How to Clean Hard Water Buildup and Soap Scum from Showers, Tubs, and Bathroom Fixtures
If you live in an area with very hard water, you probably dread the thought of cleaning your bathroom.
If you're like most people with this problem, you've browsed the shelves at your supermarket or hardware store and grabbed the most aggressive looking product on the shelves. And while the product did work, it also burned you lungs and nose in the process and left you wondering if you're killing the planet in pursuit of a shiny bathroom. Maybe you've looked on the internet and tried the advice you've seen to use vinegar or lemon, only to end up with a lemony-pickled smelling bathroom, and the same soap scum and mineral build up you started out with.
There's got to be a better way!
Bar Keeper's Friend - Your Best Option
Not to fear. There is a better solution. It's called Bar Keeper's friend. It's a mild abrasive, acidic, cleanser that's been made in America since the 1880's. Compared to your other options, it's probably the least toxic way to get rid of iron stains in your grout and calcium buildup on your tiles, and it's very easy to use.
♥ You can also try citric acid and a little Castile Soap using the same method I outline below. I use it when scale is at a minimum, and it works really great for that, but in my experience it either takes a lot longer to get the same results or doesn't work at all when dealing with significantly scaly water problems. ♥
How to Use It
If it's been a while since you've cleaned, start out by pouring a little BKF powder in a disposable container (grab something from the recycling bin,) and mix with water to form a consistency between paste and cream. Use a cloth and rub it everywhere you need to clean and let it sit for a few minutes.
If whatever your cleaning isn't too bad, you don't really need to let it sit on the problem area first. You can just pour a little on your cloth or brush and start scrubbing right away. Just make sure that when you shake the can, you hold it close to wherever your pouring it so you don't cause a cloud of powder to billow into the air and into your lungs.
♥ If you feel more comfortable trying citric acid than Bar Keeper's Friend, you will probably want to let it sit on the surface you're cleaning for a few minutes before scrubbing, even if the scale isn't too built up. Citric acid comes in crystal forms, (looking sort of like granulated sugar,) and it won't stick as well to your shower walls as BKF because it won't form a paste. You can dissolve it in water and spray it on with a spray bottle, which will help in applying it evenly. ♥
Once the acids have been given a few minutes to break down those hard water minerals, it's time to start scrubbing. If you own a steam cleaning machine, now is a great time to use it. The heat from the steam makes acids more effective and it's great for cleaning grout and blasting off big chunks of mineral buildup around chrome fixtures without scratching. I use a steam cleaner every time I clean a shower or tub because it significantly cuts down on the time I spend scrubbing.
If you don't own a steam cleaner, I recommend using a battery powered scrubber, or a brush attachment on the end of a power drill. This will also cut down on your scrubbing time and will reduce fatigue. It doesn't work as well as a steamer at cleaning crud around fixtures, and you may need to be more careful with it to avoid scratching chrome, but it's worth the time and energy saved.
Once your finished scrubbing, make sure you rinse well. I don't consider BKF toxic, but it can be absorbed through the skin and cause irritation in some people, so play it safe and make sure to rinse well before filling up the tub and giving your kids a dunk.
How to Keep it Looking Great
The number one thing you can do to prevent having to do a huge tub cleaning job again shortly after you've just gone through all this trouble is to stop using bar soap. You'll still get the hard water deposits, but at least you won't get soap scum.
Soap scum is caused by talc in bar soap chemically bonding with minerals in your water and oils from your skin and hair. Use a liquid soap instead.
I also suggest if your water is high in iron to use salts in your water softener especially made to reduce iron build up. I do not know about every brand, but Morton's Super Iron Out Pellets are treated with citric acid, which is commonly found in high levels in foods and beverages, and isn't toxic.
I've read of people getting great results from waxing their shower walls with auto polish. I haven't tried this myself, but if I give it a shot, I'll write up an article and let you know how it goes.
There are also products available at your hardware store that you can apply to a clean shower to prevent further build up. I do not have experience with using them in homes where there is extremely hard water, but I do know that they can work very well in homes with average hard water.
I always like to let people know the caveats, so I'll be upfront in telling you that some plumbing fixture manufacturer's do not recommend Bar Keeper's Friend because it's acidic. If you live with hard water, however, you're not going to get rid of the build up without an acid. So you're either going to take your chances, or live with unmovable soap scum and hard water stains.
Never use anything acidic on natural stone and test it in an inconspicuous place if you're uncertain about whether the surface your cleaning is resistant to etching by acids. Chances are, if you live in a hard water area, your house was built with materials that can withstand acidic cleansers (at least I would hope so!)
There is some debate among netizins as to Bar Keeper's Friend's eco-friendliness and toxicity. Bar keeper's friend is made from a mild mineral abrasive and oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is derived from vegetables like spinach and rhubarb. It can be absorbed through the skin, but causes only dry skin and irritation. Prolonged exposure can cause contact dermatitis in some people, so if you plan to be scrubbing for a while, you should probably wear gloves. It could cause some respiratory irritation if you breathe in a cloud of it, (but nothing like spraying harsh descaling solution directly in front of your nose,) so be mindful when tapping some out of the container. It is not bio accumulative, so repeated use will not cause toxic build up in your body. It is also not persistent in the eco system, meaning that it breaks down into simpler elements that do not destroy the planet.
The Environmental Working Group gives BKF a grade of "F" (very bad) for poor ingredient disclosure and because oxalic acid is indeed toxic in high concentrations. BKF's manufacturer is open in stating that their product contains 10% oxalic acid, which I personally feel comfortable with for occasional use. I am very green in all my cleaning methods, and this is definitely the most questionable product I use in that regard, but it's also the only thing I've found that actually works without noxious fumes, and I have tried everything from vinegar to citric acid in my search for a cure to the hard water dilemma. For less severe hard water staining and build up, I still use citric acid, but when that doesn't work, I use Bar Keeper's Friend.
♥ ♥ ♥ As a suggestion for choosing a liquid soap - I can't say enough good things about Dr. Bronner's Liquid Castile Soap. You can clean people, pets, and all kinds of things around your home with it. It comes in a nice variety of scents, and it's made by a very ethical and responsible company. Some people don't like it because it's very watery, but it is highly concentrated so a tiny bit goes a looong way. ♥ ♥ ♥