How to Clean a Very Dirty Toilet

Dear Home Ec 101,
How do I clean a really gross toilet? It has all that yellow and brown crud inside that just won’t come off. I heard that pumice stones scratch the porcelain and will only make it worse in the long run.
Please HELP!
Skeeved in Skaneateles

Heather says:

Since people searching for how to clean a really dirty toilet may have a completely different type of dirt or filth in their heads, I’m going to give you the lowdown on cleaning a grimy toilet top to bottom, even though I know Skeeved is mainly interested in removing mineral deposits from the bowl. It’s also possible that the yellow-brown build-up inside the bowl is actually urine scale from *ahem* pee splashing. Either way, the remedy is the same.

Pumice stones do work, but since they have the potential to scratch vitreous china (the finish of your toilet bowl), it is a LAST resort and definitely not your first choice for cleaning, even serious mineral build-up.

Once you have scratches on the surface of your toilet’s finish, minerals have more surfaces to cling to, which causes new stains to show up faster than before.

Since Skeeved is having serious problems with mineral build-up in the bowl of the toilet, I am going to suggest a stronger acid than my usual household cleaner white vinegar. Go ahead and buy actual toilet bowl cleaner. If you purchase toilet bowl cleaner from the store, read the label very carefully to ensure the active ingredient is an acid. 

Chemistry is our friend when cleaning the house, but unintentional reactions are no fun and can be deadly. 

Longtime readers of this site know I often recommend using dilute white vinegar for cleaning, but I’m finding I’m relaxing my stance on that over the years. In the past 5 years, more and more environmentally acceptable cleaners are becoming more readily available. If I have some on hand, great. If not, mix up vinegar and water in a 50:50 ratio for general cleaning.

Learn more: Is vinegar an acceptably safe alternative for disinfecting?

Chlorine bleach is great for disinfecting but will do NOTHING to help with mineral deposits. Since we are using acid-based cleaners to clean the toilet, bleach should NOT even be in the same room. Put it away.

DO NOT to mix chlorine bleach with acidic cleaners.

So let’s get started with how to clean a very dirty toilet.

Gather into your toolkit:

  • a toilet scrub brush
  • gloves (strongly recommended)
  • an acid-based toilet bowl cleaner (Method. toilet cleaner uses lactic acid, for example)
  • a bucket of water
  • a spray bottle of diluted vinegar or your favorite all-purpose cleaner*
  • paper towels or rags—I use paper towels for toilet cleaning, it’s a personal choice, really
  • distracting music

*If you use all-purpose cleaner or vinegar this is VERY important, only spray the toilet with the lid closed, you don’t want to mix the two cleaning compounds.

Empty a bucket of water into the toilet bowl to trigger flushing without refilling the bowl or turn off the water line that runs to the toilet and flush. The goal is to empty the bowl as much as possible. We want to allow the acid that we’re going to use to work on the stains without dilution.

If you are using the kind of toilet cleaner that you squirt up under the rim, do so with a generous application, this isn’t the time to be stingy. Use the scrub brush to spread the cleaning agent evenly all over the inside of the toilet bowl. You are NOT scrubbing at this point, just applying. Try not to dip down into the remaining water in the bottom of the bowl, and then add a generous extra squirt to the bottom into the water to allow the cleaner to work there, too.

Now close the lid to the toilet and set aside the brush for the moment. We are going to give that cleaner time to work, about thirty minutes or so. Please run the ventilation fan while you are cleaning and leave the bathroom door open. Ventilation is vital.

Spray your cleaner of choice onto your rag or paper towel. Now work from the top of the tank down. Wipe down the top of the toilet tank, the handle, and the tank’s front and sides. Then wipe the top of the lid, the underside of the lid, the top of the seat, and scrub the heck out of the underside of the seat.

I generally have to switch to fresh paper towels or rinse and reapply cleaner to a rag at this point.

Now wipe the rim of the toilet and under the hinge of the seat and that aggravating place between the seat and the tank where hair just loves to collect. Ugh.

Now wipe down the sides of the bowl and don’t forget the little ledges where the bolts attach to the flooring. At this point, I generally give the flooring around the bowl a spray of cleaner and wipe it down, too. Don’t do this if you have hardwood flooring or carpet (I know, it happens) in your bathroom.

Now clean something else in the bathroom.

How about the sink or mirrors? How is your tub looking? Exactly. Just give that toilet bowl cleaner some time to work. If you leave the bathroom, be sure to let other household members know that there are chemicals in the toilet and not to use it. Or be like my teenagers and just watch videos on your phone. Who cares, it’s your life, I’m only judging if your sister needs to use the bathroom before school.

Whenever you are ready—twenty, thirty minutes later. Revisit that toilet and scrub it with the brush. Don’t forget to get that area under the rim. 

bathroom cleaning
Tips to keep your bathroom squeaky clean!

Finally, flush the toilet, allow the bowl to fill, and step back and admire your handiwork.

If you still see mineral deposits, repeat the acid treatment one more time. (Remember you only need to repeat the steps pertaining to the inside of the bowl).

You can also try using the same steps with CLR if the acidic cleaner isn’t enough.

