How to use a steam cleaner: tips, hacks and best buys

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

how to use a steam cleaner
(Image credit: Bissell)

Want to know how to use a steam cleaner? The best steam cleaners can help you 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.

What can you clean with a steam cleaner?

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

We say the right model and accessories because not every steam cleaner will do every job: there are actually three types of steam cleaner, and they’ll help you with different tasks…

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.

Steam mops will let you clean small and large floors speedily – and you won’t need a bucket. The Shark Klik N’ Flip S6003UK was the best steam mop in our selection of the top steam cleaners, 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 round 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 on board 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, and 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 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?

Look for a model with an upholstery tool to sort out stains or refresh upholstery. You’ll just need to attach it to clean upholstered items.

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 a squeegee.

For ovens, a brush or pad for scrubbing will help you get rid of grease.

To tackle dirty grout a brush is your friend.

To get into nooks and crannies or to target an area precisely, a small nozzle is handy. 

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.

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. Check out our best steam cleaners to see how long our favourites take to be ready.

Always be aware 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 heat nozzles and tools will retain for a while after use, too. 

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Sarah Warwick
Sarah Warwick

Sarah is a freelance journalist and editor writing for websites, national newspapers, and magazines. She’s spent most of her journalistic career specialising in homes – long enough to see fridges become smart, decorating fashions embrace both minimalism and maximalism, and interiors that blur the indoor/outdoor link become a must-have. She loves testing the latest home appliances, revealing the trends in furnishings and fittings for every room, and investigating the benefits, costs and practicalities of home improvement. It's no big surprise that she likes to put what she writes about into practice, and is a serial house revamper. For, Sarah reviews coffee machines and vacuum cleaners, taking them through their paces at home to give us an honest, real life review and comparison of every model.