Protecting Floors from Salt in the Winter

Mop on wood floor

As the winter months approach, salt use significantly increases. As reported by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), highway de-icing accounts for 43 percent of total manufactured salt. By comparison, food processing only accounts for four percent. While the Salt Institute maintains that road salt reduces crashes by 88 percent and injuries by 85 percent, the bad news is that it increases damage to the surfaces of vehicles, roads and floors that get a lot of foot traffic.

With winter comes the holiday season, which means an increase in foot traffic in stores all across the country. In areas with cold winters, that foot traffic brings the salt from the roads into stores and businesses. Without proper cleaning of commercial floors in the winter, it can have a negative impact on all different types of flooring.

Signs of Damage Caused by Winter Salt

Let’s assume you know salt can cause damage and should be cleaned, but what are the signs of damage you should be looking for on the floor surface? The most obvious will probably be discoloration, but as you get closer, chances are good you’ll notice several other signs as well:

  • Discoloration and stains: One of the first signs of salt is discoloration. Usually it comes in the form of a white outline or cluster of salt, perhaps mixed with water from melted snow. If it’s partially mixed with the slush and mud from outside, it could be mixed with darker colors. Regardless, it leaves floors looking dirty and stained — not something you want in your business or your home.
  • Scratches: If your floor has a finish on it, chances are good it’s no match for rock salt. When salt is brought in from the outside on the bottoms of shoes, it acts like sandpaper on floors. It may begin as smaller scratches that are tough to see from a distance, but before you know it, floors are left with imperfections of all shapes and sizes.
  • Removed or worn-down finish: Those scratches — visible and not so visible — are also penetrating your floor’s finish, leaving it dull and damaged. Even without that friction of dragging rock salt over flooring, the salt still eats away at the finish. Refinishing options are available, but once the salt has damaged the finish on your floor, it leaves it susceptible to soaking up a variety of other substances that could damage it even more, such as water.
  • Drying-out: Just like the salt we use in our food, road salt dries out materials. In the midst of a snowstorm, it may not be as obvious, since it will be on your floor. As it pulls the moisture from your floor, it can leave it dried out and susceptible to further signs of damage.

Signs of salt damage to floors

Surfaces Commonly Damaged by Salt

You’ll likely notice one or more of these types of damage on a variety of surfaces in the winter — including but not limited to floors, vehicles and clothing. With the heavy use of salt on roadways, it’s no surprise our cars are affected. In addition to the visible white stains we notice, salt gets caked on the undercarriage of our vehicles, which can contribute to rusting. Clothing and shoes also frequently come in contact with salt on roads, driveways and sidewalks. They too often end up with discoloration and other frustrating damage.

Floors also take a beating from salt. It’s easy to see why salt damage is most common in areas with high foot traffic, like retail store floors, garage floors, office floors, hotel and restaurant floors and anywhere else people frequently come and go. While the high amount of foot traffic may be good for business, it may not be so good for your floors.

How to Protect Commercial Floors From Salt Damage

The good news is, you don’t have to sit back and watch the damage occur before you can begin cleaning up after it. There are proactive steps you can take to protect commercial floors from salt damage regardless of what type of floor you have. The three we recommend are daily cleaning, entrance mats and resealing the floor.

  • Perform regular cleaning: It may seem like a no-brainer, but simply cleaning commercial floors at least once daily in the winter can have a huge impact. Each time you clean, you remove any salt granules and residue that have accumulated over the course of the day. By doing that, you’re able to prevent salt stains from building up and remove pieces of salt that may scratch the floor and remove its finish.
  • Install entrance mats: Regardless of what the entranceway of your business looks like year-round, consider adding an entrance mat or two right outside the door. By placing mats at the entrance of your business, you can capture quite a bit of salt and dirt even before customers step foot inside your business.
  • Reseal the floors: Another way you can proactively protect your floors against salt is by resealing them annually, if applicable. There is a wide variety of commercial floor types — everything from hardwood to carpet. Sealing isn’t an option for carpet, but for hardwood floors, tile and grout and a variety of others, there is a sealing process that can protect floors from a variety of damaging substances, including salt. Just make sure you thoroughly clean the surface before you reseal it — failure to do so could result in sealing the salt and other debris in, which could end up causing even more damage.

