Tile comes in an amazingly wide variety of materials and colors. One popular choice for flooring and bathroom walls is travertine. It is a building material that has been used for thousands of years; in fact the Colosseum in Rome was constructed from travertine. Although it is durable and attractive, the softness of travertine (relative to other natural stones), and it’s rough, porous surface texture make it one of the more difficult stones to keep clean. Travertine tiles in a shower can be especially challenging.
The first thing to do is make sure that the travertine has had sealer applied. If not, get a good quality travertine sealer product and put it on your tiles according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
This will help prevent staining, but the tile will still need cleaning. Don’t believe all the claims the sealer manufacturers make. The sealant will actually have more of an effect on the grout.
Travertine is a sedimentary rock formed of calcium carbonate, and as a base, is the chemical opposite of an acid material. Therefore, cleaning with acidic products such as vinegar is not recommended.
Acids will cause etching of your travertine. What happens is the acid in the vinegar eats away at the calcium carbonate in the stone, producing small scratches that make a dull spot on the travertine where dirt and grime is attracted and absorbed. This etching reaction is nearly instantaneous, no matter how much water you dilute the vinegar with. A penetrating sealant can limit the acid from penetrating deeply into the stone, so that etching remains superficial and can be buffed out, but this is not a viable solution.
The best way to clean travertine is with a quality cleaner that is neutral in pH. You can use a mild liquid dishwashing soap, like Dawn, but make sure it is plain, with no fancy additives or “freshening” aromas.
For a little more money and peace of mind, there are stone cleaning products which will do the job safely and efficiently. A couple of examples are Dupont Stone and Tile Cleaner or TileLab Grout and Tile Cleaner. MB-3 and MB-9 from MB Stone Care are also highly recommended by many stone restoration experts. These will cut through dirt and soap scum without causing etch or otherwise damaging your travertine.
If you don’t want to spend a lot of time cleaning your travertine, there a few preventative care steps you can take. For your shower tiles, get a squeegee and give the walls a good wipe down after each shower.
In fact, this is a good tip for all types of shower tiles; it sure beats scrubbing soap scum out of grout lines, and it will prevent any mold and mildew buildup. Alternately, give everyone in the family two towels, one for drying themselves off after a shower and one for drying off the travertine in the shower walls.
The same goes for travertine flooring. Be vigilant about any mud and dirt tracked into the house; have a strict Take Your Shoes Off at the Front Door policy. Clean up any dirty shoeprints as fast as possible. Prevention goes a long way with travertine. Natural stone floors, though beautiful, have qualites that make them hard to finish, polish and clean, particularly travertine, with its air pockets, roughness and pores.
Travertine flooring should always be sealed with a penetrating sealer. Finish coat sealers that work on other types of stone flooring are not suitable for this type of stone. Travertine varies by grade, density and porosity; it is available honed or in a natural state of finish. Cleaning, polishing and sealing methods need to be carefully matched to the stone.