Chemistry of Cleaning

Jan 04, 2023

The Basics of Cleaning Agents


Cleaning agents or hard- surface cleaners are chemical compounds that are used to breakdown and/ or remove contaminants.

Surfactants are vital to cleaning agents and their effectiveness to clean surfaces by removing build up that facilitates and harbors microbial growth such as dirt, grease, and food residue.

The word "surfactant" can be broken down into three words - "surface-active-agent” because it literally helps water lift, capture, and remove contaminants from surfaces.

 Most cleaning agents contain at least some surfactants, but not all of them have surfactants as their most active ingredients.

Examples of Surfactant based cleaning agents are Multipurpose Cleaners, Laundry Detergents, and Dish Soap.

Corrosive Cleaning Agents

Corrosives are chemical substances that are highly reactive and have the power to eat away or corrode contaminants, surfaces, living tissue, or most other common materials, by chemical reaction. They are usually extreme on the pH scale, either alkaline or acidic.

Corrosives are used to facilitate the cleaning process, eating away organic contaminants such as stains, bacteria, viruses, and/or mold, as well as inorganic contaminants such as mineral deposits (hard water buildup).

 When choosing what type of corrosive cleaning agent to use, you will FIRST need to identify what surface is being cleaned. Then you will need to identify what type of contaminants are being addressed.

Some surfaces are highly sensitive to certain types, or all corrosives, so it’s very important to always choose what is best for a particular surface before cleaning. We will go into more detail on the identification of corrosives, surfaces, and contaminants later on in this lesson.

It is also important to note that there are many multipurpose cleaners that contain both surfactants and corrosives, such as Windex and Clorox multipurpose cleaners.

Many common disinfectants are also considered corrosive, such as Bleach and Ammonia.

Examples of Corrosive Cleaning Agents are Toilet Bowl Cleaners, Oven Cleaners, Lime Away, CLR, Bleach, Ammonia, and Vinegar.


Dry/Powder Cleaning Agents

Limestone, feldspar and/or baking soda are often the main ingredients in these products and help facilitate breaking down contaminants on a surface or object with physical friction.

Powder cleansers can cause marring to surfaces based on their physical properties, as well as have corrosive ph levels, so it is important that they should only be used on appropriate durable surfaces.

When using powder cleansers on surfaces that have grain, always go with the grain when cleaning, rinsing, and drying surfaces like stainless steel appliances.

Examples of Dry/Powder Cleansers are Ajax, Comet, Bon Ami, and Barkeepers Friend.

Essential Oil Cleaning Agents

Essential oils are oils extracted from herbs, spices, and citrus fruit.

Many of these plant extracted oils are known to assist surfactant based cleaners in breaking down contaminants, decreasing odors, & effectively kill infectious microbial growth. See recent independent study and scientific article for reference here.

Essential Oils, in their concentrated form, are usually considered corrosive, but can be used as powerful cleansing agents when used with surfactants and diluted with water.

NEVER MIX any Essential Oils with any other corrosive chemicals or cleaning agents without first doing research on possible chemical reactions.

Like cleaning chemicals, essential oil labels can be confusing and some may not be genuine when they seem to be.

It’s important to research any product throughly before using it.



Disinfectants are known to “neutralize” viruses and kill infectious microbes, such

as the Corona Virus, as well as kill many other infectious microbial materials, and can be used as an extra layer of protection after thoroughly cleaning a surface.

All disinfectants have a specific amount of time that they must remain wet on a treated surface, usually between 1-10 minutes in order to work effectively.

This time that they must sit is called their “dwell” time. After allowing the disinfectant to "dwell", the product must be throughly rinsed off the surface, especially in homes and in areas designated for eating,

such as counters and tables.

Note: The appropriate dwell time is established by the manufacturer of that disinfectant and is indicated on the label of every bottle of disinfectant. Always read the label on the bottle before you use a disinfectant.

Disinfectants are categorized as PESTICIDES by the United States Environmental Protective Agency (EPA).

Unfortunately, they can often be confused with general “cleaning products” which is not what they are designed to be used for and can be dangerous when used in this manner.

Disinfectants are made with harsh chemicals, that can be serious irritants to the skin and respiratory system.

Longer term and excess exposure to these chemicals can be harmful especially if used for extended periods of time and/or without proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

Safety measures when using Disinfectants:

  • When using disinfectants always wear gloves and a face covering or respirator.

  • NEVER MIX disinfects with other disinfectants or other cleaning chemicals.

  • According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), surfaces and objects that are not frequently touched should be cleaned and do not require additional disinfection.

