Chemistry of Cleaning

Choosing and Using the Right Chemical Cleaners

First, a Few Tips on Cleaning Procedures

Clean Top to Bottom

Start at the highest points and work your way down

Clean Dry to Wet

Do all dry cleaning duties before you start wet cleaning duties

Work Your Way Out of the Room

Start at the furthest point from the doorway and work your way out of the room

General Chemical Advice

Select Chemical Cleaners That Best Meet the Conditions

Use chemical cleaners that are strong enough to remove the soil, yet will not damage the surface material that the soils are on.

Remember to Use T.A.C.T.

Changing any of the principles of T.A.C.T. will increase or decrease the effectiveness of the cleaning process.


The longer the chemicals stay in contact with the soils and surface that it’s on, the more effective the chemical cleaners will be.  Double scrubbing will increase the amount of time the cleaner remains in contact with the surface.


Agitation is the use of cleaning tools to break soils loose and remove them.  Using a more aggressive brush or pad will increase agitation.


Adjust the concentration rates of cleaning chemicals based on soil levels to maximize the effectiveness of the cleaning chemical being used.  Always refer to the manufacturer’s label.


Use the manufacturer’s recommended water temperature for the cleaning product to maximize its effectiveness.  Increased water temperature may help, except with solvent based chemicals.

Types of Chemical Cleaners

Glass Cleaners

Glass cleaners usually contain some solvents (alcohol, glycol ether, and/or ammonia) and low levels of non-volatiles.  This combination results in good wetting and light, oily soil removal with non-streaking properties.

“Neutral” Cleaners

Neutral pH cleaners are not necessarily chemically neutral.  Typically, they have a solution pH in the range of 7-9.5.  Neutral products are light duty cleaners designed for use on any water washable surface.  Floors coated with a floor finish should be maintained with a neutral cleaner.

All-Purpose Cleaners

All purpose cleaners, also referred to as general purpose cleaners, are moderately alkaline products (pH 9 -11) that usually contain a water miscible solvent (i.e., glycol ether-butyl) for oily soil removal.  All-purpose cleaners are generally recommended for any water-washable surface.  However, because of the higher pH and solvent content, this type of cleaner should not be used on a routine basis to clean floors containing a floor finish.

Some all-purpose cleaners are “butyl cleaners”.  Technically, butyl cleaners contain diethylene glycol monobutyl ether (“butyl cellosolve”).  However, cleaners containing any member of the glycol ether family are often referred to as “butyl cleaners”.

Heavy-Duty Degreasers

Heavy-duty degreasers contain high levels of alkaline builders and/or solvents.  They’re used for aggressive grease/oily soil removal operations.  Heavy-duty degreasers may be used in conjunction with auto scrubbers to clean concrete floors.

Generally, degreasers are butyl-based or citrus-based (d-limonene).  As with any chemical, follow label instructions.

Acid Cleaners

Acid cleaners are typically used to remove mineral and soap deposits. The use of hydrochloric (muriatic) based products is normally limited to heavy build-ups of iron in toilet bowls.  Safer acids, such as phosphoric, are commonly used for all other cleaning applications where mineral and soap deposits are found.

How Cleaning Chemicals Work

Cleaning chemicals penetrate, neutralize and dissolve as much of the soil as possible by the use of an acids, alkali, solvent or active enzymes.  Cleaning chemicals are designed to disperse or emulsify the remaining soil and holding the soil in suspension until it is rinsed away or removed.

Factors Affecting Chemical Cleaners

The performance of any cleaning chemical may be altered significantly by a combination of the following factors:

Water Temperature

Although most detergents are designed to work in hot or cold water, the performance of a cleaner can be enhanced by employing warm to hot water. Extremely hot water should not be used on highly finished floors or carpeting.  Also, extremely hot water will flash off solvents, making any solvent-based chemical ineffective.

