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updated August 1, 2002


Facts About Household Cleaning
submitted by Lorene Bartos, Extension Educator

Spring cleaning is on the top of the list of things to do in most households. The Soap and Detergent Association gives the following information.

Cleaning house means cleaning surfaces—floors, walls, windows, rugs, appliances and many more. Except for rugs and upholstery, most household surfaces are "hard." Technically, household cleaning is "hard surface cleaning."

Unlike clothing, which is laundered by immersion in a detergent solution, household surfaces stay in place and must be cleaned in place. Household cleaners are, therefore, formulated to satisfy the requirements of cleaning-in-place with ease and efficiency.

Always read the label on the package to understand the specific soils and surfaces the product is formulated to clean, how to safely use it and how much to use.

Surfaces in a home are made of many different materials including painted walls, wood furniture, vinyl floors (waxable and no-wax), vitreous china, porcelain enamel, stainless steel, plastic laminate (Formica®), plastic, acrylic, fiberglass, chrome, and carpets and rugs woven from wool or synthetic fibers.

Soils are equally numerous and varied. Grease, oil, tobacco smoke, soap scum, mildew, mud, pet stains, food spills, accumulations of lime scale from hard water and just plain dust illustrate the variety of soils that need to be removed.

Soiling may be very light and more or less uniformly distributed, such as dust on furniture or soils on a floor in a light traffic area. There are also soils which are heavy and concentrated in a relatively small area: in a dirty oven, for example.

No single product can provide optimum performance on all surfaces and all soils. Thus, it is not surprising that many different household cleaners are available in the marketplace. They are formulated to clean efficiently and conveniently in the many different situations found in the home. Some are designed for more general use, such as all-purpose cleaners, while others are designed to work best on specific surfaces and/or soils.



Abrasive cleansers are designed to remove relatively heavy amounts of soil often found in small areas. They come in powder and liquid form and contain a kind of built-in elbow grease, which helps cut down on the hard rubbing required to remove soil. Scouring pads are also included in this category.

The abrasive action is provided by a variety of ingredients: small particles of minerals or a network of fine steel wool, copper, nylon or metal particles imbedded in a matrix of solid plastic.

The degree of abrasiveness of products varies. Over an extended period of time, the overuse of some abrasive cleansers can remove the glaze or coating from some surfaces. Always read and follow the surface manufacturer's instructions before using a product.

Some cleansers disinfect surfaces. They include an antimicrobial agent to reduce the bacterial population that lives on soiled surfaces. Such agents can include pine oil, quaternary ammonium compounds or sodium hypochlorite. Such products will be labeled "disinfectant" or "kills germs." In order to use this labeling, these products must be approved by and registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Powdered cleansers have a long established place among household cleaners. Their cleaning and polishing action is provided by fine particles of minerals, such as calcite, feldspar, quartz and silica. In addition, powdered cleansers contain small amounts of surfactants for removing oily soils, such as the greasy film often found in sinks after dishwashing. Where removal of food, beverage, or mold and mildew stains is required, a bleaching agent is usually present. Where removal of rust stains is a performance feature of the product, oxalic acid or sodium hydrosulfite may be present.

Liquid cleansers are a suspension of solid abrasive particles in a thickened liquid matrix. They contain more surfactant and softer abrasives than are found in some powdered cleansers. As a result, their abrasive action is usually more gentle than powders.

Scouring pads, like powdered cleansers, are products with a long history of use. In the most widely used types, a ball of fine steel wire provides the scouring action. For chemical cleaning and as a polishing aid, the steel wool pad may be filled with a cleaning mixture whose principal ingredient is soap.

Particularly on metal surfaces, the soap and metal pad can provide effective cleaning and a pleasing shine. On continued use, the cleaning mixture is used up and the pad begins to corrode.

Some scouring pads are made of noncorroding materials, such as a mesh of copper, stainless steel wire or nylon, while others are a plastic material imbedded with small particles of abrasives. These pads are not impregnated with a cleaning mixture and rely on mechanical action alone.

Other scouring pads consist of a cellulose sponge with a polyurethane backing. These pads significantly reduce the scratching of surfaces.

Non-abrasive, all-purpose cleaners are marketed in different forms. They are offered as powders that can be dissolved to the proper strength and as liquids that can be diluted or used full strength. The newest powders and liquids are concentrated products. Liquids are also available as trigger sprays, in aerosol cans or in pump-actuated bottles.

Non-abrasive cleaners can also contain antimicrobial agents to provide disinfectancy. Such products will specify on the label that they "kill germs" or "disinfect" and must be approved by and registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Powdered or liquid cleaners, mixed with water, are most often used on fairly large washable surfaces—floors, painted walls, countertops, woodwork—where accumulations of soil are relatively uniform. For heavy soiling, more concentrated solutions can be prepared. Liquids may also be used full strength.

The major ingredients in non-abrasive cleaners are surfactants and builders. A surfactant's presence is noticeable by the appearance of foam, particularly in diluted water solutions. All-purpose cleaners are generally formulated to produce only a moderate amount of foam, which makes rinsing easier.

Since most all-purpose cleaners work best in alkaline conditions, they often contain an alkaline buffer salt, such as sodium carbonate. Sodium carbonate can also function as a builder.

These cleaners can also contain other ingredients, such as ammonia, pine oil and organic solvents like ethanol or isopropanol.

Spray cleaners are designed for use on smaller washable areas. Soiled walls around switch plates, chrome fixtures, appliances and cooktops are examples. Like the dilutable products, sprays are formulated with surfactants and low levels of builders; most contain an organic solvent. The combination of surfactant and solvent makes such products particularly effective on greasy soils.

Household cleaning need not be an over-whelming task if the right products are used for cleaning.


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