Cleaning shortcuts that are worth the time and money, according to an expert

Organizational guru, Rachel Hoffman, shares her favorite time-saving product picks — and the ones you can skip.
Cleaning expert Rachel Hoffman says we need to find the products that will make us more likely to clean.
Cleaning expert Rachel Hoffman says we need to find the products that will make us more likely to clean.Peter Dazeley / Getty Images
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By Dana McMahan

There are people in this world who enjoy cleaning, and prefer to do it the “old-fashioned” way, and bless them. For the rest of us, housecleaning is a chore to be gotten through with the minimum time and pain required. We've embraced — and for most of us, count as indispensable — conveniences like dishwashers, but the world of cleaning shortcuts doesn't stop there.

How do you know though, which products and tools are truly time savers, and which should remain on infomercials for purely entertainment purposes? I'm always on the hunt for things that will trim minutes from the time it takes to clean my rambling old Victorian, but not everything is worth the expense, or the cost to the environment.

For insight, I talked with Rachel Hoffman, author of "Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess". But let's deal with something first. Somehow, sometimes, shaming comes into play when it comes to cleaning shortcuts. And it has absolutely no place here, Hoffman said.

Whether it's robot vacs or cleaning wipes, “there's a stigma about using these things and it's unnecessary,” she said. “It's a matter of saving time. We don't berate ourselves for saving time in other ways.”

Take washing machines, she said. “We're not down at the river with a washboard cleaning our clothes anymore. It's about incorporating some kind of technology or innovation that benefits you. It's silly that we have shame about this. It's not hurting anyone. It's not at the expense of someone else. It exists to make things easier and better for you.”

Cheating is in the eye of the beholder

Is it cheating to let a robot clean up the dog hair, or to use a Swiffer instead of hauling out a mop and bucket?

Some folks think so. When I took to social media to ask friends and acquaintances for their favorite cleaning shortcuts, among the flood of great tips I was reminded by some of the value of elbow grease. One responded with the definition of impetus: "The force or energy with which the body moves". In other words, just do the work. No secrets.

That's great, but life has a way of preventing “elbow grease” or “impetus.” Like many other families, my partner and I both work full time and have side hustles and projects. Also like many, I contend with chronic back pain, and a few other things that make cleaning more taxing. If I have to use a cleaning wipe instead of elbow grease and a cleaning rag to tend to messes, so be it.

“If it's financially feasible and it's going to make your life easier or better in some way, remove the shame,” Hoffman said. “There's no sense in being embarrassed or thinking you have to do everything by yourself the hard way in order for it to count. What counts is if it's clean, not how it gets there.” Also, she said, what's wrong with cheating anyway?

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So then, if you're ready to 'cheat,' here's Hoffman's take and mine on whether popular shortcuts are cheatworthy.

These cleaning products get a thumbs up

  • Leave-on shower spray. I use Method shower spray religiously but never knew if it was doing anything other than leaving a nice smell. “Yes, it smells good but it does do something,” Hoffman said. Cleaners like this “almost always have some form of cleaning agent, usually very diluted so you don't have to rinse,” she explained. “It helps keep soap scum from forming which helps deep cleans go faster because the dirt is not adhered.” While actual scrubbing is certainly more effective, she said, these products come in handy.
  • Robot vacs. As a dog parent, her robot vac is indispensable, Hoffman said, and they've become accessible for more consumers. “I've noticed the last five years they've come down [in price] considerably,” she said. I recently upgraded from an early robot vac model that randomly bumped around the house to a newer model, and forget the Kondo method — this is some life-changing magic. You can run it from your phone (or Alexa); schedule cleanings for when you're not around; set cleaning zones, like just the kitchen; and mark no-go zones. When it's done it sends a report showing what's been cleaned. It's removed the need to run a “real” vacuum in our house, a chore that took an hour-plus so if there were one shortcut I wouldn't give up it would be this.
  • Dusting wipes and Swiffer dusters. “I use and I love Swiffer dusters and they're super great,” Hoffman said. “I haven't found anything that's quite as effective. To get the same level of dusting you need to take out the can of Pledge and dusting cloths and it's a time thing.” I like Clorox dusting wipes but they both achieve the same result, which is to condense the effort. (Buy the multi-box so you can keep a pack in several parts of the house and grab one when you're on the phone or have a minute to spare, and you can make dusting something you sneak in over time rather than the one big chore it can be otherwise).
  • Dry Swiffers. Does it seem like Swiffer has overtaken the cleaning aisles to you too? They're everywhere. “In the Swiffer family of things I absolutely adore Swiffer dry floor cloths,” Hoffman said. I'm with her. I find that after a vacuum and mop I can still pick up dust and hair with a quick run of the dry Swiffers, so I buy them by the bale at Costco.

