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Spring Cleaning Day 13: Let’s Deep Clean the Toilet

A brightly lit bathroom with a soaking tub and a white toilet.
DD Images/Shutterstock

Cleaning a toilet isn’t the most glamorous thing, but there’s something satisfying about seeing it returned to a pristine showroom state. Let’s make that happen.

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We’ve decluttered out bathrooms, deep cleaned the tubs and shower surrounds, and now it’s time to tackle the toilet. By the time we’re done, you’ll be shocked at how clean it is.

What You Need to Deep Clean Your Toilet

Like the tub we deep cleaned yesterday in the cleaning challenge, deep cleaning a toilet is much easier with a set of good tools and cleaners.

Also, like the tub, you can—if you really like spending time with your toilet—do things the old-fashioned way with simple ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. But let’s be real. Nobody really wants cleaning the toilet to take longer than it needs to take so let’s use proper and powerful cleaners that get the job done fast.

Gloves aren’t optional as the cleaning chemicals we’ll be using are quite harsh on the skin, and because we’ll be right in there with them scrubbing, we’d argue that the goggles aren’t optional either. Is it overkill to wear goggles while doing simple home cleaning tasks? Maybe. Is it pleasant to get acid strong enough to descale a toilet in your eye? Definitely not.

While any old toilet bowl cleaner will get the job done—and we’ve bought plenty of $1 bottles of Works toilet bowl cleaner in our day—we’re huge fans of gel toilet bowl cleaner. It stays where you want it, especially under the rim.

OXO Good Grips Detail Brushes

They're like that old toothbrush you use to detail clean, but better in every way.

Detail cleaning brushes are nice—and we absolutely love the little silicone fin on the OXO model we recommended here—but in a pinch, old toothbrushes work just as well. They’re free, but old toothbrushes don’t stand up to hard scrubbing like a proper cleaning brush does, though.

And for folks with hardwater and/or serious rust staining in their toilets, we really can’t recommend a pumice cleaning stone enough. It might seem counterintuitive to bust out a rock to rub around your toilet bowl because the porcelain of a toilet seems like it would scratch terribly in the face of such abuse.

Powerhouse Pumice Cleaning Stone

It's a rock you clean your toilet with and, trust us, it's the toilet bowl cleaning equivalent of the best thing since sliced bread.

But pumice is just hard enough to grind off the stuff that builds up on the toilet surface but not hard enough to damage the finish. Better yet, unlike suggestions, you’ll see elsewhere like using steel wool or sandpaper, it won’t leave rusty fibers behind or disintegrate when used near water.

How to Deep Clean Your Toilet

Regular old cleaning involves the toilet brush and some toilet bowl cleaner, today we’re going to get a little more hands-on to clean every square inch of the toilet. The best part about this approach is that doing it (and following up with some light maintenance going forward) means you won’t have to get this hands-on for a good long time once you’re done.

Start with the Bowl

We recommend starting with the bowl simply because in doing so you give the toilet bowl cleaner more time-on-surface to break down mineral buildup and stains while you work on everything else. You’ll likely find our bowl cleaning routine has a few extra steps you don’t normally do, but bear with us as the results are thorough and worth it.

  1. Start by scrubbing the toilet bowl with your toilet brush. We like to do this to quickly remove any surface soiling and biofilm. Swish the brush around to loosen and debris and set it in the caddy.
  2. Fill a bucket, bowl, or even an empty solid-side trash can with about a gallon of water from your tub tap or showerhead. Pour the water into the toilet to manually flush it (as you would if the water supply wasn’t functioning during an emergency. Because you’re flushing the toilet with a small amount of water and not refilling it from the tank, it will lower the water level almost completely into the toilet trap opening.
  3. Squirt the gel toilet bowl cleaner up under the rim of the toilet, taking care to keep the nozzle tilted up and firmly against the inner rim (where mineral scale builds up along the water holes). Because there is less water in the toilet, thanks to our manual-flush trick, the cleaning gel can more thoroughly coat the walls of the bowl and more time (with less dilution) on the stains and mineral buildup.
  4. Leave the cleaner to work and move onto the other areas of the toilet.

We’ve never seen anyone suggest the manual-flush method to expose more of the toilet bowl surface for more intense soaking, so you’re either part of a new trend, now a member of an exclusive cleaning tip club, or both!

Spray Down the Exterior of the Toilet

While the toilet bowl is soaking, let’s focus on the rest of the toilet.

  1. Spray your all-purpose cleaner on the exterior of the toilet. When spraying areas where overspray may land in the toilet bowl, it’s not a bad idea to spray a paper towel and wet down the area by hand to avoid mixing your spray cleaner with the toilet bowl cleaner.
  2. Look for any areas of grime, such as around the handle, where the toilet seat connects to the bowl, and so on.
  3. Scrub those areas with your detail cleaning brush to loosen the grime and buildup.
  4. Optionally, use a screwdriver, adjustable wrench, or combination thereof, depending on how your toilet bowl lid is attached, to loosen the lid—this is a great time to consider upgrading to a quick-disconnect seat, if you haven’t already. The amount of dirt and grime buildup under the portion of the seat that is mated to the porcelain rim of the toilet can be surprising. By loosening the lid, you can clean those areas thoroughly.
  5. Wipe the entire area down with a paper towel dampened with a little more cleaner.
  6. Don’t worry about wiping any residual cleaner off the toilet, extra time-on-surface with general-purpose disinfecting cleansers is always ideal and drying in place kills more germs.

Kohler Quiet Close Quick-Attach Toilet Seat

If you don't already have a quiet-close toilet seat, you're missing out. It's a fantastic and cheap upgrade.

Scrub the Bowl

At this point the exterior is clean, so let’s return to the bowl. Our cleaner has (hopefully) worked some magic on the mineral buildup and stains.

  1. Scrub the interior of the bowl with your toilet brush, making sure to systematically cover the entire surface.
  2. Run the brush along the inner lip of the bowl, firmly scrubbing to dislodge mineral buildup and soiling from the unseen underside of the lip.
  3. For any serious mineral buildup or staining that remains, wet your pumice stone and gently scrub at the stains in a circular motion. Less is more, and you only need to use as much force and scrubbing time as needed to remove the stain. There’s little risk of damaging your toilet here, but because the pumice is softer than the porcelain, really grinding it in there accomplishes little more than wearing your cleaning tool down faster.
  4. Flush the toilet to refresh the water as well as rinse off your brush and pumice stone.

As a bonus cleaning tip, if you noticed that you didn’t just have a ring around the toilet, but a streak down the side, too, then you most likely have a leaking flapper in your toilet. The streaks down the side of the bowl are caused by a slow trickle of water leaking from the tank and evaporating, leaving a trail of mineral buildup.

Fortunately, a replacement flapper is very cheap (around $4-7 or so) and can be installed in minutes and typically without using any tools. If you don’t see rust streaks or your toilet isn’t intermittently running, however, don’t worry about replacing the flapper right now.


Your toilet is sparkling and hey, maybe you even learned you could fix those annoying rust streaks for a few bucks by replacing the toilet flapper. A good time was had by all we hope, but if not at least you got a clean toilet out of the exercise!

As always you can follow along on our Spring Cleaning Challenge landing page or get the lessons, along with all our other great content, delivered right to your inbox!

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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