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How to Choose a Steam Mop

Credit: Jenna Ammerman
By Max Mutter ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Thursday September 27, 2018
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Tired of mopping your floors? Hoping that a steam mop will make your life easier? Unfortunately, we've found that these products often aren't all they're cracked up to be, and we believe that most people would be better off not buying one. That being said, there are some specific situations where steam mops can add a degree of convenience to cleaning routines. In this article we lay out exactly who will and won't benefit from owning a steam mop and, if you fall into the former category, how to go about choosing the right one.

Some models look and sound so similar - we can help you figure out...
Some models look and sound so similar - we can help you figure out which one has the performance you seek.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

Reasons You Don't Need a Steam Mop

The situations that don't warrant a steam mop far outnumber the situations that do, so we'll start there.

They Can Only Clean Limited Floor Surfaces

This is a bit contentious, as steam mop manufacturers claim their mops work great on all hard surfaces, while most manufacturers of wood and laminate flooring warn against using steam mops on their floors. In fact, using a steam mop on many floors will void the warranty. Even most flooring retailers recommend not using steam mops.

This debate really boils down to the seal that is used on these floors. If the seal is perfect, then the floor should be protected from any negative impacts of the steam. However, seals don't last forever, and often have some imperfections even when the floor is brand new. Any crack in the seal will then let in steam, which in turn can lead to mildew problems and even warping of the floor. Therefore we wouldn't feel comfortable using steam mops on the wood and laminate floors of our own homes.

See all that potentially damaging water seeping into the floor...
See all that potentially damaging water seeping into the floor? That's why we would only use steam mops on tile or stone.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

So what surfaces are safe for steam mopping? Pretty much just sealed tile and stone floors. For most homes this limits the mop's use to the kitchen, bathroom(s), and maybe a mud or laundry room. In most cases that doesn't add up to a lot of square footage.

Not as Fast as You'd Think

Is a steam mop really faster than a traditional mop? The answer is usually yes, but not by as much as you'd think. Yes, these machines do generally heat up in less than a minute, and for normal, everyday messes, don't require as much physical effort as a traditional mop does. However, if you have a floor large enough that you need to change pads in the middle of cleaning, you're going to have to wait at least a few minutes for the pad to cool enough so that you can actually touch and change it (some of the more expensive models offer hands-free pad changing to get around this). Also, when you're done cleaning the mop often emits steam for 15-60 seconds after you've shut it off. This means you have to find somewhere safe to rest it and let the excess steam get out (if you leave it sitting on the floor you increase the risk of damage). Finally, the pads need to be cleaned after each use. You can wash most of the pads in a washing machine, but we usually found ourselves washing them by hand because we didn't want to throw the grungy pad in the wash with our clothes. Hand washing these pads isn't particularly difficult, but if you're looking at steam mops because you don't like having to get your hands dirty when mopping, it kind of defeats the purpose. All of these steps add up to a process that is slightly more involved and time consuming than many people imagine when considering buying their first steam mop.

Poor Stubborn Stain Removal

On the right surface, we found that steam mops can clean normal dirt and grime quite effectively. However, really stubborn, set-in stains where another story. Most steam mops have little to no effect on these types of stains when used in the standard configuration. The only models that did well in cleaning these statins where those that had some sort of scrubbing brush attachment. And while the addition of steam power did expedite the process slightly when compared to using a traditional mop or sponge, the amount of elbow grease required was very similar.

For getting rid of stubborn stains you'll need a steam mop with a...
For getting rid of stubborn stains you'll need a steam mop with a scrubbing brush, and you'll still need to put in a good amount of physical effort (steam isn't magic, unfortunately).
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

Sanitation? Eh, Maybe…

Many people like the idea that steam mops sanitize as they clean without the use of any chemicals. Full disclosure: we did not test this, so we can't directly comment on how much bacterial reduction these mops can achieve. However, after using steam mops extensively, we became acutely aware of how many things come into contact with a floor on a daily basis. With shoes, feet, pets, and more, it seems unlikely that any significant sanitizing effects of steam mopping a floor will last very long, unless you're willing to mop multiple times per day.

Granted, there are some instances where it stands to reason that the sanitizing effects of steam could be useful: for lack of a better term, times when sick pets or children end up depositing bodily excretions in less than opportune areas. However, you're gambling that those types of accidents are going to happen on a steam mop safe surface. Also, you're probably not going to want to deal with cleaning the mop pad after dueling with a mess like that. Even if you're looking to reduce the number of cleaning chemicals used in your home, we think some sort of disposable disinfecting wipes would be more convenient, less expensive, and probably more effective for these kinds of situations. Plus, you don't have to worry about using them on wood floors.

The bottom line is that we live in a bacteria infested world, and there's no way we can escape all of it. If a weekly steam bath for your floors makes you feel like you're living in a healthier home, then that's great, but we personally don't gain any peace of mind from steam cleaning.

Reasons You Might Need a Steam Mop

We don't want to sound like we're completely bagging on steam mops. There are a couple of specific situations where we found them useful. We just think that most people fall into the camp where a steam mop wouldn't be a particularly useful tool, so we wanted to highlight that first.