  • The CDC does not recommend disinfectants be used on outdoor furniture, porches, decks, patios, or side walks.

    How to use Disinfectants Safely
    If you decided to use disinfectants, they should only be used in areas

    where infectious agents are prevalent, or areas that are frequently touched, and only after cleaning those surfaces.

    If disinfectants are used liberally or improperly, the likelihood of growing even more powerful and harmful bacteria, such as MRSA, increases significantly. You can learn more about this topic, starting here.

Frequently touched surfaces include, but are not limited to, doorknobs (inside and outside), light switches, countertops, handles, desks (especially from desks in offices or buildings), phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks, and touch screens.

Common Disinfectants that are also commonly used in house hold cleaners or disinfectants, but can be very dangerous to mix with each other or many other cleaning agents, as they produce toxic gases that are at least very harmful, if not instantly deadly.

Ammonia Hydrogen Peroxide

For most people, disinfectants and cleaning chemical labels are usually difficult to understand and the safety precautions can be vague or sometimes even inaccurate.

American House Cleaners Association © 2021 PCP Certification Course 37

It is very important to research and learn everything you can about any product and its ingredients before using it.


Cleaning Agents & pH Levels

In Chemistry, the pH scale is used to determine the level of alkalinity and acidity of any particular substance or solution.

The scale levels begin with ZERO (most acidic) to FOURTEEN (most alkaline).

HIGHER the number on the pH scale, the more Alkaline the solution or material is.

The LOWER the number on the pH scale, the more Acidic the solution or material is.

Cleaning Agents & pH Levels

As you can see on the chart above (available in PCP Course), Bleach has the highest pH, Vinegar has the lowest pH, and Dish Soap has a balanced pH, known as a "neutral" pH.

When it comes to pH levels, there are TWO determining factors to consider.

The first one is what type of SURFACE in the home are you addressing, and secondly, what type of CONTAMINANTS are on the surface.

Surfaces: Solutions and cleaners with extreme pH levels, whether acidic or alkaline, are considered a corrosive to surfaces, while neutral pH products are usually the safest choice for any surface. Contaminants: All contaminants can be categorized into two main groups: organic and inorganic.


Surfaces & pH Safety

Surfaces can be fragile and it's important to know what cleaners and products are safe to use on them and what is not safe. (Charts available in PCP course)

Knowing what pH level certain surfaces are sensitive to, is important for determining how to address build up in a safe and effective manner.


Neutral pH (or Balanced pH) is commonly the safest choice for any surface, although when the contaminants on the surface have accumulated over time, more extreme pH levels, whether acidic or alkaline, are often required to effectively remove them.

Vinyl, Ceramic Tile, Natural Stone (Granite, Marble, Limestone, Travertine, Slate, Quartzite, Sandstone, Adoquin, Onyx, and others), Glass, and Plastic fixtures are common surfaces that do best with more Alkaline pH levels to address heavier contaminants, while more Acidic pH cleaners tend to cause damage to these surfaces.

Laminate, Wood Furniture, Hardwood Floors, and Bamboo floors, are some common surfaces that are very sensitive to extreme pH levels. It is recommended that only pH neutral/balanced cleaners are used on them or there is risk of causing damage to these surfaces.

Linoleum, Metal Fixtures (like brass, steel, and zinc), Stainless Steel, and Porcelain are some common surfaces that do best with more Acidic pH levels when attempting to effectively address heavier contaminants, while more Alkaline pH cleaners tend to cause damage to these surfaces.

Contaminants & pH Levels

The pH levels of cleaning agents have a direct impact on how they clean and what contaminants they most effectively address. Cleaning agents address contaminants by "breaking them down" and "removing them" from surfaces.

The two main types of contaminants that are found on surfaces are organic and inorganic materials.

Organic Contaminants
Examples of organic contaminants are food residue, oils, and greases, and living organisms, such as mold or microbial growth that causes slim.

Usually, organic contaminates are most effectively broken down and removed with Alkaline ph to neutral cleaning agents.

Inorganic Contaminants

Examples of inorganic contaminants include mineral deposits, hard water, and rust.

Usually, inorganic materials are most effectively broken down and removed using Acidic pH to neutral based cleaning agents.

When there is a combination of both, organic or inorganic contaminates, always choose the safest pH level for the particular surface when you are cleaning, which you learned about in the previous lesson.

(PH Safety & Effectiveness Charts are available in the PCP Course) 

Taken from the American House Cleaners Association © 2021 PCP Certification Course

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