Jolie Kerr on cleaning tips | Home Front

Apr 17, 2014

Jolie Kerr is the author of the column, "Ask a Clean Person," which is featured weekly on Deadspin and Jezebel. She is also the author of "My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha." Her work has also appeared in Fortune, Cosmopolitan, BlackBook, Gothamist, The Hairpin, and The Awl. She has been featured as a cleaning expert in the New York Observer, O Magazine, InStyle, New York Magazine, Time Out New York, Health Magazine, and Parents Magazine. Jolie is a Boston native and graduate of Barnard College, now residing in a teeny, tiny, spotless apartment in New York City.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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I'm excited to have Jolie Kerr on the chat today, a cleaning and stain removal expert like no other whose Ask a Clean Person column is featured on Deadspin and Jezebel. Her latest book is called "My Boyfriend Barfed in my Handbag... And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha." I have many questions for her, don't you?

Hey everyone, thanks so much for joining me. I'm Jolie Kerr, author of My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag ... And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha. I also write a weekly cleaning advice column for Deadspin & Jezebel called "Ask a Clean Person"—I'm looking forward to taking your questions today!

Hello Jolie, How do I get rid of mold in my shower and toilet? It's always coming back.

Mold is tricky in that it really will keep coming back. Either white vinegar or bleach will kill it, but in terms of keeping it at bay you need to starve it—it feeds on soap scum, so regularly cleaning the shower and toilet will help, as will keeping a dry environment in the bathroom. Squeegees are great tools for keeping the shower clean and dry without too much effort!

Jolie, My iron has burnt black marks. Do you have a suggestion of getting it out? Thanks.

Give it a scrubbing with either white vinegar and a Dobie Pad (which won't cause scratching but will help to slough off that black stuff) or with a baking soda paste. Should be right as rain in no time.

I have often been frustrated because my house looks chaotic and cluttered if it is simply being used! Do you know any good general organizing and/or decorating resources for creating a space that looks clean, peaceful, simple, and functional? Especially books? I think I need to change up how I am setting up my house. We are moving, so now I have an opportunity to start anew!

Oh man, I hear you on the clutter frustration. The two rules of thumb that EVERY clean person will tell you are: 1. A place for everything and 2. Be constantly ridding yourself of things. Really the best way to have a tidier-looking home is just to have fewer things. Which is really difficult to do! But once you get into the habit of removing things that aren't needed it becomes so much easier and very liberating.

Hi Jolie! I have several white plastic (about 1/2" thick) cutting boards that have some stains. I scrub them and wash them in the dishwasher, but if the food that was prepared was particularly colorful, there remains a stain on the board. I've tried bleach to no avail. Thoughts?

Oh I would try scrubbing the stains with a cut lemon that you've sprinkled with rock salt. That may do the trick! A baking soda paste is also a good option. Good luck, let me know how you do!

We've got two slightly older Scan (I think) bookcases that were moved without being disassembled and now are in less-than-prime condition (the backing is gone, they're wobbly...). But my husband likes them (they were a gift from his mom), and really, can you ever have enough bookcases? So I'm trying to figure out if there's anywhere we can take them for new backs and basic repair (we've tried reassembling... still wobbly). Is there a business that does that in the DC area? I don't even know where to start! We're actually in Montgomery County, if that helps. Thank you.

Since they are Scandinavian Modern, you might talk to Modern Mobler, a company that sells and does repair on vintage mid-century modern pieces. 7313 Georgia Ave. NW, Washington, DC and 3730 Howard Avenue, Kensington, MD  571.594.2201

What is the best way to clean/whiten yellowing tile on the walls of a (rental) bathroom? Is it even fixable? ALSO! What about yellowing of white particleboard furnture (like ikea type stuff). Is this a time for bleachie? Thanks!!!

No I don't think Bleachie is what you want for either scenario (<3 u Bleachie)! For the tile, try ammonia and for the particle board stains I would try a baking soda paste—which is great because you can control the amount of water you're putting in and avoid saturating the particle board.

