How to use a steam cleaner: tips, hacks and more ways to make the most of yours

Here's how to use a steam cleaner to deep clean floors, the kitchen and bathroom, upholstery and curtains the easy way.

A Shark S6003UK Klik n Flip Automatic Steam Mop Cleaner being used on muddy white tiled flooring by female wearing denim jeans and casual white leather flat loafer-style footwear
(Image credit: Shark)

Want to know how to use a steam cleaner? The best steam cleaners can help keep your home spotless – but if you're new to them, you might wonder what exactly they can do. Which is exactly what we're here to explain...

Forgetting a minute about what a steam cleaner should do – why should you use one? Well, they deep clean but are generally designed to be used without detergents, as the temperature of the steam should kill bacteria. Allergy UK advises their use for everyone with allergies, asthma, and high sensitivity to chemicals, but you – or someone in your family – don’t need to be in one of these parts of the population to find steam cleaning a low effort way to get great results.

And, surprisingly, steam cleaners aren't just used on your floors, do we show you how to get the most bang for your back and what to use a steam cleaner for.

How to use a steam cleaner

We take you through the basic function of a steam cleaner, geek up on how it actually works, the types of machines available (including some tried and tested reviews), and how to get the most of it in all the rooms in your home.

How does a steam cleaner work?

'A steam cleaner works on the same principle as a pressure cooker – water is heated in a sealed boiler until it boils, creating steam,' explains James Mokler, product marketing co-ordinator at Kärcher.

'This takes between one and six minutes per liter of water, depending on the device. When the water boils, the steam is applied in measured amounts via the steam gun. The higher the steam pressure, the faster the steam is forced out, and the better the dirt-dissolving power.'

His words certainly ring true, with our Kärcher SC3 Easy Fix steam cleaner review demonstrating how quick, easy and efficient this model is.

What to use a steam cleaner for

Steam cleaners can allow you to clean floors and windows, as well as mirrors. They’re great for cleaning the bathroom, where they can sort out tiles and clean grout, plus fittings; kitchen surfaces, the hob and ovens; and, with the right model and accessories, carpet and upholstery.

What are the different types of steam cleaner?

Handheld steam cleaners are ideal for smaller areas like tiles, taps and showers, for example, as well as windows. A lightweight version, such as the Bissell 2635E Steam Shot won’t have you huffing and puffing to get to hard-to-reach areas. Additionally, if you're wondering how to clean a toilet, this is one of the least gross ways to go about it.

'Using a handheld steamer you can give the toilet seat and the pan a really good blast, killing nasty germs and bacteria.' advises cleanfluencer Lynsey Crombie, aka Lynsey Queen of Clean.

And, who hasn't come across a funky smell in the refrigerator, only to find that your milk has spoiled or you've forgotten about rotten veggies? When looking at how to clean a fridge, chomp on this bit of expert advice from Shark.

'Cleaning the average household fridge is a big job that often requires an element of preparation and contact time. However, by using the power of steam to cut through accumulated food, milk, and general nastiness you can speed up the process considerably. The power of steam alone is just as effective as most of the leading commercial sanitizers you’ll find in the supermarket.'

Steam mops will let you clean small and large floors speedily – and, unlike some of the best floor mops – you won’t need a bucket. The Shark Klik N’ Flip S6003UK for example, is number six in our best of roundup right now and works on hardwood as well as marble, tiles, and stone. 

If you like the idea of both a handheld steam cleaner and a steam mop to get around more of your home with one appliance, some mops come with a wand or a handheld you can detach as necessary. We like the reach wand of the Vax Steam Fresh Power Plus – which makes tackling the tops of cupboards or around the shower easy. Or take a look at the Bissell PowerFresh Slim 3 in 1 Steam Mop if you prefer to have a portable steam cleaner onboard your mop for sinks and basins, kitchen worktops, and upholstery.

Cylinder steam cleaners look like cylinder vacuum cleaners and will tackle both floors and other chores like the windows and grout using the tools that come with them. Larger water tanks mean they can keep going for longer before a refill’s needed. Our number one steam cleaner overall was the Kärcher SC 3 Multi-Purpose cylinder model, which comes with a fabulous range of attachments and can clean ovens, extractor fans, upholstery, and carpets among other things.

Can you clean all types of flooring with a steam cleaner?

Although some steam cleaners can clean all sorts of hard flooring and even carpet, that’s not the case with every model. You’ll need to check the particular cleaner to see which flooring it’s compatible with. Laminate and wood flooring requires a cleaner with variable steam control, and even the best laminate flooring needs to be well laid to boot. Steam cleaners can be used to refresh carpet: look for a carpet glider as an accessory with the model you’re interested in. The Vileda Steam Mop was in our best steam cleaner selection and includes one of these. 

It’s best to vacuum before using the steam cleaner on flooring to avoid moving debris around.

How do I clean upholstery with a steam cleaner?

Spilled a glass of red wine on your best sofa? We've all done it. And while old wive's tales insist you throw white vino over it to limit the damage, don't waste your Sauvignon Blanc in hope of saving it. Instead, turn to your trusty steam cleaner (with upholstery tool attachment) when looking at how to clean a couch

And, while we're focused on living room furniture, if you're wondering how to clean curtains, a steam cleaner can save you a costly trip to the dry cleaners, especially if your drapes need to be handled delicately.

Which other tools will I need to clean with a steam cleaner?