Skip these products

  • Glass cleaning wipes. “I feel like the old fashioned way [with window cleaner and paper] is both more effective and equally as convenient,” Hoffman said. We both find the wipes streak, and since you spend more trying to get results, “I don't feel I get a time savings,” she said. She's had luck with some microfiber cleaning cloths; the key, she said is using smooth material, not nubby, so look for the word "smooth" in reviews.
  • Stainless steel wipes. Same as the glass wipes, they tend to streak and defeat the purpose of trying to save time.
  • Wet Swiffers. Whether it's the wet cloths or the Swiffer Jet, “they're not effective, and floor ends up sticky,” Hoffman said. I've found the same. Instead, if I'm looking for an alternative to the bucket and mop, I love the O-Cedar Microfiber Spray Mop. “It's barely even considered a convenience product,” Hoffman said, since the pad is washable and you can make your own solution.

What about disposable toilet cleaners?

I'm an admitted toilet-germ-phobe, and dislike the thought of swirling the same brush around a toilet over and over, so use the Clorox ToiletWand. This isn't really saving any time, Hoffman pointed out. “Squirting a cleaner into the bowl and grabbing a brush doesn't really take any longer,” she said. “You're basically doing the same amount of work. I feel like the old fashioned brush you get more scrubbing power with.” She also cautioned that people often assume all products like these are flushable when in fact they're not. (And even those that say they're flushable you want to be sure are compatible with your plumbing.)

Some people just absolutely cannot touch anything having to do with the toilet, Hoffman said. “We're sometimes a little bit precious about certain types of germs [even though] there's basically fecal matter on everything in your bathroom if you flush with the toilet lid up.” If you're in that toilet-cleaning-avoidance camp, like me, “If you find a solution that helps you get it done, by all means, use it,” she said.

(Also, she blew my mind with this tip that may just send me back to the old school brush. It's already in a sanitizing solution in the toilet with the cleaner, Hoffman said, so when you're done, rinse it in clean toilet water then let it dry between uses: stick it between the lid and seat cover with the brush over the bowl till it dries. Boom, no more fecal matter soup for the brush to swim in, and you're still not touching anything!)

These convenience items come at price — in more ways than one

About that nagging feeling that we're being wasteful with these conveniences? Well, we are. “You can't really ignore the fact that there is an environmental impact ... they do end up getting thrown away,” Hoffman said. “I'm of two minds. If it helps you to do the task then it's valuable. If it's a matter of 'I'll use a Clorox wipe to wipe down my bathroom counter or not do it at all,' it's worthwhile to have.” You can also be conscious about reducing waste elsewhere to help offset the waste, she said, and look for biodegradable products. I use Green Works Cleaning Wipes for quick touch-ups between more thorough bathroom cleanings as my own compromise.

At the end of the day, Hoffman said, it's all about making ourselves more likely to just do the things, so we need to find the trick that works for us. That may be buying the products that smell the best, or that remove some steps. “If it's something you can do just really quickly and not put it off,” she said, “there's your value in those convenience items.”

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