Jolie, Can I wash sneakers in the washing machine? Lots of conflicting info on the interwebs.

It really depends on what the sneakers are made of! Generally speaking, though, most can go in the washer (but not in the dryer).

I feel like I spend about 2/3 of my life washing bath towels yet I'm still concerned I don't change them frequently enough. How many times can I reuse a towel before I'm being disgusting?

Oh! I actually wrote about this topic on Deadspin!! (I'm a glutton for horror stories, apparently!) I think a good general guideline is maybe get a new towel every 3 or so uses?

My bathroom is in an old apartment building, so there's no window or ventilation. I usually end up with what looks like mold growing on the caulk (is that the right word?) between the tub and tiles. What's the best way to get rid of it?

Either white vinegar or bleach is the trick with mold. There's also this super toxic stuff that works insanely well (but is super toxic!) called X-14 that you might want to check out. It's incredible (and it STINKS).

After many up and downs and moves around the country, in 3 months I'll be reestablishing my own household. (Also, first time sans roommates!) The moving around means I pretty much need to rebuy everything. What should I buy to achieve the ultimate Clean Person home? My apartment has already been designated the future party spot of my posse, so it will be seeing a lot of drinking, pot smoking, messy cooking, and I have a black cat that loves to shed. -Ash, CA PS. I've bought 4 of your books and read every article. I love you and your advice on cleaning my stuffed animal worked perfectly! Next book please!

Oh I LOVE this Q!! Well let's start with the cat: You'll need a good vacuum, and probably one of those rubber mitts that will let you pick hair up that even the vacuum can't get to. As for other products, keep it simple! An all-purpose spray, glass cleaner, an abrasive scouring powder, dish soap—those things will perform double- and triple-duty. And lots of white vinegar, which will help to keep your home from smelling like Cheech and Chong's tour bus!

Hi Jolie, I have a gorgeous leather bag that's looking a bit grimy. Should I attempt to clean it myself (and how?), or is this sort of thing best left to the pros? Thanks!

Naw you can clean that yourself! Just a bit of shoe polish in the color of the leather (or neutral shoe polish if you can't find a match) will make it look good as new. If there are stains, start with a tiny bit of saddle soap, then finish with the polish.

Any tricks for removing dried nail polish from carpet?

Sure thing: Look for a product called Motsenbocker's Lift Off. That should do it for you!

Hi Jolie. Any product recommendations for keeping a toilet clean? I want to put in something that keeps it clean when you flush it, but I feel like they can't possibly be that effective. I just want to spend a minimal amount of time scrubbing, although I assume that's the best way to keep it clean.

Try Scrubbing Bubbles in concert with a sponge/rag and toilet brush. Takes virtually no time at all to get that latrine cleaned up.

I moved into a 5-year old house that has engineered wood and no matter how I clean it (i.e. Bona) it looks dull after it dries. Any tips?

It sounds like at some point someone used the wrong product on those floors—you might need to wax them (acrylic wax is what you want to use on engineered wood).

Hi Jolie! Love your pieces on Jezebel and Deadspin! I've been dealing with a really REALLY gross tub at my boyfriend's apartment for a couple of months now (EW) but... now we're moving in together. Can you recommend a good daily cleaner/tactic that we can use right after a shower? And leave in the shower so we (HE) remembers to use it? Thanks!

I think if you start out with a clean tub and clean it weekly you won't even need a daily solution, TBH! I love Scrubbing Bubbles, but there are tons of other products (Soft Scrub, Bon Ami, BKF) that also work. I hope that helps!!

How do you clean shower tiles that have lots of nooks and crannies? If I use anything besides a liquid that will evaporate, some of the cleaning solution stays stuck in the nooks or crannies ... and that can't be good (or clean).

Stick with a spray cleaner to make rinsing easier and use a toothbrush to scrub those little nooks as needed.

I've had good luck using Magic Erasers for removing marks, stains, etc. Just curious, what are they exactly? Anything toxic?

They're made of melamine foam, and they are not toxic! There are a lot of internet rumors out there about them being toxic, but those have been debunked on Snopes. (I love them too!)

