The best cleaner for your hardwood floor depends on the finish, which is most likely either polyurethane or a combination of penetrating oil and wax. These two types of finishes require different cleaners, and you can use a number of natural ingredients. No matter what kind of finish your floor has, though, it's important to keep water use to a minimum. Water can seep through even a hard factory finish and damage the wood.
The Simplest Cleaning Options
Under normal use, hardwood floors don't require frequent cleaning, although most manufacturers recommend frequent sweeping to remove dirt particles. This prevents the particles from getting ground into the finish and scratching it. When the floor does turn dingy, the safest cleaners are pH neutral ones, which means they are neither acidic or alkaline. A gallon of plain water mixed with castile soap -- which is a combination of lye and olive oil -- provides a go-to cleaner for most situations. Apply it with a cloth or a microfiber mop, being careful to wring the applicator thoroughly before wiping to avoid leaving standing water on the floor. Add a drop of essential oil to give the room a pleasant aroma.
Not Just for Salads
Some flooring specialists recommend vinegar for cleaning tough stains while others advise against it. With a pH of 2.4, it's a fairly strong acid that can dull finishes, but its acidic nature makes it an effective cleaner for mineral deposit stains and general grime. A 1-to-1 solution of vinegar and plain or soapy water isn't likely to cause much damage if you use it properly, though, and it's usually worth the risk. Wring the applicator thoroughly and wipe down the floor in sections, wiping each section again with plain water and drying with a clean rag to get the most benefit from this cleaner. Don't forget to test it first.
Acidity is one of the qualities that gives tea its pleasant taste, and it's also a quality that makes it a good floor cleaner. To make a cleaning solution, you don't need designer tea -- generic black tea is best -- but you do need a lot of it. Brew a strong mix using five to 20 bags in 2 quarts of water -- you may have to experiment to find the best proportion -- and damp mop the floor with it after it has cooled. It not only cleans, it highlights the wood grain by slightly darkening the finish and it makes the finish shine.
Mineral Spirits, Mineral Oil and Lemon Juice
Floors that have an oil and wax finish require different care than those finished with polyurethane. Because wax tends to pick up dirt and yellow, you need to periodically strip it and apply a fresh coat. Use mineral spirits for this; dampen a rag and rub out the wax from the floor in sections. Re-wax with carnauba wax, which is a product derived from a palm tree. Another cleaning option for polyurethane floors is a 1-to-1 mixture of lemon juice and mineral oil. The citric acid in lemon juice is a dirt buster, and mineral oil nourishes the finish and makes it shine. Apply this combination by wiping with the grain, using a rag.
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker.com.