How to protect floors from salt damage

How to Remove Salt Stains From Floors

Unfortunately, sometimes, despite our best efforts to protect our floors, we end up with salt stains which can damage floors permanently. While a simple rinse of your car and brush of your clothing may help alleviate the damage from salt, cleaning salt from commercial floors in the winter is a little more complex and the technique varies depending on the type of floor.

Overall, two things remain the same: it’s important to note that cleaning up salt is different than cleaning up dirt. Salt has a different pH level than dirt, and so if you attempt to clean it using regular household cleaners, you’ll only succeed in spreading it around. The salt residue is sticky, too, so not only will you spread it around, but it will also attract dirt, which will only make things worse.

The second thing that’s consistent regardless of what type of floor you have is that you should spot-test cleaners if you’re unsure how the cleaning will affect your flooring. To spot-test, just follow the directions for your type of flooring below on a small section of flooring that isn’t very visible to ensure it doesn’t discolor or otherwise damage the floor.

How to Remove Salt Stains from Hardwood Floors

Before you begin, it’s important to know that this cleaning recommendation is for hardwood floors that are sealed. If you aren’t sure whether or not your hardwood floors are sealed, or have been resealed recently, don’t forget to spot test before you clean a large area.

What you’ll need:

  • Vacuum
  • Gloves
  • Microfiber mop or towel (or paper towels)
  • Bucket
  • White vinegar
  • Water

Step 1: Vacuum the Floors

The first step is to vacuum or sweep the salt off hardwood floors. Unfortunately, this won’t have much of an effect on the salt stains that have already appeared. However, it will ensure that the hardwood floor surface is clean from any other salt particles that could negatively impact your cleaning efforts.

Salt stains have a different pH

Step 2: Mix Your Neutralizing Cleaning Solution

Next, it’s time to tackle removing salt stains from wood floors. Before you do, remember that salt stains have a different pH than dirt and need to be treated accordingly. Failure to purchase or create your neutralizing cleaner could result in your spreading the salt and all the damage that comes with it.

If you want to make your own, the key is white vinegar. Simply mix one cup of white vinegar in three gallons of warm water.

Step 3: Apply Solution to the Floor

Once you’ve mixed the solution, put your gloves on and apply some of the solution to the stained area of your hardwood floor. Let it sit for about 15 to 20 minutes. Be sure not to soak the area, as this could cause damage to the floors – some people use a spray bottle to evenly mist the area with the solution.

Step 4: Use a Soft Mop or Cloth

It’s ideal to use microfiber to clean, as it’s a soft surface that will be less likely to scratch your hardwood floors. It can be a microfiber mop or cloth. Don’t have one on hand? Use paper towels instead. Mop or wipe up all of the liquid until the floor is dry. Repeat as necessary.

How to Remove Salt Stains from Tile

Tile can be tough to clean due to the uneven surface and the grout in between the tiles. Fortunately, you can remove salt from tile flooring pretty easily as long as you use the right cleaning tools.

What you’ll need:

  • Vacuum
  • Gloves
  • Microfiber mop or towel (or paper towels)
  • Bucket
  • White vinegar
  • Water
  • Soft-bristled scrub brush (optional)

Step 1: Vacuum or Sweep the Floors

First of all, you need to remove all of the excess salt from the tile flooring so you aren’t just pushing the salt around. Once you feel like you’ve captured a majority of the excess salt, you can get started.

Household cleaners won't work on salt stains

Step 2: Mix Your Neutralizing Cleaning Solution

Don’t forget that regular household cleaners won’t work to clean salt stains. Instead, combine one cup of vinegar with one gallon of warm water in a bucket. It’s not just more effective — it’s also budget-friendly.