So excited to see you here, Jolie. I heard your interview on Fresh Air and loved it. Now I know not to put bleach on "protein stains"! Question about ink stains: My husband got blue ink on a dress shirt and khakis. I've gotten it nearly out of the green shirt, but there are still some stains on the pants. I tried spritzing with hairspray, but that didn't work. So I put on gobs of hand sanitizer, which really helped. I've washed the clothes in cold water with soap, sometimes after putting a stain stick on the ink stains. Is there anything else I can do to get the last remnants of ink out of the pants? I'm worried that by putting hand sanitizer on the stain 3 times will discolor the pants.

The reason that hand sanitizer and some kinds of hairspray work on ink stains is that they contain rubbing alcohol, which is the key to removing ink stains from fabric. I think you'll be okay in terms of color lift if you want to stick with the hand san, or you can just use straight rubbing alcohol.

I've got a blue dress with bodily fluid stains that have been on it for years. How do I get them off after this long time?

Do you know how many times I've said that I wished I'd been writing my column in the '90s???? We, as a country, could have avoided so much unpleasantness.

Hi Jolie, I just asked a question (Jura this may apply to you too!) on moving in with my boyfriend. He is insisting on bringing a heinous leather captain's chair and wants it in the living room... I'm putting on a brave face to deal with this (sob, where will my amazing barrel back mid-century chairs go NOW?) HOWEVER, the side panel of this weird orangey brown leather chair has gone... green. It's just the one side panel, so I thought it might be sun damage, but it's pretty far away from the window. Help?

Huh. Well I haven't a clue as to why that happened but to fix it, just give the chair a good polishing with leather polish in a matching or neutral color.

Before I could get new drapes I used duct tape to hand pillow cases on my window (I know huge mistake) Without taking a razor blade and a lot of elbow grease, anyway to get the tape residue off the glass?



It's a cutsie nickname for bleach that longtime readers of my stuff remember from an old, old, old column. It's a little in-joke :)

Hi Jolie. I agree that the key to remaining clean and organized is having a place for everything. Could you recommend some places for finding stylish large ottomans? I'm so tired of the pleather and bonded leather ottomans that are sold at most generic stores. Thank you!

Oh I should think Ballard Designs would be a great place for something like that. They have such lovely things.

Hi Jolie, the plastic handles on my refrigerator have turned yellow and no amount of bleach will re-whiten them, do you have any tips on making them look as clean as they actually are? Thanks!

I think that's a job for a Magic Eraser! Also a baking soda paste might work as well.

Our toilet has stains that I can't seem to get out. They are way down at the bottom, scrub brush doesn't help. I have used bowl cleaner to no avail.

Try a pumice stick, that's probably your best bet!

My husband washed a quilt my now deceased grandmother made us for our wedding with his pants that had an ink pen in his pocket. Have tried 20 things to draw it out over the months with no luck. How can I get rid of set in ink?

Oh dear! Oh that makes me sad to hear. First try rubbing alcohol on the ink stains. You might also want to check out a company called Engleside Products—they make a quilt wash that may also help remove the stains. Good luck out there, please let me know how you do with that precious item!!

Hi Jolie- I have one of those shavers with the "shaving cream" stick attached. The inside of the actual shaver is definitely growing mold. I've love to try to clean it if possible, as opposed to buying a new one. I tried baking soda and warm water, which vastly improved it, but there's still a little mold left. Any thoughts on how to get rid of the last of it? Thanks.

White vinegar will kill that mold, and if there's any residue it won't bother your skin in the way that bleach can.

My cat puked on my sisal rug several times and we blotted it off and brushed with some water but there are stains there. Ugh. Anything we can do? I know sisal is impossible.

I would try a toothbrush sprayed with a small amount of stain removing spray to spot treat the residual staining. Ugh, poor thing, sisal is a bear to clean!

We just installed laminate flooring in our basement. Has a faux hand scraped dark wood look to it. What should we use to clean it? The laminate on our first floor never looks clean. We use a swifter jet and it leaves a film. Suggestions? We use the swifter dry each day to catch the dust, but need something for washing the floors. thanks!

