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Spring Cleaning Day 2: Banish Cabinet and Backsplash Grime

A sunny kitchen with oak counters, white cabinets, and a white tile backsplash.
Bogdan Sonjachnyj/Shutterstock

Thanks to all the cooking and food prep we do there, the kitchen is easily one of the grimiest areas of the home. On the second day of our Spring Cleaning Challenge, we’re getting the caked-on dust and grim out of the kitchen.

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The Spring Cleaning Challenge is designed to help you knock out a whole house worth of spring cleaning without feeling buried under it all at once. Today, we’re continuing our tour around the kitchen by banishing the grime to give the cabinets, walls, and backsplash a showroom shine.

Why Do Kitchen Cabinets and Walls Get So Grimy?

Dust and dirt are everywhere in your home, but the kitchen has the secret sauce (sometimes literally!) to make them stick.

When you cook you release plenty of steam, bits of aerosolized cooking oils, smoke, and other particulates. That’s a more or less perfect recipe—I can’t promise this will be the last kitchen-themed pun—for everything in the kitchen getting coated with a very faint but very sticky layer.

It might not feel sticky like glue when you touch it, but on an atomic level that slight layer is a perfect place for bits of general household dust and cooking smoke to stick. Over time, especially if you frequently cook on the stovetop with oil, that layer of oil grime infused with household dust can get surprisingly thick. Here’s how to deal with it.

How to Clean Your Kitchen Cabinets, Walls, and Backsplash

Cleaning your kitchen’s vertical surfaces is a pretty straightforward project as long as you keep a few basic guidelines in mind. Before we even get into the supplies list and the steps, note the following.

When cleaning your cabinets and walls, the goal is to get the surfaces damp enough to power through the grime but not soaking wet. You want to avoid water pooling in places, seeping into seams or nicks in the finish, or otherwise causing problems.

Use an appropriate cleaner, and start with a weaker solution to see if it gets the job done before escalating to a more intense cleaner. For example, you may have come across people talking about cleaning their really grimy cabinets with a TSP (tri-sodium-phosphate) solution. TSP is practically a miracle cleaner, but it’s incredibly potent. Mix it too strong or leave it on too long, and it won’t just take the cooking grease off your cabinets, it will take the finish and paint off, too. In fact, using a strong TSP solution to prep your cabinets for painting is a great time saver. But for more routine cleaning (even overdue routine cleaning), take a gentler approach first.

Warning: Always start with a mild cleaning solution and spot test to avoid damaging the finish of your cabinets or painted surfaces.

Finally, work top-to-bottom in the same direction around the room to ensure you get every area and any drips or splashes you create while scrubbing are taken care of on the next pass around the room.

What You’ll Need

If you’ve already started our Spring Cleaning Challenge you should have several of these items on hand already (with the rest readily available at your local store).

Just like with the sink cleaning project, you’ll want gloves to protect your hands. Not only are gloves a great idea for just about any cleaning project around the home, they’re an especially good idea when you’re about to spend a lot of time using a degreaser.

Krud Kutter Kitchen Degreaser

Oil on your backsplash? Grime on your walls? This will make short work of it.

Degreasers work by breaking down fats, and the lipid barrier in your skin is made of fats. Skip the gloves and you can look forward to dry cracked hands.

Some people might consider a step stool optional—and it is, we suppose, if you enjoy holding your arms above your head for extended periods of time, perching precariously on your counters, or both.

Rubbermaid 3-Step Stool

It's sturdy and a fraction of the cost of getting stitches in your chin when you slip off the counter. What's not to like?

We’d highly recommend getting a nice one, like this sturdy Rubbermaid 3-step stool, so you can easily reach high up on the walls and cabinet surfaces with ease. It’s great to have around the house for safely changing lightbulbs and other tasks without balancing on a chair.

How to Clean Your Kitchen Cabinets and Walls

White kitchen cabinets in a kitchen with oak counters and a white tile backsplash.
Bogdan Sonjachnyj/Shutterstock

Tools in hand, let’s get down to business. By the end of this list, you’ll be shocked at how much dirty water you poured out and how clean your walls are.

  1. Fill your bucket or metal bowl (skip glass or ceramic to avoid shattering should you drop it while working) with very warm water, a few drops of dish soap, and a splash of vinegar. (If you want to be precise a ratio of 1/2 cup white vinegar to a gallon of water is good for serious crud busting, but we never measure and just give it a generous splash.)
  2. Use your step stool to start high and wash the top of the walls, crown molding and trim, and the upper cabinet faces. If your cabinets don’t connect with the ceiling but have an open soffit area, pay extra attention to the top of the cabinet. That space is a prime dust and grime collection area and will likely be pretty gross if you’ve never given it a deep clean before.
  3. Soak and wring out the rags or sponge such that they are damp but not dripping. Wipe over the surfaces with a firm motion. Rinse the rag frequently and replace the water in the bucket or bowl as it becomes cloudy. Be prepared to refresh the water frequently.
  4. On surfaces with particularly intense grime, especially cabinet faces and walls near the stove, use the spray on degreaser to cut through the oil buildup.
  5. Use the razor scraper on hard surfaces like tile backsplashes to get particularly stubborn stuck-on bits of food or really caked on oil off. The razer scraper should be used very carefully and judiciously, but you really can’t beat it for removing grime that would require significant scrubbing to loosen.
  6. Move to the lower cabinets and walls, repeating the process.
  7. Finally, wipe down the lower cabinet trim and baseboards. Where the baseboards and toe-molding meet the floor is a catch point for grime. If you can’t get it off with a damp rag, gently work at it with an old toothbrush or cleaning brush.
  8. Rinse your sponge and rags thoroughly with fresh warm water, dump your bucket and rinse it, then wipe down the surfaces in the same order to remove any residual cleaner and to ensure the surfaces are clean. If the bucket water gets cloudy again, you know another round of washing and degreasing is in order. If it stays pretty clear, you’re in good shape.
  9. Use a clean dry rag to wipe down surfaces and get rid of any residual moisture.
  10. As a final— but highly recommended—step place a layer of foil or parchment paper on top of your cabinets if you don’t have flush-to-the-ceiling cabinets or a soffit installed to fill the gap. This simple step will give the dust and grease something to settle on beside the exposed surface of the cabinet. Next time you clean up there, just swap the foil out!

A lot of people skip the water rinse step, but we recommend against it. Not only is it a good idea to get cleaners off surfaces (even mild ones), but the residue of cleaners can lead to more grime buildup in the first place.

It’s the same principle behind why using too much laundry soap doesn’t make your clothes cleaner but ultimately leads to detergent buildup and foul smells.

Once you’ve cleaned and dried your cabinets, walls, and backsplash, make a note on your calendar to do it again in 6 months or so.

If you rarely cook at home, you might be able to draw it out longer than that, but even people who eat out a lot still use their kitchen as a general workspace, use the microwave and stove to reheat things, and such, so it’s good to stay on top of this routine task.

Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Editor in Chief of LifeSavvy. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at LifeSavvy, Review Geek, How-To Geek, and Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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