Home » Blog » The Chemistry Of Cleaning: How Surfactants And Other Cleaners Work

By: Rain City Maids
Aug 21, 2023

In the never-ending mission for spotless spaces, cleaning products emerge as our trusty allies. They make dealing with gunk and grime much easier because they're much more than water and suds—they're backed by solid science!

Whether you want to learn more about cleaning products or choose the best one for your daily chores, you've come to the perfect place. Keep reading to dive into the nitty-gritty behind the efficacy of cleaning products.

What makes cleaners so effective in dealing with stains?

Unless it is just a small spill, water alone won't do much to clean any larger mess. So, to keep your household spotless, you know you have to keep many different cleaning solutions handy. But what makes cleaners good at doing what they do?

Cleaning products are commonly made from four basic elements: surfactants, hydrotypes, builders, and carriers. Although every element does its part in keeping the cleaner functional, surfactants are the ones that do the heavy lifting when it comes to handling your chores.

Surfactants give cleaners the power to deal with stains, and it's the main focus in our journey through the science of cleaning. However, to fully understand how cleaning solutions get rid of dirt and grime, we'll dive a little further and learn more about surfactants.

How do surfactants work?

The word surfactant comes from "surface-active agent," and you will find them in most cleaning products like shampoo, dish soap, and laundry detergent. 

For starters, surfactants are amphiphilic molecules, which means they're both hydrophobic and hydrophilic. But what does all that scientific chatter mean?

Imagine surfactants as a tadpole, where the head loves water while the tail attracts oil and grease. This amazing characteristic of surfactants makes the water behave differently when combined with a cleaning solution, so it can easily drag away soil and stains.

Although you can find four different types of surfactants, they all work the same through two main processes:

Surfactants break down surface tension

Surface tension is the property that makes water droplets keep their shape instead of spreading, and even if you don't notice, it also prevents water from properly wetting fabrics and surfaces. 

However, when you mix detergent with water, surfactants gradually clump along the water's outer layer. One part of the surfactant stays in the water while the tail wants to stay outside, so the liquid's surface is constantly pulled apart.

That reaction makes the water reduce its surface tension and behave like a thinner liquid, which allows it to penetrate deeper into fabrics and many stains' upper layers. Once inside, it lifts the dirt and lets you clean better. 

They let oil and water mix

Breaking down surface tension is just one part of surfactants' cleansing action. The other part is a process called emulsification, in which surfactants trap other particles and molecules so they can be carried away by water.

What does this mean? Substances that don't normally or easily mix with water (like oil or grease) are removed more easily. That's the reason why dish soap works so well for removing that greasy film after eating some delicious hot wings!

Other efficient types of cleaning products

Although surfactant-based cleaners are the most common ones you can find at stores, other products (with different purposes) have different chemical processes to remove stains. Here are a few examples:

Acidic solutions

All cleaners can be classified into two categories: acidic and alkaline. Most cleaners (detergents and soaps) fall into alkaline territory and work perfectly against most stains. 

However, mineral deposits (whitish buildup near water sources) and rust need an acidic solution to remove them, so you'll find tons of limescale or rust removers that contain chemicals like acetic acid or muriatic acid. Even vinegar (which is acidic) can be used for removing hard water stains. 

How does it work? Mineral buildup and rust are alkaline (base) compounds. When an acid and a base get in contact, they "cancel" each other and the stains turn into soluble salts that can be removed by rinsing them.

Chlorine bleach

Bleach is known as one of the most powerful cleaners—it's so strong it can cause damage if not used carefully. However, you may not know that bleach doesn't even remove the stains. Then, what does bleach really do?

Through a process called oxidation, bleach breaks apart chromophores—a part of the molecule responsible for color— so they no longer work, making the stain invisible to the naked eye. That's why bleach works well to re-whiten white clothes; the stain is there, but you can't see it.

Besides disappearing stains, bleach also has an antimicrobial effect. The active ingredient in bleach (hypochlorous acid) unfolds proteins in bacteria, killing them after a few minutes. Be sure to include bleach in your cleaning routine if you are looking for a powerful disinfectant!

Enzyme cleaners

Thanks to their particular properties, enzyme cleaners work better on organic stains (like blood, urine, or pet waste). You can try to remove an organic stain with your usual cleaners, but nothing compares to them!

These cleaners contain both non-harmful bacteria and enzymes that, in tandem, attack the stain to clean it. The enzymes in the solution break down organic material into less complex substances so that bacteria can eat it more efficiently, leaving little to no residue.

Abrasive cleaners

These cleaners contain tiny, gritty particles that act as your cleaning wingman, which create a scouring effect that removes dirt firmly attached to a surface without causing harm.

Abrasive cleaners work perfectly to remove dry, rough stains on hard or semi-hard surfaces. Different cleaning products use various abrasives and components to target different surfaces. The three main types of abrasive cleaning products you can find are:

  • Dry abrasives (AKA powdered cleansers): These are made of fine particles of minerals such as calcite, quartz, and silica. Some also contain small amounts of surfactants for removing greasy stains like the ones in the dishwasher. 
  • Wet abrasives: Basically, they are solid abrasive particles in a gooey liquid. These types are for more delicate surfaces, thanks to extra surfactants and gentler abrasives.
  • Abrasive tools. The famous scouring pads. Some are built tough with materials like copper, stainless steel wire, or nylon, while others are like plastic pals with tiny abrasive particles infused in them. Perfect for tough surfaces (like metal) with troublesome stains.

Fragrances and additives also matter

Cleaning isn't just about visual appeal; it's also about creating an inviting ambiance. Cleaners can also contain fragrances and additives, which are the final touches that complete your cleaning session.

For example, additives can be antimicrobial agents, extending the freshness of your cleaned surfaces. Fragrances, on the other hand, interact with bad odors at the chemical level to mask the stench.

Keep learning about house cleaning with Rain City Maids

Rain City Maids is a professional cleaning company with vast experience in the field. Besides offering outstanding cleaning services with top-of-the-line products, we have tons of information about cleaning practices, techniques, guides, and much more.

Visit our blog for more information on cleaning.

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