We’ve been fooled by cleaning “hacks” before.
Hacks, by the way, are just tips, typically delivered via a single viral picture. They’re everywhere on social media, and some cleaning hacks are quite useful. They can make difficult chores fairly easy and improve your life substantially.
This article isn’t about those.
Many cleaning hacks seem exciting in theory, but they’re not so effective in practice. Here are a few of the most frustrating examples.
1. Baking soda cleans your sofa and gets rid of strange odors.
That it does. Baking soda can get rid of most strong odors, as anyone who’s ever stashed a box in the refrigerator knows.
But you can easily ruin certain fabrics by covering them in baking soda. If the fabric is especially soft, the fine grains of baking soda will essentially become a permanent part of your couch. We’d spot-test an area first. Alternately, you can just use coarse salt, which should also soak up odors fairly effectively.
2. Use baking soda and vinegar to clean your shower.
Or your sink. Or your kitchen. Or your kids.
Cleaning websites will tell you that baking soda and vinegar are a classic pair. They’re the peanut butter and jelly of cleaning. Typically you’re told to put baking soda on the hard-to-clean surface, then add the vinegar. Wait a few minutes as the magical bubbles do their work.
There’s a problem here, though. Vinegar is acidic, which is why it’s an effective cleaner on its own. Leave it on a surface, and it will dig up stains, eliminate grease, and do a bunch of other neat stuff. Baking soda is a base. It’s great for soaking up odors, but it cancels out acids.
You see the problem yet? Combine vinegar and baking soda, and you’ll have, at best, a weak acid or a weak base. The bubbles look impressive, but it’s not a sign that the solution is actually cleaning anything.
3. Add a touch of black pepper to your laundry to keep the colors from fading.
People really love natural cleaning solutions, so myths like this one spread fairly quickly. This is one of the strangest suggestions.
The idea is that something in the spice stops the colors from running, although the articles that recommend it don’t back that up with any sort of scientific evidence. That’s not a surprise, since there’s nothing in pepper that could conceivably do this, especially when dissolved in a full load of laundry.
Pepper does contain a chemical called piperine, which gives it its spiciness. This compound yields a salt at extremely high temperatures—but if that’s the important ingredient, why not just add salt?
In any case, if a dash of pepper was all that manufacturers needed to colorfast their clothes, they’d use it. The fact is that if the clothes aren’t colorfast by the time that they get to you, you’re out of luck, unfortunately; your pepper bath isn’t going to help the colors stick.
One thing that you can do is to read the labels carefully and avoid hot water cycles when they’re not necessary. Save the salt and pepper for dinner.
4. Use salt and lemon juice to clean your cutting board without chemicals.
You know what salt is? Sodium chloride, a chemical compound.
Citric acid, by the way, is an organic tricarboxylic acid and another chemical compound. Saying that you’re cleaning “without chemicals” is like saying that you’re cooking “without ingredients.” It doesn’t really make any sense. Plus, it assumes that “chemicals” like dish soap are unsafe, which is absolutely untrue.
Now, this solution will probably work, and it’ll probably leave your cutting board smelling fresh, but it’s certainly not more effective than soap. Soap gets rid of oils by combining molecules that attract water and molecules that repel water, allowing oil to break down to a point at which it can combine with water and wash away. Hooray, chemicals!
We also wouldn’t trust salt and lemon juice to clean the plastic cutting board you use for meats—and if you’re using soap on one cutting board, why not just go ahead and use it on the other one too?
5. Use club soda to stop a stain from setting into a fabric.
This is one of the most common cleaning hacks in history. It was featured on an early episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and for many people it’s the only good reason to keep a bottle of club soda around.
We’re not going to say that it doesn’t work, but we will point out that it doesn’t work particularly well when compared with commercial stain removers. Some studies suggest that club soda works better than cold tap water, but others say that it’s essentially the same thing.
We’d bet our money against club soda (and we can’t believe we’re typing that). Although it’s a weak base, there’s no real chemical reason that it would be able to pull out stains; people really seem to use it simply because it bubbles.
For a better alternative, use a mild detergent and cold water. Be sure to start dabbing the liquid as soon as it touches the fabric, and never rub—just dab.
6. Use hairspray to get rid of small ink stains.
Your mother might have told you this tip, and back in her day, it worked quite well. She’d spray a little bit of hairspray on the ink, pat it with a towel, and watch the stain magically come out.
This sounds like a classic cleaning hack, as it repurposes something that you’ve got around the house (the hairspray) for an uncommon purpose (cleaning ballpoint ink). That’s why the tip spreads so quickly around Pinterest. But alas, it doesn’t work anymore.
Why won’t it work for you? Well, for starters, you’re not using the same hairspray as your mother, and we’re not talking about the brand. Older hairsprays often contained a decent amount of alcohol, which is extraordinarily effective at cleaning up ink. Newer hairsprays don’t have the same ingredients, however, because alcohol’s not really a necessary part of the formula. As a result, modern hairsprays don’t work nearly as effectively.
If you’re looking for an alternative, well…we’re pretty sure we just told you in the last paragraph. Rubbing alcohol—provided that it’s safe for your fabric—should accomplish the same thing.
7. Pour cola in your toilet to clean it.
This myth started out with good intentions. Someone was trying to show how cola can break down, ahem, organic matter, and that eventually led to a bizarre suggestion: Pour Coke down your commode to keep it clean.
Given enough time, cola could actually work. It’s acidic, which is part of the reason that it’s so bad for your teeth. It’s also loaded with sugar, which could be mildly corrosive (another reason that your dentist hates your soda habit).
Our problem with this hack is that soda’s expensive and not particularly effective. Bleach, vinegar, or ammonia (pick one and never combine bleach with either of the other substances) will work just fine. Citric acid, i.e. lemon juice, will also work.
Your technique is far more important. Brush the toilet first, then add your cleaner. Wait a few minutes, then scrub using a circular motion to break up stains. Hey, it’s a dirty job, but…ah, you know the rest.
8. Need to clean your windows? Wait until it’s sunny outside.
This seems to make sense. How else are you going to know whether you missed a spot?
But the best time to clean your windows is actually when it’s cloudy. The sun can dry the windows far too quickly, leaving streaks behind. Most window cleaners contain a thickening agent to prevent this—that’s what that “streak-free” claim on the label is all about—but you’ve still got to give the solution time to work.
By the way, you don’t really need an expensive glass cleaner (even though glass cleaners aren’t too expensive). You can make your own with vinegar (¼ cup), cornstarch (1 tablespoon), alcohol (¼ cup), and warm water (2 cups). This combines the cleaning power of vinegar with a drying agent (the alcohol) and a thickener (cornstarch) for a handy spray that won’t dry out too quickly.
Here’s a more in-depth look at the recipe, if you’re interested.