From convenience stores to late-night infomercials, steam mops are everywhere – but are they any good? We look at how they work, their limitations and whether they live up to the hype.
Steam mops have an internal mechanism that creates steam, which is pumped out of a cleaning head. In theory, this steam loosens grime and the cloth cleaning head wipes it away. Steam mops claim to make it easy to clean grimy floors without the use of chemicals, with some manufacturers even claiming that the hot steam helps kill bacteria and mites.
We think steam mops are far more convenient than a mop and bucket but will only work well in certain circumstances.
Like vacuum cleaners, steam mops come in upright and canister forms, but they don't have suction power (those that do are called wet and dry vacuums or hard floor cleaners). If you need to clean up large amounts of spilled liquids, you'll need a conventional mop or a wet and dry vacuum cleaner instead.
We also recommend sweeping up or wiping excess dirt or stains from the floor before using a steam mop because you'll probably still be spreading the muck around.
Steam mops aren't great at stain removal but keep in mind that this is dependent on the flooring you have, as some stains soak more easily into certain types of floors over others. While not perfect, they probably do remove stains better than a mop and bucket. And while they can be good at removing new stains, don't expect them to instantly lift years of longstanding dirt.
If you clean infrequently or have in-ground stains, particularly in the grout, then a steam mop may not be the best choice. We tested how well steam mops cleaned cola and tea stains from grout, and they all did a poor job. Steam mop pads aren't designed to get into recessed grout, and steam is, well, just hot water, and that's often not enough to remove in-ground dirt.
For these jobs a steam cleaner with jet nozzle tools and a brush may help, but they're only useful on small areas.
Carpet and upholstery
Most steam mop models claim to rejuvenate carpet and upholstery, and while we've found they do refresh the carpet's appearance, they don't actually clean it.
Steam mops can damage the surfaces of cork tiles and unsealed or waxed timber. However, they should be suitable for most hard floors, including vinyl, ceramic tiles, linoleum, marble, stone and sealed timber – with some caveats.
Some manufacturers of timber and laminate flooring express concerns that the steam is forced between the boards and cracks in the surface, causing them to expand. Over time this could cause problems such as delamination, buckling and cupping (raised board edges), or it may shorten the life of some coatings. Read your flooring manufacturer's warranty to see if it specifically states that steam mops are not to be used.
Similarly, steam could seep into the joins of vinyl tiles and weaken the adhesive. Sealed ceramic or stone tiles are fine with steam, but it's still worth checking if your particular tile is suitable.
Most of the steam mops we've tested have claims of some description around killing or eliminating bacteria, but of course these come with caveats.
Some even mention COVID-19 in their marketing, with the inevitable footnote claiming that spot cleaning for 30 seconds at maximum steam level would remove a majority of enveloped viruses such as coronavirus or influenza when removing from common smooth household hard surfaces, but most people are unlikely to spot clean their entire bathroom, or even the heavily trafficked areas in 30-second bursts.
Killing bacteria or viruses relies on a high temperature. All steam mops have a 'mop' part, which is a pad that attaches to the steam generator. When the steam exits the device, this pad will absorb a lot of that heat and it'll end up exiting onto the surface you're cleaning at a lower temperature than straight steam onto a surface (such as with a steam cleaner).
While steam mops can be good at removing new stains, don't expect them to instantly lift years of longstanding dirt
Of course, most steam mops will remove bacteria and viruses from hard smooth surfaces, just as a normal mop with soap and warm water would and a sponge with the same. However, that means you put the bacteria or virus onto the steam pads attached to the steam mop.
The steam generated by the machinery of the steam mop might be enough to destroy the bacteria or virus collected on the pad, but the steam generator and pads will differ in effectiveness, so it's important to throw the pads in the washing machine afterwards with laundry detergent.
Laundry detergents will be the ingredient that destroys enveloped viruses (like coronavirus) as they disrupt their fatty envelopes, making the virus ineffective.
The steam mops we've reviewed start at $49 and go all the way up to over $1000, but our lab test results show that a higher price tag doesn't necessarily equal better performance. Many of the steam mops we recommend cost under $200, so it pays to do your research.
Steam mops help reduce chemical usage in the home and have reusable mop pads, but they're still small appliances and classed as electrical waste. They can't be placed in your regular household bin and should be recycled as e-waste. Contact your local council to find out how to safely dispose of an old steam mop.
Many manufacturers recommend the use of distilled or de-mineralised water to prevent limescale build-up in the appliance and extend its life, particularly if you're in a hard water area. If the steam mop eventually gets clogged, you may be able to dislodge mineral build-up from the nozzle with a paper clip.
While some manufacturers say you can clean the steam mop by running it through, say, a 1:3 ratio of white vinegar to water, others recommend against it and warn it could void the warranty – so check the manual.
Our quick guide to steam mops – as seen on TV!
Upright vs canister style
An upright steam mop is convenient, relatively light and easy to manoeuvre, but its water capacity is quite low (around 300mL). Ones with canisters (often called steam cleaners) can hold more than 1L of water, and keep a constant amount of steam under pressure in their reservoir during operation, but they're bulkier to move around.
Look for a water tank that can be refilled while cleaning without having to first turn off the mop and let it cool down.
These are usually microfibre to trap and carry away the shifted dirt. Some come with more than one pad, sometimes of different types, which is handy for swapping over during a long cleaning job, or if one is in the wash when you want to do some steam cleaning.
An attachment for using the mop on carpet. This is useful for refreshing carpet and removing light soiling, but for heavy soiling or stains you'll probably need a heavy-duty carpet shampooer.
You might want one of these for sitting the mop on during a cleaning job (if you take a quick break to answer the phone, for example), so it can sit in one place for a while without damaging the floor.
A telescopic wand
When you can adjust the wand to suit your height, you don't have to bend your back too much.
This should be long enough that you have good reach from the power point. Know where your power points are before you shop for a steam mop.
Tools such as a jet nozzle or brush can be useful for cleaning grout, shower cubicles and other areas.
Window cleaning attachment
Some models also come with a handy squeegee-like window cleaning attachment.
It's convenient to have a feature that tells you when the steam generator has heated up and is ready to run.
Steam-on lock switch
An on-lock activates continuous steam flow, so you don't have to hold down a trigger or button to keep the steam coming. Many models generate continuous steam whenever they're in the 'on' position.
Steam-off lock switch
An off-lock is a safety feature – like a safety catch – to help prevent accidentally turning on the steam flow.
If you want to quickly get your steam mop out, you'll want it to heat up fast! Heat-up times can range from 20 seconds to several minutes for models with greater capacities.
Time in use
Ideally, you shouldn't need to keep refilling the water tank in the middle of your cleaning – particularly if refilling is tricky or can't be done on the go.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.