Flooring requires mop pads, of course. We like the double-sided cleaning pad on the Shark Klik N’ Flip S6003UK, which lets you cover double the area before you need to put the pad in the wash. 

If you want to get windows sparkling, look for the best shower squeegee. When cleaning an oven, a brush or pad for scrubbing will help you get rid of grease. To tackle dirty grout – a brush is your friend. And, to get into nooks and crannies or to target an area precisely, a small nozzle is handy. 

Can I steam clean a mattress?

If you haven't got the money to invest in the best mattress, knowing how to clean a mattress with a steam cleaner will save you the hassle of saving up for something which can be quite expensive!

'Sweat, dirt, and stains can easily penetrate beyond the top layer of your mattress so treat it to a steam clean every few months. Vacuum the mattress first, run the steam cleaner across the whole surface then allow it to dry. One of the benefits of steam cleaning is that the mattress will dry much quicker than using soap and water.' says Rebecca Snowden, interior style advisor at Furniture And Choice

Can I use detergents with my steam cleaner?

Most steam cleaners are designed to be used without detergent, so stick to water only with these. Some models, on the other hand, can be used with detergent – follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

'Steam is quick and easy to use and is completely environmentally friendly as you can use just steam and no other products to kill and lift germs. Clean fresh water is poured into the steam tank and within 30 seconds your steamer will be ready to use. The steam will be constant until the water runs dry.' says Crombie.

How to use a steam cleaner to strip wallpaper

Whether you've moved into a rental property that has old, or 'unusual' wallpaper that's not to your taste, or are renovating your own home, removing wallpaper with a steam cleaner is one of the quickest and efficient ways of stripping it off the walls, without the use of harsh chemically-abrasive stripping solutions.

Do steam cleaners disinfect?

'Many people ask me all the time about steam cleaning and whether this is better than getting out the mop and bucket,' says Crombie.

'I switched to steam cleaning a few years ago and this switch was determined from tests that we did on Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners.  Steam does actually kill germs and lift away dirt.  When you mop you are pushing around the dirt not actually getting rid of it or killing the germs,'

'Homes harbor so many germs. Food drops on floors, the outside comes in on people's clothes and shoes. To have a clean house we need to get these germs out so they don’t hang around and then potentially cause sickness bugs and infections. The high temperature that a steamer creates will break down grease and grime, kills bacteria, dust mites, and other allergens.'

Can you steam clean a sofa?

The best clothes steamers don't just get rid of creases in your favorite blouses and dresses. Because they tend to be smaller and handheld, you can in fact use them on your couches, armchairs, and cuddlers to keep them hygienic for a healthy family home.

'Sofas contain lots of bacteria and germs because we all spend so much of our time sitting on them! The Swan Garment Steamer kills up to 99.9% of germs and bacteria on surfaces. This is a great way to keep your sofa fresh and looking new.' advises Crombie.

You might want to use your best handheld vacuum as the first port of call to remove any obvious crumbs or debris, then use the steamer to lift anything that's been rubbed in, spilled, or accidentally sat on.

Can you clean a shower with a steam cleaner?

'Steam is amazing at getting rid of water marks and limescale,' says Crombie when asked about how to clean a shower.

'A light steam weekly with help keep your shower looking like new and you will say bye bye to stubborn watermarks.'

Can I steam clean kitchen cabinets?

'I don’t think many of us find the oven a particularly nice job to do but a shot of steam will make this job so much easier for you,' advises Crombie.

'If you have grease on the tops of your [kitchen] cupboards and your extractor fan from cooking, steam will cut right through the grease allowing you easy cleaning.'

What should you not steam clean?

'Anything that can be damaged due to heat exposure shouldn’t be cleaned with steam vapor,' warns Diane Boylston, product specialist and merchandising assistant, Sylvane.

Boylston goes on to list some of the specific areas and products in the home that shouldn't be treated. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Walls or furniture finished in a water-based paint
  • Unsealed surfaces such as hardwood floors, marble, limestone, concrete, tile, or natural stone
  • Porous surfaces like cord, bamboo, paper, and cardboard
  • Flooring with cracks or gaps like parquet, which can be damaged from the high-pressure and heat
  • Deep-cleaning large areas of carpet
  • Delicate items, such as silks, thin plastics, and velour upholstery

What else do I need to know about cleaning with a steam cleaner?

Some state that you should use distilled water to fill the tank rather than the tap variety. This will be more of a hassle and cost extra, but if you don’t follow the instructions, the product’s guarantee may not cover it. Check before buying so you’re not caught out.

Be aware that steam cleaning isn’t quite switch on and go like using a vacuum cleaner. You’ll need to allow heat-up time before you can get cracking – although many are speedy.

The experts at Kärcher say that using warm water speeds up the heating process. Just be very careful when doing this to avoid burning yourself or others. Always be conscious of where and what you’re steaming. Obviously, people or pets could be scalded by steam, and it shouldn’t be directed at electrical fittings and components, either. Watch out for the nozzles and tools that will retain heat for a while after use, too.

Christina Chrysostomou
Former acting head ecommerce editor

Hi, I'm the former acting head ecommerce editor at Real Homes. Prior to working for the Future plc family, I've worked on a number of consumer events including the Ideal Home Show, Grand Designs Live, and Good Homes Magazine. With a first class degree from Keele University, and a plethora of experience in digital marketing, editorial, and social media, I have an eye for what should be in your shopping basket and have gone through the internal customer advisor accreditation process.