Barkeepers Friend has a thick cleaner that may be useful for this task. Use a plunger to force as much of the water out of the toilet as possible and apply the BKF to the inside of the entire toilet bowl. 

If the stains still remain, it may be time to give in and use a pumice stone. 

Have fun?

How to clean a very dirty toilet.

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38 thoughts on “How to Clean a Very Dirty Toilet”

  1. Thanks so much. I’m going to try this on my really gross toilet.

    OFF TOPIC: I do have a request on your website. Could you please make the font a little darker. It’s hard to read with my old eyes.

    thanks again

    • I agree! So many websites have pale fonts or similar color font and background. Enlarging the font with control + helps in some cases. Sometimes I copy the post out to Notepad, which is easy to read so it really annoys me when they won’t let you right click. So I just go on to the next site in that case 😀

      This was a good post, though. I didn’t know flushing the toilet with a bucket wouldn’t refill it.

  2. Ok so I skipped ahead after all else failed and used a pumice stone, but now it gets worse and worse. I emptied the tank and soaked it with vinegar, the. Borax and vinegar. I still used the pumice to get rid of most but there are a few spots that are out of reach, along with the drain, they look horrible and I’m close to tossing in the towel and begging for a new toilet. Is there anyone out there who has used a pumice stone and found a way to keep the scale from coming back? I might try done petroleum to try the fill the scratches. Oh how I hate hard water/U rube scale.

    • I just used lime away to clean my very disgusting toilet and that worked. just spray it around the inner rim of the bowl where the water comes out and trow some in the water in the bowl. use the brush to evenly distribute and mix into the water and then leave to for a bit, the wait time may vary and you may need several applications but so far its the only thing that’s worked. I used harpic before but it only removed a portion of the mineral deposit and not all of it. I’m almost back to a white bowl. hope this helps

  3. I live with delivered water so we dont flush every time, so as a result the stains build up. Is there something i could use when i dont flush that would work to help keep the stains down? Hope this makes sense. Water is becoming much more scarse it seems. Suggestions please.

    • I’d also like to know this. The water bill is super high so we try to conserve water where we can. @_@ hence the reason I found this page…

  4. I know this sounds elementary but I can’t get the toilet to flush with just pouring tons of water in the bowl. It seems to suck down just enough gradually. So what am I missing? It never triggers a flush so I can get to the bowl without water in it.


    • I used to have occasional backups in the toilet, where it wouldn’t flush the matter down, but just raise the toilet water almost to overflowing. Eeks! And, yes, it did overflow occasionally until I figured a way to superflush that beast!

      This suggestion is for after the plunger hasn’t worked.

      I fill the garbage/trash pail that I keep in the bathroom (it’s a plastic one) with water, probably 1 1/2 gallons. Don’t fill it past 3/4 full. Lift the toilet seat, stand tall, hold the pail as high as you can and dump all the water at once into the bowl. Try to aim directly for the hole at the bottom of the bowl.

      Do not ever do this immediately after the toilet water has risen! It would be best to do the water dump when the water level in the bowl has subsided as low as it will go.

      It’s only water, clean water, that you’re pouring. That’s very important to remember, since there’s almost always a little extra splash as you tip the pail and get your aim right. It takes a little practice, so keep in mind, it’s clean water you’re dumping.

      When I say dump, I mean, empty all the water, all at once, quickly, in one swift move, right into the very bottom of the bowl. Notice I didn’t say “pour”, but used the term “dump” because it’s quite a different action!

      You’re on your own at that moment to empty the pail, and Lord willing, it’ll work! I’ve used this method even after my husband plunged without success.

      My best wishes for your success!

      • I was told by a drain cleaning guy that 50% of their calls for clogged/slow flushing toilets are because of “flushable” wipes. They also cause problems in city sewer lines, which were built for toilet paper that dissolves, (note “flushable” but not “dissolvable”. Heck, my kids used to find **lots** of stuff that was flushable) not toilet wipes. “Flushable” always struck me as being in the same category as “Up to 75% off, which means anything from zero on up.

  5. OK, here’s a real geek tip for chiseling without scratching: electronic circuit boards. I had to remove hard water deposits from glass so grabbed an old stick of RAM from a dead computer. The circuit board was made of poly and fiberglass thus assuring a hard surface, which would not scratch. Almost any small electronics printed circuit board (PCB) can work well. For rust and scale accumulations at the water line in toilet bowl, use short strokes moving toward the drain. This breaks loose deposits quite well. Be green when you can. Aloha

  6. I know I am late to the party, but I want to say that my mom is one of those people who cleaned a rarely-used toilet and and left bleach in it. My mom tends to overdo the concentration of cleaner anyway, and on top of that, the toilet hadn’t been used since she last dumped about a half bottle in it. Fast forward to a few months later, and dear ol’ mom had switched to ammonia. Yes.

    She called me at work, and between gasps for air told me what happened. I immediately picked her up and took her to the emergency clinic. It was winter; she had managed to get the windows and doors open to air out the fumes. The bathroom was on the second floor, but even with the cold wind blowing through, the fumes still seemed toxic.