Laminate flooring shouldn't be wet washed very often, but when you need to stick with either white vinegar or ammonia. Stay away from soap, abrasives and wax-based products.

My husband prefers unscented cleaners but they don't always get the odors out. How to keep things smelling fresh but not overpowered by perfumes?

Use 1/2-1 cup of white vinegar in the rinse cycle when you're doing laundry—it serves as an odor eliminator and a natural fabric softener, but doesn't leave behind any lingering odor (don't worry, your sheets won't smell of salad dressing!!)

We have four pets - two dogs - 100 lbs and 50 lbs - and two cats. Yes, we're insane. What's also insane is our vain attempts to keep the house clean. When you account for fur (particularly this time of year!), dirt, dog drool, etc., our house never seems truly clean. Both of us also work long and odd hours, so keeping a tight regimen is difficult, even though the broom and vacuum have become my ever-present companions. Any advice? - Princess Furball

But you love 'em! So it's all worth it. Is it possible for you to hire a cleaning service, even just once a month? That may go a really long way in helping with the heavy duty cleaning. If not, you might want to think about having more pet-friendly types of upholstery, fewer rugs, less stuff generally on which pet hair can collect.

We pulled up a very old carpet in a garage and the backing is stuck on the cement. What comes loose looks like black baby powder. Any tricks for removing?

I would think that WD-40 would be the answer, but I would also suggest you wear a face mask and work gloves since that black stuff sounds like it's mold and you don't want to breath that in/get it on your skin.

Do you have a trick for cleaning stinky suede shoes? I have worn them once. They arrived smelling awful. So awful, I returned them and got a new pair (love nordstroms policy). They smell like dog poop. Just keeping it real. I have tried baking soda, airing out (for months), wiping with drier sheets, oder eaters foot powder (vaccuming off) and nothing works. They are adorable shoes, but I can't wear shoes that smell like I stepped in doggie business.

I'm confused: You returned the shoes and the replacement pair ALSO smelled? Ugh. How unfortunate! I guess I would try putting a set of sneaker balls in them to see if that does the trick. Wadded up newspaper is another option for removing odors from shoes, but TBH it sounds like the suede itself is the culprit and not the interior of the shoe.

Hi Jolie and Jura! My electric stove is in need of a deep clean, specifically the metal that encases the burner, which is covered in spots and spills. Any advice on an effective but gentle way to clean it?

Try Bon Ami and a Dobie Pad—it may take a little elbow grease, but both are gentle and excellent products!

I realize this is a bit off topic, but I'm on the verge of a kitchen reno and I just acn't seem to commit to a cabinet color. Any words of wisdom you can offer me? Any suggestions? Small galley kitchen, but I don't want white cabinets. I tend to like medium to dark shades of wood, but I've been advised to go lighter. I don't know what to do...

The small space pros will tell you that white cabinets will make the most of your tiny little kitchen. I have a small kitchen and chose medium cherry cabinets - they aged beautifully and have a beautiful patina to them today. They are both classic and timeless. If you want to go with a color, just make sure you really love it.

I seem to fall further behind with cleaning every week. I am single, live alone, have a full time job, and a long commute. If I get home at 6:30, I don't want to spend my entire evening cooking and then cleaning. I found that I had pockets of time while cooking when I could do cleaning, so after dinner, I rinse things off and leave them for the next day to wash. If I need to reuse the same pan, it gets a quick cleaning, otherwise it is washed once all of the items for tonight's dinner are cooking. I fear leaving the dishes sit for 24 hours will eventually attract critters, but that hasn't been a problem yet. How can I get caught up with cleaning. I know that sometimes it is just 10-15 minutes, but when you are only home and awake for 2-3 hours a day, that is a large percentage of time to devote after dinner, especially when there are other tasks like laundry that also need to be finished.

It might be better to set aside one hour a week (maybe on the weekends) to do the cleaning, rather than try to do too much (other than the dishes!) in the evenings. And as long as you give the dishes a rinse, leaving them overnight is totally fine!

