recommends turning off the toilet's water source and then flushing. You'll be left with just the porcelain bowl—no water—to clean. Use a cup each of salt, baking soda and borax, with 8 drops of tea tree oil added as a disinfectant. Add 8 drops of essential oil fragrance such as lavender or peppermint for a fresh scent. Scrub, turn the water back on and flush. "Works like a dream," says Reichert.

For particularly stubborn rings in the bowl, she suggests gently using a special cleaning pumice stone. "Once the ring is gone, you'll have to go over it again only once in awhile," she says.

The Cleaning Coach

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The Ick: Bad Bathroom Aim


As anyone with male members of the family knows, the area around the toilet can get ugly fast. "I have two boys and a husband," says Kate Crane of DeBary, Florida. "There are aim issues. Need I say more?" Crane keeps a spray bottle of vinegar and water next to the toilet to clean up the floor and uses wipes on the seat and toilet bowl rim.

This is a perfect solution, says Reichert. "Vinegar and water really take the smell out of anything, and they sanitize," she says. The combo works as a daily shower cleaner too. She combines 4 ounces of vinegar, 4 ounces of water, 8 drops of tea tree oil and 8 drops of an essential oil fragrance for a sweet-smelling, disinfecting shower cleaner.

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The Ick: Spots and Scum


Even though the prospect of tackling disgusting cleaning jobs may drive you to drink, make better use of that vodka as a cleanser, says Edelman. "We're talking about the really cheap stuff," she says. "It's a great disinfectant, it leaves no smell behind and it really shines things up," she says. Water and toothpaste spots on chrome fixtures? Dull film in a stainless steel sink? It'll be gone after a round of undiluted vodka, Edelman says. Just saturate a microfiber cloth with the vodka, wipe, rinse and then dry with another microfiber cloth or paper towels.

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The Ick: Stopped-Up Drain


Whether your clogged drain is in the bathroom (usually the result of hair and soap buildup) or kitchen (likely caused by hardening fats and pieces of food that were never ground up in the disposal)—unstopping it is nobody's favorite job. Here's how to do it as painlessly as possible: After pulling out as much blockage as you can from the top with gloved hands (gross, but there's no way around it), pour one-half cup of baking soda followed by one-half cup of vinegar down the drain. This is the same formula kids use to make homemade "volcanoes" for science projects. But it will erupt only slightly—if at all—out of your drain. When the bubbling stops, pour a kettle of boiling water down after it, Edelman says, and the drain should clear. For super-stubborn clogs, consult a plumber.

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The Ick: The Bathroom Counter and Mirror


The bathroom gets so gross because "We say to ourselves, 'Well, no one ever sees it,'" says cleaning expert Marla Cilley. "Then your mother-in-law calls and wants to come over, and she'll likely need to use the bathroom." A quick fix: Start by wiping down the bathroom mirror, she says, "to clean up those 'home runs' from nightly teeth flossing" you didn't notice the night before. Then wipe the counters and sink with cleaning wipes. Wipe the area around the toilet with a wipe, too, and you're ready for company.

The Fly Lady

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The Ick: Mold & Mildew


Take smart protective measures against mold and mildew and you won't have to battle the stuff later, says Edelman. How to do it? "Get the humidity out!" she says. Run your bathroom exhaust fan during and after every shower or bath. Dry the walls, floors and door in your shower area (a squeegee works really well) after every showering. And avoid wallpapering and/or carpeting your bathroom: "These hold moisture and are major mold-and-mildew breeding grounds," Edelman says. To combat moisture throughout the house, get a dehumidifier for any damp areas of the house such as your basement, she says.

If you do find serious signs of mold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says you should consult an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expert.

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The Ick: A Dusty Bathroom


You wouldn't think that a bathroom could get really dusty, but it does. And all that dust sticks to the damp areas. And one of the main culprits (besides inattention) is ultrasoft toilet paper, which sheds particles into the air. This yuck can manifest around cabinets, under sinks and in the grid of your exhaust fan. Reichert's favorite weapon for keeping ahead of it? Microfiber cloths. "They pick up dirt and dust really well when the bathroom is misty," she says, "or you can put just a little bit of water on the cloth when the bathroom is dry and dust off everything from glass to tile."

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The Ick: The Range-Hood Screen


The dishwasher, says Reichert, can save you from having to deal with any number of disgusting details in your cleaning, such as the toothbrush holder, soap dish and even the range-hood screen. "You can usually put the small items on the top rack, and screens are fine on the bottom," she says. "This will save you time, and the items will get much cleaner and better sanitized than if you try to wash them by hand."

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The Ick: All That Clutter


A cluttered home will never look or feel truly clean, cleaning expert Cilley says. And it can't be managed. "You can't organize clutter," she says. "You can only get rid of it." Two options:

The Big Purge Approach
Set a goal for yourself by defining what you want to do with the space, says Edelman. "Do you want to finally be able to park your cars in the garage? Set up the basement as a rec room? Be specific. Work to reach that goal, not some vague 'I have to clean this up' idea," she says. Then enlist all the help you can and do a major clutter purge in one day, with breaks. Take everything out of the space first, she says. Divide it into categories: keep; discard; duplicates. Then clean the area and everything you're going to keep (keep only the best one of the duplicates).

The Baby Steps Approach
Cilley recommends doing your purge and reorganization in small increments over time, especially if you don't have a whole crew to help you. "I used to have an extra bedroom piled to the ceiling," she recalls. "I couldn't even open the door all of the way! I just started taking two things out every hour, three times a day, for three months. Eventually I got it cleaned out." Cilley's "baby steps" approach can work for anyone, she says, especially those who are overwhelmed or have busy schedules. "The idea is to get your home organized and clean so then you have time to join that scrapbooking club or whatever you'd enjoy doing."

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The Ick: Doing It All Alone


The Solution: Make pitching in regularly a must-do as soon as your kids are old enough. Jennifer Toth's children—a 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter—pitch in on schedule: "We have four major jobs that we rotate among the four of us (husband included) each week," Toth says. "Emptying all trash cans throughout the house (the kitchen garbage gets emptied more often); vacuuming and Swiffering all floors; cleaning the bathrooms; and folding laundry. All jobs must be done by Saturday night and then we change the person in charge on Monday. No one complains, because we all share the responsibility equally."