As many of you know, my family deals with allergies, chemical sensitivities, and other types of scent- and product-related reactions in my house. All of those things increased exponentially after we lived in a mold-infested house for as long as we did. Now that we are all healthy again, and not living day to day with mold-related ailments, my son and I especially still have problems with cleaning products. The chemicals and smells in most household cleaners send my sinuses into overdrive, and give me headaches, while they make my son’s throat and skin start itching. Since I cannot just decide to give up on cleaning our home, my solution, other than mostly switching to natural, unscented products, like baking soda, white vinegar, and the EC3 products, that do not emit VOC’s, has been to use steam for many cleaning endeavors. I have both a handheld steamer and a steam mop (I use the Smart Living Steam Mop and the Smart Living Steam Jr.), so I am able to conquer most tasks with one of the two.
Steam has myriad benefits as a cleaner. It loosens dust, dirt, removes allergens, and kills dust mites and 99.5% of all bacteria. Most handheld steamers and steam mops heat to temperatures exceeding 200 degrees Fahrenheit, which destroys microbes and mold. (My Smart Living Steam Mop actually heats to 230 degrees Fahrenheit, and stays at that temperature continuously while running.) The powerful combination of high heat and steam instantly sanitizes the areas where it is used. Let’s remember now, steam is inherently a sanitizing agent more than it is a cleaning agent. When talking general dirt and grime, in an area that gets a lot of traffic and is pretty dirty, you do well to first thoroughly steam the area to loosen the grime, and to then, wipe it up or go behind the steam mop with a moist towel to make sure all is clean in the end. You may even still need to clean some areas where steam is being used, with a mild detergent to really get after a stain or some dirt, but after the steam hits it, it is thoroughly sanitized, which for a family like ours is of paramount importance.
How Does a Handheld Steamer or Steam Mop Work as a Cleaning Device?
Usually, distilled or purified water is added to the tank of the steamer. Most steamers require what is termed “scaled” water, because if the water contains calcium and magnesium mineral deposits of any kind, those deposits can leave residue behind inside the tank and will damage the internal workings of the machine. You also don’t want deposits left behind on your carpets, floors, or upholstery, as they can stain and/or discolor your things, and can become future organic material for mold to feed on.
The steamer then heats the water past the boiling point and forces it out as pressurized steam through a nozzle, brush, or other attachment. The hot, steam vapor can be directed by the user onto floors, grout, tile, upholstery, etc., to loosen dirt and kill dust mites, mold, staph, allergens and other harmful bacteria. Unlike a vacuum, no suction removes the allergen, bacteria, mold or dirt—that is why most steam mops and steamers come with a removable and washable towel-like cover for the nozzle. The cloth works to pick up and wipe away the dust or dirt that was loosened by the steam. The high-heat moisture dries or evaporates very quickly, as well, which makes it even more ideal for mold, because the moisture left behind is very minimal.
Where Does Steam Cleaning Work Well?
Steam works well on hard, nonporous surfaces, like countertops and bathroom fixtures. Some porous surfaces cannot withstand the extreme heat or can absorb the moisture and become stained. Steam also works well on floors made of vinyl, laminate, sealed wood, or tile. (Note: I would make sure to check with the manufacturer if you have engineered wood floors to make sure that the steam will not destroy their protective covering before using it to clean them.) Handheld steamers are great cleaning tools for upholstery, mattresses, and curtains, too. The steam penetrates textiles to remove stains and odors without leaving too much moisture or residue.
Is There Anywhere That Steam Shouldn’t be Used for Cleaning?
Painted walls and unsealed floors, including hardwood, cork, and unglazed tile, may be damaged by the steamer’s high heat and may also absorb moisture. When trying to remove allergens, bacteria and mold, trapping moisture is not the goal, so materials that want to hold onto it, and are hard to dry out shouldn’t be steam cleaned. When in doubt, test a very small area to see how it does before proceeding. The heat from steam can also cause cold window glass to crack. I would warn you not to ever use steam to clean glass.
The Battle of Steam vs. Mold
Now, let’s talk about the benefits of steam to kill mold. I always like to look to science when figuring out whether or not to use a cleaning method to combat mold. The last thing I want to do is make the mold worse, or work hard to get rid of it with zero result. With that in mind, there was a very compelling study published in 2008 that was sponsored by the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), funded in part by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and conducted by researchers at the University of St. Louis School of Public Health in St. Louis, MO. The study compared the effectiveness of three cleaning methods in removing mold from carpet: high-flow hot water extraction (the method most people are familiar with and the one that most commercial carpet cleaning companies—like Stanly Steamer and Stainmaster—utilize that pushes a chemical cleaner mixed with hot water into the carpet with a pressurized device and extracts the dirty water from the carpet with a vacuum simultaneously), hot water with detergent (the way that most people clean their carpets on their own, using a detergent spray and hot water), and steam vapor technology (or a high-heat steaming device).
For the study, researchers simulated an average home’s carpet that might be found in a flooded basement, and embedded house dust into 60 carpet samples, grinding the dirt in using a special tumbler to simulate one year of carpet wear from real-life traffic conditions. Next, the researchers wetted and inoculated the carpet with Cladosporium sphaerospermum (a common mold spore) and placed the carpet on top of a water-logged foam pad. To avoid cross contamination, the samples were housed in separate compartments with at least 75% relative humidity. Then the researchers waited, leaving the carpet to incubate for 24 hours, for seven days, and for 30 days. At the end of each time period, the samples were cleaned using the three selected cleaning methods.
The study concluded that steam vapor was the clear winner. According to the study, “Significant differences were found among all three methods for removal of fungi over time. Steam was significantly better than the other two methods with 99% efficiency in removal of Cladosporium sphaerospermum from wetted carpet after 24 hours and 30 days incubation time, with 92% efficiency after seven days. The other two methods had declining efficiencies of fungal removal over time, from a maximum of 82% and 81% at 24 hours, down to 60% and 43% at 30 days for detergent and high-flow, hot water extraction, respectively. The net effect of the mold management study demonstrates that while steam has a nearly constant fungal removal rate, the detergent and high-flow, hot water methods decline in efficiency with increasing fungal growth.” Plainly put, the only method that actually decimated the mold and had a lasting effect on fungal growth over time was the steam cleaning method.
Then, move on and think about using steam to clean for mold in everyday life, not just when there is a significant mold outcropping like the study—steam is a great a technique for mold prevention AND for everyday clean-up.
How Should I Use Steam in my Home?
I actually like to use steam to clean for and prevent mold growth in just about every room of our home. Once a week, I use my steam mop on all of our floors. Our kitchen is tile, and so are the bathrooms and the rest of our floors are finished or sealed wood. (HERE is a link to my article on steaming floors after a toilet overflow and HERE is a link to steaming floors prior to moving in.) I also use my handheld steamer once a month to give our bathroom grout and tile a deeper clean. (HERE is a link to my article on steaming grout and tile.) Doing this has prevented mold growth around the tubs and showers significantly. I find if I just do this as maintenance, I am really dealing with visible mold or mildew stains. Less often, and usually just when needed, I use my handheld steamer with my upholstery attachment to clean upholstered furniture and/or draperies. (HERE is a link to my article on steam-cleaning upholstery.) Finally, I would highly recommend purchasing some EC3 Mold Solution Spray for ALL of your steam-cleaning tasks, especially if mold is what you are battling. The EC3 Mold Solution Spray can be misted over to sanitize, and remove any stains, odors, or other microbes.