How to Clean Cabinets in the Kitchen

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The best way to clean grimy kitchen cabinets depends on the surface of your cabinets.
Image Credit: Stephen Paul for Hunker

There is no singular way to clean kitchen cabinets that reigns supreme over other methods or that works in every situation. The best products for the task depend on the type of mess, such as food splatters or grime, and how long the mess has been there. The finish of the cabinets is also a factor, as harsh chemicals or abrasives may damage some finishes more easily than others. The one factor that holds true for any mess on or in a kitchen cabinet is this: The sooner you clean it, the easier the cleaning process.

Cleaning Finished Wood Cabinets

The finish on the average wood cabinet offers a durability that protects the wood and makes it relatively easy to clean for general messes and routine care. Even with a quality sealant on the cabinets, it's best to use mild cleaning products on wood and not harsh chemicals.

Also avoid using harsh abrasives such as rough steel-wool pads that may scratch the cabinets. An oil soap or even dish soap works well for general wood cabinet cleaning. To clean kitchen cabinets that have painted surfaces, use dish soap and water, as it is mild enough to prevent damage to the paint.

  1. Murphy Oil Soap recommends mixing the soap in a bucket of clean, hot water, following recommendations on the bottle. If you are using dish soap, a squirt or two of dish soap per half gallon of water does the trick.

  2. Dip a lint-free cloth or sponge into the liquid, wring out the cloth and then clean the kitchen cabinets from the top down.

  3. Wipe them again with another damp cloth containing just water.

  4. Follow up by wiping the cabinets dry. This helps keep excess moisture from soaking through the finish and into the wood.

For wood cabinets with an old, dull finish that used to be clear and bright, mineral spirits may help refresh the finish while removing stubborn grease and grime without causing damage. Open the windows and turn on fans before using mineral spirits on the finish, as the odor is strong.

Mineral spirits can restore the finish on wood cabinetry.

Test an area such as the inside of a cabinet door by wiping it down with a lint-free, white cloth dipped into mineral spirits. Most clear finishes will not be harmed by mineral spirits, but it is always best to test it first. If you like the results, wipe down the entire finished exterior of each cabinet with the mineral spirits and then buff them with a dry, lint-free cloth.

Cleaning Laminate Cabinets

Laminate cabinets are usually able to withstand more powerful cleaners and abrasives than the average wood cabinet, although it's always best to start with gentle cleaners as noted in the manufacturer's recommendations. The same holds true with similar surfaces such as melamine and thermofoil.

For general all-over cleaning, dish soap and water work well. For spot cleaning, a multipurpose cleaner comes in handy — or use a paste of baking soda and water. Citrus-oil cleaners work well for removing greasy or gooey messes; just spray the area or spray some onto a lint-free cloth and then rub the stain from the outside of the mess toward the center. A nylon scouring pad also helps for removing gunk that won't come off with a cloth.

Cleaning Cabinet Hardware

Cabinet hardware is especially prone to getting dirty, as the handles and knobs are touched far more often than other parts of the cabinet. To clean hardware effectively, wipe down pieces with a soft cloth or sponge dipped in equal parts water and white vinegar. An old toothbrush or nail brush comes in handy for scrubbing grimy knobs and handles.

For messes that require a little extra effort, make a paste of baking soda and water. Rub the hardware with a cloth or toothbrush dipped into the paste and then wipe the excess paste away with a damp cloth. Rinse the cloth and wipe down the hardware again.

For grime that's been on the hardware for who-knows-how-long, cleaning is easier if you remove the hardware from the cabinet. In most cases, knobs and pulls can be removed by unscrewing them from the back of the door or drawer front. Try the baking soda paste and a toothbrush; if that doesn't work, a citrus-based sticker and grime remover works well. Mineral spirits may also be used on metal or ceramic handles and knobs.

Cleaning Inside the Cabinets

Most of the time, the inside of each cabinet should stay clean as long as you keep its doors closed. From time to time, though, spills happen. It's best to clean up these messes, such as spilled spices or batter splatter, as soon as they happen and before they have a chance to soak in or harden in place.

Occasionally, wipe out the insides of your cabinets with a microfiber cloth, then clean with vinegar and water.

For a general interior cleaning from time to time, remove the items stored within the cabinets and then wipe down the insides of each cabinet with a microfiber cloth to remove any dust. Wipe down the insides again with a mix of equal parts vinegar and water applied with a microfiber cloth or a lint-free cloth, such as a cotton tea towel.

Leave the cabinet doors open so the shelves dry and then replace the items that you usually store in the cabinet. For stubborn stains, like rings left by spills around a container, use an appropriate cleaning solution, such as grease-cutting citrus cleaner for a greasy or gummy residue.

The best way to prevent dirty cabinet interiors is to keep the cabinet doors shut when you're done looking in each cabinet. Use a shelf-lining material atop each shelf, such as shelf paper or contact paper, especially for shelves where potential spills may happen, such as in a pantry cabinet.

Spot-Cleaning Grime

In most cases, cabinets won't need to be cleaned from top to bottom. A simple spot-cleaning treatment that's appropriate for the mess at hand will do the trick.

A citrus-based goo remover helps remove messes such as hardened jelly spills; just be sure to read the label first to ensure the product is safe for your cabinet surface. If you are unsure, test the product in an inconspicuous area first. Sometimes, you may be able to scrape away the bulk of a hardened substance with a plastic scraper or the bowl of a plastic spoon without damaging the cabinet surface.

Use your chosen cleaning product to remove any remaining residue and then wipe the area again with a damp cloth. Avoid cleaners with bleach or other harsh chemicals that could discolor some cabinet surfaces.


Kathy Adams is an award-winning writer. She is an avid DIYer that is equally at home repurposing random objects into new, useful creations as she is at supporting community gardening efforts and writing about healthy alternatives to household chemicals. She's written numerous DIY articles for paint and decor companies, as well as for Black + Decker, Hunker, SFGate, Landlordology and others.

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