Stop Microwaving Your Sponges (And 7 Other Cleaning “Hacks” That Just Don’t Work)

From microwaving sponges to scrubbing your sink with a potato, here's what won't help your house get any cleaner...and what to do instead.

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November 9, 2017
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Remember the good old days before Pinterest? When hacks were still called tips and if you wanted a recipe for lasagna you’d just call your grandmother? Those days are all but a distant memory now, though truth be told, it’s actually quite handy living in the age of information.

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But with so many domestic lifehacks populating the internet, there’s no guarantee that every single one of them will work.

Sadly, it seems that a few homemaker blogs are more invested in making that Pinterest pin look pretty than testing out their “mind-blowing” cleaning hacks.

Afraid your Pinterest board might be nothing more than a digital scrapbook of lies? Maybe you should be. Check out these worryingly ineffective cleaning hacks and see what you might be doing wrong.

1. Microwave sponges to kill bacteria.

Your microwave might just be the handiest gadget in your entire kitchen. Did you know that microwaving water is the most energy-efficient way to boil it?

As effective as they are at reheating dinner, one thing microwaves are not great at is blasting the bacteria right out of a dirty kitchen sponge.

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It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that microwaving a sponge would help to kill bacteria. After all, we make sure we heat food all the way through to kill bacteria, right?

This is what researchers thought about 10 years ago. A 2006 University of Florida study found that “two minutes of microwaving is sufficient for most sterilization.” Since then, dozens of blog posts have raved about the benefits of regularly zapping sponges.

But more recent research revealed that the average kitchen sponge actually harbors a lot more bacteria than previously thought. So much, in fact, that the kitchen is actually the most bacteria-ridden room in your house—even worse than the toilet.

Kitchen sponges are also responsible for the spread of bacteria to people and other surfaces when they’re used, thanks to the fact that they’re frequently touched and used to wipe down counters and dishes.

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Although microwaving does help to kill a lot of that bacteria, this recent study found that “no method alone seemed to be able to achieve a general bacterial reduction of more than about 60%.”

The same study even showed that frequent attempts to clean sponges also increased the amount of certain bacteria, since they become more resistant to these sanitation methods over time.

Do this instead: So what exactly is the best method to clean a kitchen sponge? Considering persistent attempts to clean them can end up doing more harm than good, it’s better to simply replace them regularly—about once a week. Otherwise your kitchen may just become a breeding ground for super-resistant bacteria, putting you and your family’s health at risk.

2. Remove hair dye stains with potatoes.

The most daunting aspect of dyeing your hair with box dye is not knowing how it’s going to turn out. The second scariest part is the messy aftermath all over your bathroom.

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Hair dye stains are one of the most annoying things to get rid of. The dye can wreak havoc on porcelain, especially if it happens to be porous. And if your basin is cream colored rather than white, you might feel reluctant to bust out the bleach and end up with even more discolored splotches.

A much less risky method is rubbing a slice of potato on the stain. Potatoes contain something called oxalic acid, which can naturally lift stains and even rust. But they’re no miracle solution.

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First of all, yes, oxalic acid is an ingredient used in many cleaning products. But potatoes have a relatively low oxalic acid content compared with many other vegetables, such as turnips or even Brussels sprouts. So their popularity as the go-to stain removal veggie doesn’t quite add up.

Second, even the most oxalic acid–rich vegetables will have a very gentle effect on stains. This may be enough to lift temporary hair dye off your sink, but it’s not going to do much when it comes to permanent or semi-permanent dye stains.

Do this instead: There are dedicated stain-removal products that will lift even the darkest hair dye stain off your bathroom tiles. Stain removal pens use both a concentrated cleaning solution and micro-scrubbers to really lift those pesky spots.

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Emma Couch is a professional cleaner who knows a thing or two about banishing stains. The 28-year-old has worked in pubs, hotels, and private homes, scrubbing away every possible mess imaginable for over five years. Before you bust out the specialty products, she says you might want to try her method first: good old elbow grease. “The best way to remove stains in a sink is some gumption, fine steel wool, and, as an old lady I once cleaned for always used to say, ‘a bit of elbow grease.'”

3. Remove rust with Coca-Cola.

Here’s the thing: Coca-Cola (or any soda, really) does have the ability to remove rust. But dousing something in Coke is far less cost effective than buying an actual rust-removal product.

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Not to mention it will leave behind a sticky residue because of all that sugar. If you’re trying to steer clear of strong cleaning products, you can always try regular soda water instead. It’s just as effective as Coke, and the carbonation will help to lift the rust.

4. Use newspaper to clean glass.

For the budget or environmentally conscious, paper towels are an unnecessary expense. But using old newspapers to wipe away window cleaner isn’t exactly an effective alternative. The ink in the print can easily run when wet, leaving even more smudges on the glass.

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Do this instead: Trying to cut down on waste? Microfiber window-cleaning cloths are a great substitute for paper towels. Just make sure they haven’t been washed with fabric softener first, or else you might leave a film on the glass.

