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How to use a steam cleaner

By Jon Barrow

Got questions about your steam cleaner and how to get the best out of it? Read our guide to find out more about these handy tools and to discover what they can and can't do.

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It's easy to see why steam cleaners have become so popular – the best models really do help you keep your house sparkling. But if you've never owned one, you're likely to have a few questions about what they can do. 

In this guide, our floor-care experts answer the most common queries. If you think a steam cleaner is right for you, read our guide to how to buy the best steam cleaner, or head straight to our Best Buy steam cleaners.

Will a steam cleaner damage my floor?

Steam cleaners can do a brilliant job, but they're not suitable for all surfaces and can warp or crack some flooring.

Before you buy or use a steam cleaner for the first time, it's best to double check whether it will be suitable for your home. Manufacturers often list the type of surfaces they say you can safely clean with their devices, but the information can be quite vague and may not be relevant to the exact type of flooring in your house.

Instead, we'd recommend checking directly with your flooring manufacturer or installer. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't use a steam cleaner on unsealed wooden or parquet floors, as the moisture can cause the boards to swell and buckle.

If you're unsure whether your floor has been properly sealed, one way to check is to pour a small amount of water onto it and then wait to see if the water sinks down into it. If it doesn't, you should be able to steam clean the surface. To be on the safe side, turn the cleaner to its lowest setting the first time you use it on a new type of flooring, and always mop up any excess water after use.

Find out which steam cleaners leave your floors dry.

Will a steam cleaner work on fabric and carpet?

A steam cleaner is no replacement for a proper carpet cleaner. These wash your carpets, sucking up the dirty water, and are great for really deep cleaning. In comparison, steam cleaners just blast your carpet with hot steam. They don't remove the dirt, though the steam can help shift stains and refresh the pile.

We test cylinder steam cleaners' ability to clean stains on carpets, as you told us you use them to do this at home. Some do this fairly well, but none were as good as a carpet cleaner. See our cylinder steam cleaner reviews to see if any appeal to you.

Some steam mops and two-in-one devices come with a carpet glider attachment for the mop head, which can be useful for carpeted areas.

Whatever type of steam cleaner you own, always test it on a small hidden area before using it, as not all carpet types are suitable for cleaning at high temperatures. Avoid holding it down or over-wetting any one area and always vacuum the carpet before steaming it.

What else can I do with my steam cleaner?

1. Clean your oven and hob

Trying to shift baked-on grease and food can be a real challenge and often requires powerful chemicals. But using a steam cleaner is more eco-friendly and doesn't produce any nasty smells. However, be careful not to use the steamer near the oven's element, as this could damage it.

You can also take your cleaner outdoors to spruce up your barbecue (you may have to team it up with a wire brush for burnt-on food).

2. Sanitising your mattress

It's a good idea to regularly clean your mattress. Not only do we regularly sweat and shed dead skin while we sleep, but the average bed contains 10,000 dust mites, which can aggravate allergies.

The high temperature of the steam produced by your cleaner kills dust mites and won't soak the mattress, so it won't take as long to dry.

As with other surfaces though, check with the manufacturer before using your steam cleaner on your mattress, and thoroughly vacuum first to pick up any loose debris, such as pet fur and dust. For more information, read our guide on to how to clean your mattress.

3. Defrosting your freezer

If you're in a hurry to defrost your freezer, your steamer is a quicker – and safer – option than attacking the ice with kitchen implements. The heat of the steam will also sterilise the surfaces, so you don't need to use any detergent to clean them once the ice has been removed.

First remove the drawers, place a bowl in the bottom of the freezer to collect the ice and then direct your steamer's nozzle onto the ice. It should come away easily in big chunks which you can then drop in to your bowl. Remember to have a towel on hand to wipe up any drips.

Do I have to use distilled water in a steam cleaner?

Some manufacturers recommend you use distilled water in your cleaner rather than regular tap water. This can be inconvenient and expensive, but failing to do so may invalidate your warranty.

Even if a cleaner can use tap water then it may struggle if you live in an area with very hard water. If that's the case it's a good idea to look for a model with a built-in limescale filter.

Our steam cleaner reviews always state whether a model requires special water and whether it has a filter.

How often do I have to replace the mop heads?

Generally, when you buy a steam cleaner, you'll also get at least one cleaning pad (typically made of microfibres). Most of these are machine washable, so you can just chuck them in the wash whenever they get dirty. (Check the manual for washing instructions, as some manufacturers state that you shouldn't use bleach or fabric softeners.)

If your pad becomes damaged or threadbare, you'll need to buy a replacement. You'll usually be able to buy branded pads, but generic replacements can be much cheaper.

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