Step 3: Mop the Salt Stains or Clean With a Cloth

Using a mop or cloth, depending on how big the stained area is, spread the solution over the stained areas, scrubbing as needed to remove the salt stains from the tile flooring. Make sure you continue to occasionally dip the mop or cloth back into the solution and wring it out to ensure you aren’t saturating the mop or cloth with salt as you clean. Don’t forget to wear gloves to protect your skin from the cleaning solution.

If you find that the grout has been badly effective you may want to use a soft-bristled scrub brush to clean the grout.

Step 4: Clean the Mop and Rinse

Once you’ve had a chance to remove all of the salt stains using the cleaning solution, dump the solution and rinse the mop or cloth. Then, fill a bucket up with warm water and mop or wipe the floor with the water to rinse the remaining salt and vinegar residue from the tile floor.

Step 5: Allow the Area to Air-dry or Use an Air Mover

After you’re finished rinsing, wipe dry with a cloth or let the area air-dry. If the floor cannot be left to air dry – for example, if your business is open 24/7 – then it is a good idea to use a floor drying air mover to speed up the drying process to prevent any slips or falls. Wet tile can be extremely slippery, which poses a safety hazard for your business.

How to Remove Salt Stains from Carpet

The tough part about cleaning salt stains from carpet is that the salt particles have more places to hide and can be tougher to reach. Failing to remove all of the salt particles before cleaning can turn your attempt at cleaning into making even more of a mess.

What you’ll need:

  • Vacuum
  • Gloves
  • Spray bottle
  • Clean sponge
  • White vinegar
  • Water

Step 1: Vacuum Carpet Thoroughly

It’s so important to be thorough in your vacuuming. Move in all different directions and over the same sections of carpet multiple times. The reason is that any salt particles that are left hiding among the threads in your carpet will turn into new stains when they become wet from your cleaning solution. Make an extra effort to double- and triple-check the salt-stained areas of your carpet to ensure you’ve got every last piece of salt.

Vacuum thoroughly

Step 2: Mix Your Neutralizing Cleaning Solution

When it comes to carpet, the ratio is easy to remember: one part white vinegar and one part water. This will give you a solution that cuts through the salt. Once you have it mixed, put it into a spray bottle. If the smell of vinegar bothers you, add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to lessen the blow.

Step 3: Spray the Solution on the Salt Stains

Spray the solution over all of the salt stains. Make sure they’re covered. Once you’ve sprayed them all, let the solution soak in for 15 to 20 minutes. This is important because the solution needs time to break down the salt particles.

Step 4: Blot the Area Dry With a Sponge

Put on your gloves to protect your skin from the cleaning solution and begin to blot the affected areas with a clean sponge, scrubbing very gently, if needed, to remove the stains. If you want to rinse, once the area is dry you can take a clean, damp sponge over the area and then blot it dry.

If you can still see stains, repeat steps three and four as necessary to remove the salt. While you can gently scrub, it’s important not to scrub very much, as this can push the salt deeper into the carpet.

Step 5: Dry Thoroughly with a Floor Drying Fan

Use a carpet drying air mover to make sure that they floor dries completely. This helps to prevent mold from growing in the carpet and keeps excess dirt and debris from getting stuck to the damp area.

Use a carpet drying air mover

How to Remove Salt Stains From Concrete Floors

You may assume salt stains could be removed from concrete floors indoors or outdoors by using a pressure washer. Unfortunately, even adding pressure to water won’t take away the effects of salt. Instead, it can have the opposite effect: pushing the salt deeper into the porous concrete. Instead, try cleaning following the instructions below.

What you’ll need:

  • Gloves
  • Stiff deck brush
  • Wet/dry vac or mop
  • Bucket
  • White vinegar
  • Dish soap
  • Water

Step 1: Sweep Your Concrete Floor Thoroughly With a Broom

The first step is to assess the salt stains themselves. To do that, you need to clean the surface so it’s free of other dirt and particles. Begin by sweeping your concrete floor thoroughly as you would if you were normally cleaning it.