Regular Cleaning

Most people measure their mopping schedule using weeks or even months, so the small convenience advantages offered by steam mops are negligible. If you're the type of person that likes to mop multiple times a week, however, those small time savings can add up. Also, regular cleaning should prevent most stains from setting in, so you may stave off the need to do any scrubbing. So if you have a large area of stone or tile flooring that gets a lot of traffic and that you like to mop frequently, a steam mop may make your life a bit easier.

Much Less Drying Time

One of the worst things about mopping is the fact that you need to stay off the floor you just mopped for anywhere from 15-60 minutes before it dries completely. Because steam mops use really hot water (some might even call it steam) it evaporates much more quickly, leaving the floor dry and walkable within minutes. This works well for those that like to do last minute cleaning before some guests arrive.

Floors dry almost instantly after being cleaned with a steam mop.
Floors dry almost instantly after being cleaned with a steam mop.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

I Decided I Need a Steam Mop, How Do I Choose?

If you've made it this far and think a steam mop would be a useful tool for your home, we've laid out a step-by-step decision guide for finding the best mop for you.


Step 1: How Much Surface Do you Need to Clean, and How Messy is it?

One thing that can ruin the added efficiency you gain from a steam mop is having to stop and wait for the mop to cool down enough so that you can change the cleaning pad. Therefore you want to make sure you either 1) get a mop that can make it through your cleaning routine with one pad, or 2) invest in one that offers a hands-free pad changing feature, so you can change the pad without waiting for the mop to cool down.

Hands-free cleaning pad changing is critical for cleaning large...
Hands-free cleaning pad changing is critical for cleaning large areas and messes.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

For standard messes that result from normal, everyday use of your home, we found that pretty much all mops can make it through cleaning an average sized kitchen and 2 bathrooms on one pad. If you have more tile or stone flooring than that, you may want to spend a little extra on a machine with hands-free pad replacement.

If you tend to be cleaning up bigger messes, like tracked-in mud, or big spills, you can go through cleaning pads pretty quickly regardless of how much floor area you have to clean. Again, this might warrant the extra cost of a device with hands-free pad changing.

What About Water Tank Capacity

Surprisingly, our testing found that water tank capacity doesn't really translate into a functional difference between different steam mops. First off, most of the models we bought have tanks in the neighborhood of 450ml, which we found was generally enough to get through cleaning a kitchen and 2 bathrooms. Also, all of these models heat up in less than a minute, so as long as the tank is easy to fill, having to stop and refill the water tank doesn't actually slow things down too much.

The one exception to this is the Pure Enrichment PureClean XL Rolling, which has a 1500ml tank, triple that of most models. However, it takes a full 8 minutes to heat up, which cancels out any gains in efficiency you get from not having to refill the tank as often.

Considering how easy it is to fill a water tank is more important...
Considering how easy it is to fill a water tank is more important than tank capacity, as most mops have a similar capacity and heat up very quickly.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

Step 2: Look for a Model With Adjustable Steam

As we've said before, steam mops have the potential to damage floors. Therefore, if you can get by with using less steam power to clean up a mess, you might as well do so and limit the danger of damage, even. Models that can only run full blast don't let you do this. Also, steam mops on full power can turn your kitchen into a bit of a sauna, so summertime cleaning can be much more pleasing on a low steam setting.

It's always nice to be able to adjust the steam level.
It's always nice to be able to adjust the steam level.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

Step 3: Consider User Friendliness

Things that may seem minor, like how easy it is to fill the water tank, or how supple the controls are, can actually make or break a steam mop. In fact, one of our mops has a water tank that is so hard to fill that we felt like we'd rather mop with a traditional mop (spoiler alert, it was the Shark Steam Pocket).

You want a mop that can be refilled with the mop in an upright position, and that has a large opening. If refilling the mop requires crouching down on the floor or to be in a Zen-like state to avoid spills, you might find yourself regretting your purchase. Also, some models require a pumping action to release steam. We found models that use simple buttons or just automatically release steam to be much easier to use.

Our user friendliness scores consider all of these things, so you can use them as a guide to find the easier to use models.

Step 4: Consider Maneuverability

If it's hard to get your steam mop into all the nooks and crannies of your floor, you may have to pull out a traditional mop to do some touch up work. This negates the convenience advantages of a steam mop, and thus doesn't justify the extra cost. Again, you can use our maneuverability scores to find the mops that can get into all of those tight corners.

You'll want a mop that can easily get into tight areas.
You'll want a mop that can easily get into tight areas.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

Step 5: Do You Need any Accessories?

Some models have different accessories that let you clean other parts of your house, like stovetops and refrigerators, and some even can double as garment steamers. If you want a more versatile machine, look for one with lots of accessories. The Shark Lift-Away Pro is our favorite.


Steam mops aren't for everyone, but can be quite useful in certain situations. We hope this article has helped you decide if a steam mop is right for you and, if so, how to find the best one. For our full thoughts on all of the best steam mops on the market, check out our full review.