How to Clean Murky, Moldy, Musty Humidifiers and Kettles

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Email her.

It's winter, the heater is cranked, and the air is dry. The humidifier is on so that our skin doesn't slowly turn into one of those dry creek bed pictures with the cracks and fissures. I buy a new filter each year but I notice that it seems to develop "color" or what I suspect is bad mold, really really fast. Short of buying a new filter every week, how do I clean the humidifier? I would think that bleach would be a bad idea (something about vaporized bleach that we could breath in is very scary to me). Help? Breathing in mold also seems really gross and your expert advice would be much appreciated.

The thing about cleaning humidifiers—and kettles, which we'll talk about downcolumn—is that it's less about what products you use, and more about grabbing for the right tools. Because these are sort of awkwardly shaped items and unless you're a contortionist specializing in hand work, you won't always be able to reach into every corner. And of course the corners are exactly where that pesty buildup likes to congregate.

Product-wise, our old pal white vinegar is going to be your best bet for de-gunking a humidifier, but you can also opt for a drop or two of tea tree oil diluted in water, or if I'm being perfectly frank with you, dish soap. Bleach is also an option but as our LW correctly surmised, it's not the best one because you run the risk of inhaling bleach vapors if any residue is left over from the cleaning process. With that said, if you do chose to use bleach that's okay—the thing to keep in mind is that you truly do not need a lot of it, a teaspoon to a tablespoon diluted in water will do it.

But back to those tools, because they're really the heart of the matter here. Depending on the design of the humidifier you have, a bottle brush and/or Q-Tips will be the ticket for helping to get into those weird little nooks and crannies. Oh also! An old toothbrush. That's also a handy item to trot out in these sorts of operations.

Before you bring out the specialty tools you'll want to give the thing a good once over because, hey, that gunk may just slide right off and you can get back to the important work of humidifying yourself! While you're at it, would you be a love and swing by to humidify me? I'm so dry you could skin me and turn me into a handsome handbag.

So! Step one is to disassemble the unit and soak any detachable parts in a vinegar (or tea tree oil, or dish soap, or bleach) solution for 20-30 or so minutes. This timing can be pretty flexible—if you need to let it go longer so that you can varnish your fingernails or install some sheet rock in the basement that's just fine. The sink or bathtub are good places to perform this operation, since they provide room for the sort of awkwardly shaped parts that you'll want to get clean.

After you've let them soak, go back in with a sponge or a rag and give everything a good scrubbing while submerged in the cleaning solution. As a result of the soaking, most of the gunk should more or less slide right off upon contact with the sponge.

Now you'll examine your parts. (No, I meant the humidifier parts, put the handheld mirror down.) If there is indeed remaining buildup lurking around in corners and crevices, now is the time to bring out the bottle brush, or toothbrush, or Q-Tips. Once you're satisfied with the state of things, dry the parts off and put them back on the unit.

Now then, this question went specifically to what the LW suspects is mold buildup on the filter. It may not actually be—that discoloration could be caused by deposits in the tap water you're using to fill the humidifier. However, it could also very well be mold and it's possible that some mold has developed in the non-detachable pieces of the unit. In which case running a cycle of white vinegar and water through the machine should clear things right up. The downside to this is that your house will smell like vinegar for a spell (the upside is that vinegar vapor will kill any lingering unpleasant odors), so if that sounds too horrible for you go ahead and use a drop or two of tea tree oil diluted in water as an alternative.

My boyfriend and I did not have a kettle—we would boil water for tea in a saucepot like savages—and so my mom gave us this pretty vintage-y looking one that had been gathering dust in her office for a decade or two. Literally gathering dust: it smells like dust. It doesn't smell awful, just old. It's metal with a ceramic interior, and it's very pretty, but the dust-smell is proving stubborn. I've tried simmering vinegar and leaving it overnight (when I poured out the vinegar it was a sad brown-grey color). Then I scrubbed it with a lemon half and some baking soda and rinsed it, and then simmered a mix of baking soda and vinegar. I'm letting it soak but a tentative pour reveals that it is still a sad grey-brown, and I can still smell the dust. What should I do? Continue to boil various deodorizing mixes until the liquid stays clear? Try boiling something else? Soak it in something? It's very pretty and I don't want to buy another one if this one can be salvaged.

This is pretty extreme case of kettle buildup, and so in just a sec we'll get into some specialty products that are worth springing for if you find yourself with an extraordinarily scummy situation in need of a remedy. Before we do, though, let's pick up on the finding-the-right-tool theme that we chatted about in our discussion of ganky humidifiers.

When it comes to cleaning tea kettles, white vinegar is also the go-to product—though baking soda, lemon, and dish soap are also all perfectly viable options—but there's one tiny add-on that will work wonders in scouring scale out from the interior of the kettle: rice.

Yup. Rice. See, I told you it was a tiny add-on!

What you'll do is mix the vinegar with water and bring those things to a boil in the kettle. Then remove from the heat and toss in a handful or two of raw rice and swirl swirl swirl swirl swirl. The rice serves to scour the interior of the kettle, helping to coax off stubborn buildup.

If vinegar lets you down, the next step is to go in for a product like CLR, which will take scale off of things like tea kettles. CLR is super easy to find—drug stores, grocery stores, hardware stores will all have it—which is one of the reasons I like to recommend it. We've all got busy lives, we don't need to be running around all over the globe in search of something with which to clean our darn kettles, ya know?

There's another newer product called Zep Pan Rejuvenator that looks quite promising; Zep tends to make serious, no-joke cleaners that come highly recommended but this is one I've not yet tried or gotten feedback on so I'm putting it here with a caveat emptor and calling it a day.

After giving it a pass with CLR (or the Zep or any other scale-removal product similar to CLR), go ahead and do another run at it with lemon and baking soda to be sure you've removed all the CLR residue.

If it's truly a lost cause—and you know? Sometimes that happens.—you can always stick a block of Oasis Floral Foam in the kettle and use it to display a flower arrangement, or pop a small potted basil plant in there and enjoy your new indoor garden.

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Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume, February 25, 2014); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr. Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.


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