Step 2: Mix Your Neutralizing Cleaning Solution

Don’t forget: as with the other cleaning processes outlined here, it’s important not to expect cleaning salt stains to work with your regular cleaning supplies. Mix one cup of vinegar and a squirt of dish soap with one gallon of warm water to create your solution.

Wear gloves

Step 3: Apply the Solution and Scrub With a Stiff Deck Brush

Wear gloves to protect your skin. Then, apply the solution to the stained areas and scrub them clean with a stiff deck brush. Depending on how severe the stains are, you might need to repeat this step. Once you’ve scrubbed, you’ll end up with a film of salt residue.

Step 4: Remove Residue With Wet/Dry Vac or Mop

To ensure that the residue doesn’t make it way back into the pores of your concrete floor, vacuum it up with a wet/dry vac. If you don’t have a wet/dry vac, a mop will work — it just isn’t as effective at removing all of the residue.

Step 5: Rinse Thoroughly

Once you’ve scrubbed all of the salt stains and vacuumed the residue, it’s time to rinse. Rinse the entire area thoroughly to remove any remnants of salt that remain after scrubbing and vacuuming the affected areas.

If you finish and you’ve got a few stubborn salt stains that won’t disappear despite your best efforts, you can substitute a stronger solution by mixing one part hydrochloric acid with 20 parts water.

How to Remove Salt Stains From Laminate Floors

Since laminate floors aren’t as fragile as hardwood floors, you can use a more potent mixture and won’t have to worry as much about scratching the surface. It’s still a good idea to minimize the amount of salt you have on the surface before you clean, however — we’ve included that in step one.

What you’ll need:

  • Vacuum
  • Gloves
  • Microfiber mop or towel (or paper towels)
  • Mop
  • Bucket
  • White vinegar
  • Water

Step 1: Vacuum the Floors

During this initial step, you’ll clear any excess salt particles so you can focus on the stains you have on your laminate flooring. This also ensures that you won’t be dragging salt around as you clean, potentially scratching the surface of your floor.

Step 2: Mix Your Neutralizing Cleaning Solution

Since the pH of salt is different than dirt, regular household cleaners won’t work. Instead, you’ll want to mix one part white vinegar and one part warm water together to make your neutralizing cleaning solution.

Step 3: Apply the Solution to the Salt Stains

Put on your gloves to protect your skin. Then, apply the solution of vinegar and warm water to the salt stains on your laminate flooring with a mop or cloth. If there are stubborn stains, let the solution sit on them for a few minutes to loosen the salt.

Step 4: Wipe Away

Once you’ve applied the solution with a mop or cloth, wipe away the solution. Repeating the application of the solution as needed to remove tough stains.

Step 5: Use Dish Soap If Needed

If the white vinegar and water mixture doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, you can add a small amount of dish soap to another bucket of warm water and use that to cut through the stains.

Step 6: Rinse With Water

Once you’ve removed the stains using the solution and the dish soap, rinse the area with clean water using a clean mop or cloth. Be careful not to soak the floor, as an excess of water can cause laminate flooring to warp.

Step 7: Hand-Dry With a Cloth

Once you’ve finished rinsing, hand-dry the floor with a cloth to make sure there is no excess moisture that could seep down into the laminate flooring and cause it to become distorted.

You can also use an air mover to speed up the process and prevent slips and falls.

Salt stain damage awareness

Be Proactive and Prepared

Regardless of what types of flooring you have, being aware of the signs of salt damage and being proactive in protecting and cleaning your floors can make a big difference. While the cleaning methods vary depending on the type of floor you have, the secret to removing salt is white vinegar.

Foot traffic doesn’t have to be a burden during the winter as long as you’re equipped with the right cleaning knowledge and the right tools to protect your floors.