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How to Remove Soap Scum Using a Steam Cleaner

Updated on October 6, 2014

Steam Cleaning Hardened Soap Scum

Are you thinking about buying a steam cleaner and dreaming of watching the soap scum magically melt off your bath tub? Maybe you've already bought one and found that what you saw on the commercials isn't exactly how it works when you try it for yourself.

Not to fret. A steam cleaner, or vapor cleaner, will help remove very built up soap scum off your tub and shower, but you've still got to use some cleanser.

I know what you're probably thinking. "The whole reason I wanted a steam cleaner was so I wouldn't need to use chemicals." Well I hate to break it to you, but water is a chemical, so that's a moot point right off the bat. The advantage to using a steam cleaner is that you can get excellent results using very mild cleansers, and significantly cut down on the amount of time you spend scrubbing.

Plus, once you take off that seemingly impenetrable layer of built up soap scum, you really will be able to maintain your tub using your steam cleaner without any additional cleansers.

How I Get the Job Done

When I first start cleaning a new customer's house, I often encounter bathtubs with so much soap scum buildup that the client literally believes that the finish has come off their tub and it has become permanently stained. This is particularly true on fiber glass tubs and showers.

What I do to get these tubs and shower back to a nearly new condition is use the large brush tool attachment that comes with just about every canister steam cleaner and apply Castile soap to the bristles before steaming and scrubbing away. My favorite is Dr. Bronner's Sal Suds. It's got a light, clean, pine scent (that is not at all overpowering like pine sol,) it rinses away very cleanly, doesn't etch or scratch, and is a super concentrated and economical companion to my steam cleaner. Sal Suds and a steam cleaner are a great combination for natural stone, like granite, which can be an extra challenge to clean because so many cleaners can can cause damage. Sal suds and heat are both safe for stone.

If I need a little more oomph, I add a little powdered oxygen bleach. I always use an oxygen bleach that discloses ingredients and contains only sodium percarbonate, or one with sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate combined, since I don't want or need any additional detergents in there. Sodium percarbonate is the oxygen bleach ingredient and it whitens best when used with very hot water, so it combines wonderfully with a steam cleaner.

In houses on hard well water, removing soap scum can be more of a challenge, and for that I usually skip the Castile soap and oxygen bleach and break out the Bar Keeper's friend instead. So far, it's the least toxic, most environmentally responsible, product I can find to combat hard water issues that actually works. I'm continuously searching for a better option, but until I find one, it will have to do. (Never clean natural stone with acidic cleansers like this one.)

For more info on combating hard water cleaning issues, check out my article entitled "How to Clean Hard Water Buildup and Soap Scum from Showers, Tubs, and Bathroom Fixtures."


Keeping It Clean

If you want to save yourself a lot of headache in the future, don't use bar soap. The talc in bar soap chemically bonds with minerals in your water and oils that you wash from your hair and skin, creating that kind of soap scum that you can scrape off the tub with a butter knife. Stick to liquid soaps and shower gel and your shower will be a lot easier to clean the next time around.

If you clean your shower regularly and keep away from bar soap, you can probably use your steam cleaner to clean it without any additional cleansers from there on out. If you've got iron or lime scale in your water and your tile tends to yellow over time, or you get a lot of scale around your shower fixtures, you will still have to use something acidic to prevent that. Your steam cleaner will make a mild acid like vinegar or citric acid more effective for general maintenance.

Getting the Most Out of Your Steam Cleaner

A steam cleaner is a helpful tool, but it's not a magic wand. People purchase them and expect to be able to clean everything using just steam alone, but they don't actually work that way. What they do is make gentle, non toxic, cleansers more effective, cut down on your scrubbing effort, and get into all the nooks and crannies that a brush can't reach. If you've bought a steam cleaner and believed all the marketing hype surrounding them, don't be too disappointed if you can't get the results you were hoping for the first time you use it.

I hope to post some more articles in the future to help people get the most out of their vapor cleaners, to try to combat some of the marketing hype, and help people get the results they are looking for without going back to using chemicals. If you have any questions, write a comment and I'll try to help!

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