    It took my mother months to recover from the chemical pneumonia.

    • I’m glad she’s okay now, but I’m so very sorry she had such a hard lesson. Home Chemistry experiments are fun, but ONLY when they are expected and controlled. . .
      Also? This party never ends, you’re always welcome here.

  7. We bought a house this summer and it was really dirty.  Clorox and lysol toilet cleaners that I normal use would not touch the urine scale that were inside the toilet.  I bought the works because it is cheap.  I let it sit for an hour the first go round and almost everything came off!  Went back a second time leaving the works on for maybe 20 minutes and there is only a couple spots that I think I just need smaller brush to get to.  Thank you for your suggestion!

  8. I lived in an area where the water was so hard, rocks practically came out of the faucet. In order to clean the toilet, I had to use Lime A Way or CLR. When the deposits build up, sometimes green doesn’t work! Don’t know how green Lime A Way or CLR are, but boy, they worked! The Works toilet bowl cleaner works well, too, but not as good as Lime A Way or CLR. Found in all grocery stores. The main ingredient is Sulfamic Acid, and they recommend you leave the lip UP when you use it. I found that a monthly cleaning of it, after you do a major zap, will take care of future mineral stains, as long as you clean your toilet regularly. And make sure you don’t have a bleach tablet in your tank whenever you use something like this!

  9. This is very timely because just yesterday I realized that I hadn’t paid any attention to a toilet that never gets used in a very long time, and discovered it was heavily mineraled and mildewed, so I had a big cleaning job to deal with. I have used the Works cleaner and it is OK, about the same as LimeAway but a lot cheaper. I prefer Mrs. Meyer’s brand, but it has gotten hard to find lately. It is heavy, thick, sticky, and doesn’t fume. A good squirt, a few hours, and the minerals wiped off with only one spot that required scrubbing.

    I lived for most of my life in an area that may have the hardest water on the planet, San Antonio, Texas. It never failed that apartments and houses all had severely scaled toilets. I learned that sometimes the only really effective way to remove a heavy scale buildup is to chip it off. I found that using a stainless steel implement like an old teaspoon or butter knife is an ideal “no scratch” scraper. Don’t lean on it; light pressure and repetition will do. It will sometimes leave light marks that look like pencil, but these clean away with a little elbow grease and some scrubbing powder. Another trick I use when cleaning a really crusty loo is to start by plungering out as much water as possible…it lets you clean the water line and reuse your solution without it being too diluted to work.

    Also remember that if the bowl is that bad, your tank is going to be worse. You can significantly extend the life of your toilets by flushing right before you go to bed or leave for work and pouring a gallon of vinegar into the tank as the toilet is refilling…then let it sit for hours. When you get back, you can wipe out the tank with a scrubby and most of the crud will be gone. I do this quarterly and it really helps.

    After you have a clean toilet, it’s relatively easy to keep it clean by just giving it a few seconds of daily attention. I just spray the bowl with some Lysol, swish with a brush, spray more Lysol on a pad of toilet paper, wipe the whole toilet down, toss the paper in and flush. My biggest frustrations tend to be splashes on the underside of the seat and stuff that runs down the front. I’m sorry hubby, but from a structural point of view, you must be responsible for this. Girls can’t miss that way. Not that this argument will ever get him to do any actual toilet cleaning… ;o)

  10. I heard somewhere, I think it was on ‘how clean is your house’ that soaking loo roll in cheap lemonade and caking the sides with it like papier mâché, then leaving it for an hour or two, can work in extreme situations.

  11. I was actually getting ready to email you a similar question. I hae what I thought was scratches (but am now thinking may be mineral deposits) on the bottom part of my toilet bowl – you know that part where the GI Joe’s that the kiddos drop in go. (With 3 kids i’m sure Heather never had that problem right?) I will try this and see if it makes a difference. I have a bi-weekly cleaning lady and I’m usually pretty good about swishing some cleaner around in there on the off weeks.

  12. I have heard that using a red brick on mineral deposits works like a pumice stone, but is softer than the finish of the bowl so it will not scratch the toilet.

  13. When we moved into our rental, we had the same issues: scrub and scrub and it never loosens or comes clean. My husband found this stuff at a dollar store called The Works toilet bowl cleanser. It was dirt cheap and worked so well. He’d tried everything–including some stuff he bought from Lowes –commercial quality acidic toilet bowl cleanser, but that didn’t work as well or as efficiently as The Works. Not green, but really good!

    • @joyesb thanks for the suggestion! I’m sure Skeeved will appreciate it. Today is another day I’m thankful to not have to deal with hard water.

    • @joyesb The Works is wonderful. I use it all the time because our water is very hard and leaves terrible stains. It really does work!

    • @joyesb I also use The Works. Be very careful with it though… It will create noxious fumes, especially when coming into contact with rust stains, as it is hydrochloric acid.

      • @KimClemmer and here’s where we remind people to ALWAYS follow label directions and make sure the area is well ventilated.

        People, that means opening a window (if there is one) running the fan, or if that isn’t an option, bring a fan (use an extension cord if you have to, into the room.


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