Shower heads don't really get dirty, but they do get water spots on their outsides and mineral deposits on their insides. The water spots are merely cosmetic problems, while mineral buildup is much more serious, at least for those who can't survive without a good, strong shower spray. The buildup, often called scale, comes from minerals in water (mostly calcium and magnesium) and eventually clogs the little spray holes of the shower head, reducing water flow and altering the spray pattern. Scale can also clog a tiny metal filter inside the shower head, restricting water before it even gets to the spray head.
Since water spots and scale are caused by the same thing, one cleaning solution takes care of both: vinegar. In fact, this is the one thing vinegar does better than anything else (vinaigrette notwithstanding). Vinegar removes water spots instantly and dissolves scale if it's given a little time to work. To remove water spots on the outside of a shower head, simply wipe it with a 50-50 solution of white vinegar and water, then dry it with a clean rag. To clean the inside of your shower head to improve water flow, soak it in vinegar. You can do this without removing the shower head, or if you still feel like you're not getting a complete spray, remove the shower head for a deeper cleaning.
How to Clean a Shower Head Without Removing It
This cleaning method couldn't be simpler. It's not quite as thorough as the removal method, but there's a good chance it will do the trick.
- Fill a quart-size plastic bag about halfway with white vinegar.
- Fit the bag over the shower head so the entire head (or at least the sprayer face) is submerged in the vinegar.
- Close the top of the bag around the shower head pipe and secure it with a strong rubber band.
- Wait for 3 hours or overnight, if you don't need the shower.
- Remove the bag from the shower head, then turn on the water full-blast for a few minutes to flush out loose debris. Also click through the different spray settings, if you have them.
How to Remove and Clean a Shower Head
Remove your shower head to clean it if the plastic bag method wasn't entirely effective or you prefer to start with a deep cleaning. Many shower heads will twist off by hand; otherwise, you'll need a pair of pliers and a rag.
- Hold the shower arm (the short, bent pipe between the shower head and the wall) with one hand to keep it from turning.
- Use the other hand to turn the shower head nut counterclockwise to loosen it. If you can't loosen it by hand, cover the nut with a rag (to protect the finish) and loosen it with pliers (preferably tongue-and-groove pliers, but regular pliers will work too). If the entire shower arm turns along with the nut, hold the arm in place with a second pair of pliers or a pipe wrench, using the rag for protection.
- Unthread the shower head all the way and set it aside. Remove any scale buildup or corrosion around the inside of the shower arm, using a small flat-head screwdriver.
- Soak the shower head overnight in a bowl of white vinegar, making sure it is completely submerged.
- Remove the shower head and flush it out under a sink faucet. Inspect the spray holes for scale; if you find some, clean it out with a toothpick or the end of a straightened paper clip. If there is a screen on the inlet end of the shower head, clean it with an old toothbrush, as needed.
- Reinstall the shower head by screwing it back onto the shower arm so it is hand-tight.
If the shower head leaks where it connects to the shower arm, tighten it gently with pliers. If it still leaks, remove the shower head and wrap thread-seal tape (“Teflon tape”) four or five times—wrapping clockwise—around the shower arm threads. Then re-install the shower head. The tape helps to seal the threads and will make it easier to remove the shower head in the future.
Philip Schmidt is author of Install Your Own Solar Panels, The Complete Guide to Treehouses, and 18 other home-related how-to books. A former carpenter, he has been a full-time writer and editor for over two decades, teaching DIYers about houses and everything we do with them.