A bare minimum guide to spring cleaning

What you can forego and still claim you live in a clean house.
A man in a blue plaid shirt, jeans, and white socks using a cordless vacuum to clean a tile kitchen floor near a large window.
If you're into using your socks as floor dusters, we won't stop you. Mart Production / Pexels

Some people like scrubbing floors, sweeping out a garage, or dusting a forgotten bookcase. But for many of us, spring cleaning is the most dreaded chore of the year.

Love it or hate it, spring cleaning carries with it a sense of a clean slate, which can help us feel like we are setting ourselves up for success. Researchers call this “the fresh start effect,” where we take specific events such as New Year’s or the start of a new school year, as an opportunity to try something again. 

This explains why a whopping 78 percent of Americans choose to do a yearly spring cleaning, although 8 percent avoid it at all costs. That’s not surprising either—this series of chores can be daunting, and some of it might not even be necessary.

Determine what spring cleaning means to you

If you’ve ever compared what you and somebody else think is a dirty bathroom, you know that everyone has a widely different standard for what “clean” means. Leanne Stapf, chief operating officer of The Cleaning Authority, a home cleaning service, says the first step to identifying what you really care about tidying up is to try to find a focus for every room. You can start by going to each room and targeting potential germy areas that could negatively affect your family’s health, ignoring simple clutter. 

“De-germing your home should be at the top of your spring cleaning checklist,” says Stapf. “Wiping down and sanitizing all high-traffic areas such as doorknobs, cabinets, light switches, handles, countertops, and your computer keyboard is essential when avoiding the accumulation of germs and bacteria.”

[Related: This DIY slime can clean the grossest parts of your home and car]

So whether you are going to do a full house deep clean, or just tidy up, keep an eye on germy areas—the rest is just extra credit.

Prioritize the most forgotten nooks and crannies

If you can’t remember the last time you cleaned something, it’s a must-do this spring. Stapf says this list usually includes tasks like cleaning coffee pots, changing water filters, clearing drain pipes, scrubbing down the fridge, discarding cracked food storage containers, and giving your wood cutting boards a thorough cleaning with salt and lemon, followed by oil.

You might also find untreated stains and odors on your mattress. Work on those by spraying white vinegar and scrubbing them with a soft bristle brush. When the surface is dry, finish up by sprinkling baking soda all over your mattress and letting it sit for a few hours before vacuuming everything up.

Another dreaded spring cleaning job is not just taking out the trash, but cleaning out the trash cans themselves. But before you reach for whatever old chemicals and cleaners you have in the back of your cabinet, make sure you aren’t cleaning with harmful ingredients that could be dangerous to inhale, like bleach or ammonia. Duyen Nguyen, an allergist at Memorial Hermann, a nonprofit health system based in Houston, recommends wearing an N95 mask while cleaning with harsh chemicals, as they will keep your lungs free of fumes and debris, especially if you have allergies or asthma. (You probably still have one of those on hand at home.)

Must-do items for anyone with indoor allergies

If you’re among the 50 million Americans who suffer from allergies, read carefully. Spring cleaning for you isn’t just about aesthetics or removing those leftover winter decorations—it’s about health. 

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says that 8 out of 10 people come in contact with dust mites, while 6 of 10 are exposed to cat and dog dander, and even cockroaches can cause allergic reactions, especially for people who live in the south and urban areas. Spring cleaning is the perfect time to identify what’s exacerbating your allergies, and minimize those triggers by cleaning out the build-up at home.

“Without spring cleaning, both patient allergies and allergic-induced asthma symptoms will be difficult to control, despite being on medications,” says Nguyen. 

She says one of the most common mistakes people make while spring cleaning is turning on a fan to circulate air, which instead riles up dust mites that have been settling into bedding, carpets, and other fabrics throughout the winter.  

Unfortunately, those with indoor allergies cannot cut corners and will have a hefty to-do list, Nguyen says. They should:

  • Wash bedding and stuffed animals in water at 130 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, and finish by putting it in the dryer to kill dust mites. Make sure to check a product’s tags before drying a stuffed animal, as some may have specific cleaning instructions.
  • Use a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  • Avoid steam-cleaning carpets. This will increase moisture, making it the perfect environment for mold.
  • Clean out the pantry, remove any open foods, and sweep floors where cockroaches might find scraps. Don’t forget that pet dish on the floor.

Don’t forget to clean the air

While you may feel like your air is fresh and clean after you use your favorite lemon-scented cleaning product, you might be overlooking the invisible truth: Indoor air can be up to five times more contaminated than outdoor air, according to Felipe Soberón, chief technology officer of WellAir. The hard-to-spot culprits in the air include pollen, dust, particulate matter, bacteria, and mold spores. All of these pollutants can accumulate over the wintertime in basements, attics, and closets, and will be waiting for you the moment you open your storage area.

[Related: The five smells Americans hate most (and how to get rid of them)]

“If the conditions in the storage environment are right—average room temperature and higher humidity—you will see growth and build-up of mold,” Soberón explains.  

To work toward cleaner air, he recommends thoroughly dusting surfaces such as tabletops, shelves, cabinets, windowsills, and blinds, using a damp cloth. This, Nguyen explains, will trap allergens in the fabric and prevent them from flying into the air and into your airways. If you don’t have outdoor allergies, flinging open the windows does help with air circulation, too.

While the Environmental Protection Agency is split on whether to use an indoor air cleaner, they note that these devices and HVAC filters can “possibly” improve cardiovascular and respiratory health.

And a few tasks you can skip

Once your home is free from germs and indoor pollutants, you might notice your closet is full of clothes you need to sort and donate, or that you have the urge to do a full basement or garage clean out as well. And you can certainly do all that if you feel up to it—research shows that cluttered homes spike cortisol levels, resulting in depressed moods, no doubt inspiring the minimalist and decluttering movements. But Stapf says your closet can wait.

“While I don’t recommend having shoes scattered across the floor, you can save this for a calmer weekend and focus on more important spring-cleaning tasks,” she says. 

She also says people tend to try to repair wall scuff marks. That’s not as high on the priority list, so if you can wait to tackle this, do so.

But instead of doing it all at once, Stapf is adamant that we should trade “spring cleaning” for more consistent decluttering throughout the year. “Many people put off the everyday, mundane chores, leading items to pile up. This causes people to feel as though they need to do one large spring cleaning overhaul,” she says. People tend to avoid wiping up their stoves after cooking and regularly discarding old food, clothes, and clutter, so she recommends getting into the habit of cleaning up right after you finish something to avoid larger messes.

“Immediately after a meal, place your dish in the dishwasher. When you leave one room to go to another, take a few items that are out of place and put them back before leaving. Getting into the habit of continually picking up after yourself will help you avoid the need for a massive cleanup,” Stapf says.

Then you might have time to do more fun spring activities, like going outside and getting actual fresh air.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on May 9, 2022.

Update February 27, 2023: A previous version of this story recommended using baking soda and vinegar to treat stains on mattresses. New evidence shows these ingredients should be used separately and for different purposes: white vinegar for stains, and baking soda for odors.