How to Clean Soap Scum

A faucet covered in soap scum.

Soap scum is generally considered to be fairly innocuous. Nothing more than a minor…well, major annoyance. And in truth, that’s really all it is. However, it’s far more disgusting than most people give it credit for. That crusty, scaly buildup is composed of much more than just dried soap. Soap scum is a sedimentary mass of soap, hard water deposits, dirt, body oil, dead skin cells, dust, talc, paraffin, mildew and more. Yummy.

This is another one of those instances where my having lived in squalor through my college years is going to benefit you. If all of the different cheap rental properties I’ve lived in had one thing in common, it was old nasty bathrooms. Bathrooms with decades-old soap scum deposited by countless tenants with completely unknown levels of filthiness. If we had ever drilled a core sample from the soap scum found in any one of those old bathrooms and examined its contents, I can say with utter certainty that our findings would have induced hysteric bouts of projectile vomiting. Luckily for you (and me), I concentrated my efforts on learning how to clean soap scum rather than on examining it. And since I was poor, I learned how to do it with things I already had in the house. Not only did that make the soap scum cleaning process extremely cheap, it also worked remarkably well and taught me that cleaning soap scum in no way required scary chemicals.

How to Remove Soap Scum

  1. spraying shower headStart by making it easier to clean soap scum. The first thing you should do before attempting to remove soap scum from shower surfaces is to take a nice, long, hot shower. The heat and humidity will soften the soap scum and make it easier to remove. I know this is wasteful, but if you don’t want to shower, just set the water as hot as possible and run the shower for fifteen minutes with the bathroom door shut. After you’re all clean, dry and clothed (or the fifteen minutes is up), look carefully for areas with thick soap scum buildup. If you find areas like that, use a putty knife to gently scrape away the top layers. Be extremely careful not to gouge or scratch the tub.
  2. baking soda pasteAdvance to baking soda. Once you’ve scraped the worst of the soap scum away, it’s time to move on to phase two. In this step, you start by making yourself a nice big bowl of baking soda paste. There’s nothing tricky about it: dump a bunch of baking soda into a bowl and slowly add water, while stirring, until the goop in the bowl reaches the consistency of toothpaste. The amount you make will depend on the size of the job. If you’re doing the entire tub, make a lot. If it’s just a small section, make a little. Once it’s ready, use a soft sponge to rub the paste onto the tub surface and let it sit for 30 minutes.
  3. Vinegar and spray bottlePrepare your homemade soap scum cleaner. During the half an hour that the baking soda paste is sitting and working on your tub surface, you might as well do something useful. After about twenty minutes has passed, start making your soap scum remover. This is a very simple recipe. Pour two cups of plain white vinegar in a pitcher and microwave it for about 45 seconds. Once it’s all warmed up, pour it into a clean spray bottle and click your heels together three times.
  4. Scrubbing with a spongeContinue with soap scum removal. The time has come for getting serious about removing soap scum. First, using a damp sponge, gently scrub with circular motions over all the areas covered with the slightly abrasive baking soda paste. Then grab your bottle of soap scum remover, i.e. warm vinegar. Spray this soap scum cleaner all over the areas you’re cleaning, let it sit for a couple minutes while the baking soda and vinegar combination fizzes away, then start scrubbing with your sponge in the same manner as before. Start at the top and work your way down. The fizzing action loosens the scum’s grip, making less elbow grease necessary for cleaning soap scum from shower and tub surfaces. Once you’ve done all the scrubbing you intend to do, grab either the pitcher you used for heating your cleaner or a shower head with a hose, if you have one, and start rinsing. Once rinsed, quickly dry the shower/tub surfaces thoroughly.
  5. Bottle of Clabber GirlHow to clean soap scum off shower doors. Remember how you made the baking soda paste earlier? Now do the same thing with corn starch. Once you have your paste, smear it onto the shower doors and scrub gently with a sponge. Once the entire surface has been scrubbed, wipe all of the corn starch off with a damp rag or two. Next, rinse the doors with either the shower head or a pitcher of water. Finally, using a liberal amount of straight white vinegar, spray the shower doors down and wipe them off with a your rag of choice. If you want—and I recommend it—once your shower doors are dry, apply a water repellent. This will help to keep soap and minerals in the water from collecting on your shower doors. While a product like Rain-X works well for this, I strongly recommend using G-Glass Rain Repellent from Green Earth Technologies.
  6. Shower SqueegeeAvoid heavy soap scum buildup. In all honesty, cleaning soap scum isn’t much fun. It’s not difficult, but depending on the severity of the problem, it can take awhile. This is why I mentioned earlier that you should completely dry your tub after it’s clean. Once it’s dry, apply some pure carnauba automotive wax to it. This will allow water and soap to bead off of the walls and go down the drain instead of building up in your shower. Just be sure to not wax the floor or you’ll end up reenacting that commercial where the old lady falls down and can’t get up. Also, keep a small squeegee in the shower and squeegee it off after every use. It will only add about a minute and a half to your routine. Finally, now that you’ve done a very thorough job cleaning soap scum, keep the shower looking nice: wipe it down once a week with straight white vinegar and a terry cloth towel.

More Soap Scum Cleaning Tips

With a little research on the subject of how to clean soap scum off of showers, tubs, and shower doors, I ran into numerous suggestions that came highly recommended. These are just a few of them that I thought might be useful.

  • Never use harsh abrasives such as steel wool, Brillo Pads, sandpaper, etc. for cleaning soap scum. These items can leave scratches and gouges on the surface of your tub or shower. Soap scum will collect in these gouges and make future cleanings more difficult.
  • Spray your shower and shower doors down with warm vinegar, let it sit for 20-30 minutes, wipe it off, and repeat if desired.
  • Clean heavy soap scum build up with a damp, balled-up mesh onion bag dipped in baking soda.
  • Adding Epsom salt to your bathwater helps to keep soap and hard water minerals from depositing on your tub.
  • Use a powdered dishwasher detergent such as Seventh Generation for cleaning soap scum.
  • Use Borax to clean soap scum.
  • A pumice stone is said to work well for removing soap scum.
  • Rubbing alcohol, a rag and some elbow grease work well for cleaning soap scum off of shower doors.

Organic Soap Scum Cleaners

EcoDiscoveries has a wide array of green cleaning products, including their Tub & Tile Soap Scum Remover. This product is safe and organic, and works wonders for cleaning soap scum. It is made from filtered water, coconut-based surfactants and organic salts. Use it on a variety of surfaces, including, but not limited to, porcelain, enamel, plastic, grout, vinyl, glass and fiberglass.

Simple Green Lime Scale Remover is another fine example of the green cleaning expertise provided by the fine people at Simple Green. Not only does it remove lime scale as the name implies, it will also remove soap scum safely and effectively. You can order jugs of Simple Green Lime Scale Remover from Amazon.

Lemon oil has also been said to be a good soap scum remover. It is available in its pure form from most any natural food store or food co-op. Simply pour a little onto a rag, wipe it onto the soap scum, let it work its magic for about twenty minutes, wipe it and the soap scum away, and rinse.