Photo by Dustin Aksland, courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts

Let’s face it: Grout and caulk is not a sexy subject. But if you have tile in your home, you have grout—and some of the issues aren’t pretty. To help us out, we sought the gentle guidance of Barbara Sallick, cofounder and senior vice president of design for the kitchen and bath brand Waterworks and author of The Perfect Bath, who holds firm opinions about these matters and isn’t afraid to express them.

Photo by Sarah Elliott

Both grout and caulk are used around tile, but they’re not related, says Sallick. “Grout is the material that spans the crevices between the tiles and makes the whole installation waterproof. It’s a natural product, generally made of ground-up sand and cement mixed with water."

Photo by Liesa Johannssen

"Caulk, on the other hand, is usually silicone-based, and it’s flexible. Typically, you lay down a bead of caulk along the joint between, say, a tiled wall and a countertop or bathtub, to make the intersection completely watertight.”

Photo by Michael Persico

To prevent stains, mold, and calcium buildup, particularly on grout, Sallick has three basic pieces of advice: Seal, clean, and ventilate.

Photo courtesy of Solveig Fernlund Design and Neil Logan Architect

Photo by Neeve Woodward, courtesy of Katie Lockhart Studio

“After it’s installed, the grout must be sealed to make it waterproof,” she says. “Your tile installer will know to do this—and if he doesn’t, you’d best fire him instantly.”

Photo by Matthew Williams for Dwell Magazine

Regular cleaning is a must to properly maintain grout and caulk. “I make sure my shower has a good bath once a week,” says Sallick; the same goes for grout in the kitchen.

Photo via Joanna Laajisto Creative Studio

Lastly, proper ventilation is key. “Especially in a bathroom, you need to have air circulating. That means leaving the shower door open, cracking a window, or turning on the fan. The tile and grout need to dry out after the shower or tub has been used.”

Photo by Dustin Aksland, courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts

Sallick's best news: “You shouldn’t have a problem with your grout for at least 15 years if it’s been properly installed and you’ve kept it clean and sealed. Grout is not an everyday thing that you need to think about.” In sum: Do your due diligence, but don’t let it keep you up at night.