Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but my morning coffee can eat that marble countertop for breakfast.
It might seem that stone is stone is stone – it’s all hard and cold and hurts when you drop it on your foot. But stone types differ. Depending on their origins and their compositions, some stone types are seemingly impervious, while others are quite soft.
When it comes to usage and cleaning, you have to know your stone, lest it become dull, stained or etched.
Harder stones include granite, slate, sandstone, quartzite, soapstone, brownstone, and bluestone. These are Siliceous stones. They don’t etch or stain as easily.
Marble, travertine, limestone, and onyx are soft stones – called Calcareous stones. (I’m glad I’m only typing this and not saying it. Are both of those a hard C sound?) Alabaster is another very soft stone, but if you have alabaster countertops or floors in the house that you actually live in, invite me over. I want to see it. Then I’ll tiptoe out, very gently. In my socks.
These latter soft stones are sensitive for three reasons:
- They are full of holes (porous) so liquids easily find pathways into them, resulting in stains.
- They are soft and compress under moderate pressure, even from tiny things like the dirt on the bottom of our shoes or baking soda in a Green-It-Yourself (GIY) soft scrub.
- They dissolve in acids, such as those found in many foods – wine, coffee, soda, vinegar, some fruits– and many cleaners. (A key note for GIY-ers: Put that vinegar & water spray away. That will eat your marble.)
“But Aha!” you say. “My travertine is SEALED!” Sealant protects stone from stains but also gives a false sense of security. The stone can still easily be etched and scratched and as well as discolor. Take care.
Having heard all these do’s and don’ts before, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just hype and hysteria. I happen to have a 12” square marble tile on hand (who doesn’t?) and did some tests with what I could find in my kitchen. Root beer caused a little roughness in the polished surface. Red wine caused even more roughness and some discoloration. Vinegar was the most striking and ate a well-defined circle in the surface. The danger is real.
Let me pause here to say, I’m not anti-marble. I had the joy of seeing this phenomenal statue with my own eyes. Doesn’t it look like a breath of wind would blow those veils aside? You simply can’t make this out of granite:
It’s gorgeous. But it terrifies me from a “my-house-would-never-ever-be-clean” mindset. And that’s not even taking into consideration kids and a particularly exuberant, nose-less black dog. However, don’t let me deter you from your marble floors. I am so very glad there are people in this world who can keep delicate things beautiful. I appreciate you and what you do.
Cleaning soft stone
Prevention is of course key. Wipe up spills immediately and keep grit off floors as much as possible. Use coasters and trivets for food and beverage. Use damp mops to pick up loose dirt and lint as opposed to dragging vacuums. But at some point, you actually want to clean the stone.
Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap and Sal Suds are perfect for this because they are both alkaline. This is the opposite of acidic. An acid can etch a soft stone, but an alkaline won’t. On that pH scale from 8th grade science, this means that they have a pH above 7 (which is neutral, i.e. water). Acids have a pH below 7.
With the Castile Liquid soap, make up a bottle of my All-Purpose Castile Cleaning Spray, with 1/4 c. (60 mL) of your favorite Castile soap and 1 qt. (1 L) of water. Spray the surface and wipe with a damp microfiber cloth. For mopping, use 1/2 c. (120 mL) of Castile soap in a 3-gallon (12 L) mop bucket. Use a damp microfiber mop.
Sal Suds, a mild detergent, is also alkaline and completely safe on stone of all types. For a Sal Suds All-Purpose Spray, use 1 Tbsp. (15 mL) of Sal Suds in 1 quart (1 L) of water. For mopping, use ½ Tbsp. (7.5 mL) Sal Suds in a 3-gallon (12 L) mop bucket.
This is it. No scrubbies. No powders. Not even soft scrub gels, which are powders suspended in liquids. All of these can etch that surface. Be assured that soap is enough. It will remove the grime and germs and leave behind a clean surface.
I’m talking primarily about soft stones here, but hard stones can use a little mindful TLC as well. While the stakes are not as high, because they are not as easily affected, they still are a bit porous, etchable, and have some sensitivity to acids.
So far, I’ve talked about prevention and maintenance, and not remedies for stains and etches that have already happened. Like when your sweet neighbor set her wine glass on your marble coffee table without a coaster and you spent the evening agonizing between the rudeness of directly handing her a coaster versus the effort of fixing the problem afterwards.
Just now, I did the tiniest bit of research and there are potential remedies. There are fascinating poultices you can concoct with corn starch or baking soda (don’t rub it though) and various liquids, which you gently spread on, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit for 24 hours. The very word “poultice” sounds like I’m channeling my inner medicine woman. Happily, there are also experts you can consult to fix serious marring. I am not an expert in soft stones. Think of me more as a sign post. Check out the Natural Stone Institute.
Next time, hand your neighbor the coaster while telling her the fascinating story of how you acquired it while on an expedition to the tea hills of Sri Lanka. That’ll distract her from any perceived rudeness.
It’s strange to be talking about vinegar and baking soda like they’re some sort of nefarious mischief-makers. They are, after all, heroes of the green cleaning arsenal. But not here.
Even though marble still hurts abominably when you plow into its corner in the dark because it’s bedtime and you left your cell phone, which is your alarm clock, in the kitchen, where you’ve already turned the light off and don’t want the expense of turning it back on, and you’ve forgotten how to use the digital alarm clock on your nightstand, and if the power happened to go out, that one wouldn’t work anyway. Even considering how much that corner in the dark can hurt, something as common as vinegar and baking soda, as well as many conventional cleaning products, will mar your marble. Holster them for now, and stick with Castile Soap or Sal Suds.