How should I clean my kitchen cabinets and how often?

A small amount of dish soap is the perfect thing for cleaning cherry wood. As to the frequency, it really depends on how much you cook/use your kitchen and how grimy they're getting. I would suggest cleaning them as needed, with a goal of maybe at least once a season? Sound reasonable?

Just marry him already. Once we know we're no longer the captains of our own ship, we don't really care that all our bachelor stuff gradually goes out the back door.


I've replaced the (particleboard) backing on a couple of my Scan bookcases with a piece of masonite. It's cheap and sturdy and something for DIY or any decent handyman to do.

If you don't do DIY and don't know any handymen or handywomen, this still sounds daunting. :)

When you say ammonia or white vinegar, do you mean mixed with water? Assuming so, but in what mix propotion? We have to clean the floors with cleaner more often due to kids tracking in lots of dirt, kitchen spills, and foot prints from bare feet.....

Yes, diluted with water. The proportion is negotiable, but a 4:1 or 3:1 ratio of water to cleaning product is generally a good way to go.

If you want to get more uses out of your bath towels between washing, wipe yourself down with a washcloth before getting out of the shower. You barely need a towel after that. A trick I used while staying in youth hostels. Didn't want a heavy wet towel in my backpack!

Love this tip. I recall one youth hostel my sister and I stayed in - I think it was in Paris - where instead of towels, they hung pieces of paper towel on the towel rack. Creates no laundry.

I know this is a horrible question. BUT... I hate wearing socks so I'm always running around in flats and bare feet. Some of my cheaper shoes smell awful by the end of the day. What can be done about this bad bad side effect!

Get yourself either a good foot odor spray and hit the shoes with it when you take them off or get a set of sneaker balls and toss them in the shoes at night.

Bathroom has a window over the tub/shower. We had the window replaced and the woodwork covered with vinyl, but there's now mold in the caulk. It might have come through from the wood underneath, although we thought we had it cleaned off. Is recaulking our only solution? It won't wipe off, even with bleach.

Oh that sounds rotten, poor thing! Yeah unfortunately I think new caulk is the answer—the good news is that recaulking isn't too, too troublesome. If you're not up for it and TaskRabbit serves your area I would recommend that service, I've had great luck with them!

Is there a truly effective carpet spot cleaner? I have tried many, and they always break my heart!

I really like the foaming kinds over the sprays—I wonder if you might have more luck with those? I also find that they take more than one application to really work. 

He didn't remove the old caulk> What a mess. Any tips on how to remove all the caulk???

Ho boy! Yeah, you can use an exacto knife or scraping tool to remove the old caulk and then start fresh.

Any homemade recipes that work better than strong-smelling store-bought cleaners?

Oh you'll LOVE this one: Use a dryer sheet. YUP! Get it wet, scrub the shower door, you will be AMAZED.

Alright gang, I've gotta split but thank you so much to Jura for having me and to all of you for your great questions! I hope I was able to help you out—don't forget to buy my book, My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag ... And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha for many, many, many more cleaning tips and tricks from me!

Today's chat really have some great great tips on cleaning and stain removal. All delivered with a sense of humor, thank goodness. Thanks Jolie! Now I'm worried I don't wash my towels enough! And I'm going out to buy some WD-40 and a pumice stick. A keeper for sure to read over again. Meanwhile, join me next week same time, same place with noted Ashburn designer Raji Radhakrishnan talking about design and behind the scenes showhouse room tips.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Jolie Kerr
Jolie Kerr is the author of the column "Ask a Clean Person," which is featured weekly on Deadspin and Jezebel. Her work has also appeared in Fortune, Cosmopolitan, BlackBook, Gothamist, The Hairpin, and The Awl. She has been featured as a cleaning expert in the New York Observer, O Magazine, InStyle, New York Magazine, Time Out New York, Health Magazine, and Parents Magazine. Jolie is a Boston native and graduate of Barnard College, now residing in a teeny, tiny, spotless apartment in New York City.
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