5. Put lemon peels in the garbage disposal to eliminate odors.

Garbage disposals are one of the trickiest parts of a kitchen to clean. You might be tempted to stuff something down there to neutralize unwanted odors. But whatever you do, don’t use lemon rinds.

A nasty-smelling garbage disposal could be the result of a clogged drain. And if your drains are smelling bad due to buildup, it’s counterintuitive to stuff more food down there.

Do this instead: If you do insist on treating the odor, make sure to use a liquid or powder form to prevent the problem from worsening.

More importantly, have your drains inspected for clogs or use a product designed to clear them out. Treat the cause, not just the symptom!

6. Use vinegar as a disinfectant.

Vinegar is often touted as the ultimate natural cleaning agent. But is it an effective disinfectant? Not exactly.

Much like baking soda and even tea tree oil, vinegar has the ability to kill a lot of bacteria, including the flu virus. Unfortunately, it’s not capable of killing some forms of very harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella.

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Do this instead: You can still use vinegar as a cleaning product. But be aware that it won’t sufficiently sterilize everything. To eliminate the presence of dangerous bacteria, always make sure to scrub your kitchenware with very hot, soapy water.

And if you’re looking for a more effective natural disinfectant, Couch says you might want to consider eucalyptus oil.

“My favorite disinfectant is eucalyptus oil,” she says. “A lot of people really aren’t aware of how good that stuff is at killing bacteria.”

7. Clean wood furniture with tea.

We all know you can’t wash your wooden furniture with just any old surface cleaner. You have to take care not to damage the wood itself.

Tea may seem like a gentle, natural way to freshen up your furniture, but it could do more harm than good. Different kinds of finish require different methods of cleaning. Black tea will stain most unpainted wood. Unless you’re going for a natural tint, put the kettle down!

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Do this instead: Wooden furniture is actually very simple to clean. Just dust it down with a dry cloth regularly, as water can dampen and damage the wood.

8. Salt will stop dye from running in the wash.

There’s nothing worse than discovering your entire load of laundry has become stained by dye running off a new item of clothing. Unless you’re overly fond of wearing the same shade of baby pink, you need to protect your clothes from accidental dye disaster.

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Salt has the ability to act as a natural mordant—that is, it fixes the dye and stops it from running. But throwing a cup of salt in the washing machine won’t do the trick. This is because salt is only useful for specific types of fabric and dyeing techniques.

Do this instead: Always hand-wash a new item of clothing to get rid of any excess dye that wasn’t properly “sealed” during the manufacturing process. If you find it’s still bleeding dye after the first wash, then you’re better off just sticking to hand-washing whenever you need to clean it.

The most underrated method to prevent dye from running is to follow the care instructions on each garment, especially in regard to temperature.

Cleaning Hacks That Actually Work

By now you’re probably feeling a little disillusioned by the whole “cleaning hack” thing. Fortunately, there are still plenty of tips and tricks that really do work.

Check out these effective hacks and get ready to level up your cleaning game.

1. Microwave a bowl of lemons and water to clean it.

Do you hate scrubbing away at the crusted-on food in your microwave? Good news: Now you never have to do that again! Simply cut a lemon in half, place it in a bowl of water and microwave on high for two minutes. The steam from the boiling water will loosen up all the gunk, meaning all you have to do is wipe it off with a cloth. Easy!

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The lemons also make your microwave smell like citrus. It won’t last too long, but it’ll make the cleaning experience a lot easier to endure.

2. Use eucalyptus oil to remove sticker residue.

If you’re guilty of hoarding old jars, then you’ll know how hard it is to remove the residue left by the label. Lucky for us, eucalyptus oil isn’t just great at killing bacteria. It makes quick work of those labels and is actually a super versatile product.

“It’s great for so many other cleaning things,” says Couch. “Removing chewing gum from carpet, a few drops added to mopping water to help remove any stickiness from floorboards and tiles, removing stubborn labels from glass jars. And it smells so good!”

3. Soap nuts are a natural soap alternative.

Soap nuts are hailed as the magical, all-natural replacement for pretty much any cleaning product imaginable. Dishwashing liquid, floor cleaner, even shampoo!

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Vinayaraj: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

They’re not actually a nut, but the dried outer casing of a berry. They contain naturally occurring saponin, otherwise known as soap. When combined with water, they produce bubbles and that slippery feeling that you get from regular soap. This helps to lift grime and grease.

Their all-rounder status means you get to cut down on the amount of products you use, which aligns perfectly with Couch’s motto: simplicity.

So many people tend to buy 20 different products to clean a few things at home.

“My biggest tip would be to keep things simple,” she says. “So many people tend to buy 20 different products to clean a few things at home. So many cleaning products you see on the shelves are total wastes of money. A lot of cleaners and sprays can be used for multiple purposes, and a lot of things can actually be made at home.”

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