Dwell Time

Typically, the longer the contact time that a cleaning solution has with the soils, the better it performs.  Always check the manufacturers label to determine if the chemical may damage the surface if allowed to dwell too long.  NEVER allow a dirty cleaning solution to dry on a surface before it can be rinsed.  Also, never “flood” or soak wood surfaces.

Chemical Strength

Dilution ratios vary with different detergents. It is important that the proper dilution be maintained, and that you understand how this dilution can be changed for specific applications.  Concentrated chemical blends are less effective when used straight (with no water added).  As with engine coolant in your vehicle, a 50-50 blend usually provides the strongest effective mix rate.  Follow label instructions.  NOT ALL CONCENTRATES ARE THE SAME STRENGTH.  Concentrated chemical blends vary greatly among manufacturers.  Some so-called concentrates need 8-15 oz. per gallon of water to be effective in light duty situations while other may only require 1/4 oz. per gallon!

Mechanical Action

The type of agitation used will have a direct impact on the chemical’s ability to perform.  Machine scrubbing, pressure rinsing and abrasive pads can improve the chemical’s ability to break up soils, reducing the amount of chemical needed and/or length of time to complete the job.


User skill level may also affect your choice of chemical to be used.  A properly trained user may be able to use more aggressive or highly specialized chemicals for special cleaning tasks.


Always consider safety when choosing chemicals and equipment to be used.  For example, strong acid or alkaline solutions may require safety precautions and may damage equipment or surfaces being cleaned.  Always read the product label and refer to the Material Safety Data Sheet before using a new product.

Problem Analysis

When Confronted With an Unfamiliar Cleaning Situation, Determine the Following:

1.  Most Predominate Soil
2.  Most Difficult Soil to Remove
3.  Composition of the Surface to be Cleaned
4.  Equipment Available
5.  Types of Chemicals Needed

Chemistry of Cleaning

Your selection of chemicals to use should be based upon the soil being removed and the surface from which the soil must be removed. The three basic types of cleaners (acids, alkalis, and solvents) are designed to work primarily on certain soils and on certain surfaces.


Choosing the right chemicals begins by analyzing the soil and matching it to the chemical best designed to remove it.  The following common soils are best removed by these basic chemicals:

Use Acid Cleaners on These Soils

Mineral deposits, iron, lime buildup, uric acid stains, rust, scale, water spots, soap deposits

Use Alkaline Cleaners on These Soils

Dirt, soot, fats, cooking oils, food stains, baked on grease

Use Solvent Cleaners on These Soils

Heavy grease and oil including machine grease, engine oils, sludge, paint and varnish

Use Neutral Cleaners on These Soils

Any light soils on hard surfaces


Choosing the right cleaner also demands an analysis of the surface to be cleaned.

Acidic Cleaners May be Used on Most of These Surfaces

Vitreous china, metal, glass, cement, quarry tile, Plexiglas

Alkaline Cleaners May be Used on Most of These Surfaces

Resilient flooring, most metals, porcelain, china, fabrics, Formica, vinyl, concrete, quarry tile, removing floor finish (stripper)

Solvent Cleaners May be Used on Most of These Surfaces

Engines, machine parts, metal, machinery

Neutral Cleaners May be Used on Most of These Surfaces

All water washable surfaces, floors coated with finish

Functions of Chemical Components

In order to understand cleaning chemistry, it is necessary to know the functions or properties of the components of a cleaner. These are defined as follows:

Sequestration or Chelation

Removal or inactivation of water hardness particles by the formation of a soluble complex


Water contact on surfaces through the use of a surfactant


Liquid entering into porous materials, crevices, joints or seams enhanced by the use of a surfactant


Breaking fats and oils into very small particles, which are uniformly mixed with the water used with chemical

Deflocculation or Dispersion

The action of breaking up aggregates of flocs into individual particles


The action which holds up insoluble particles in a solution


Action of chemical solution (suspension) which enables it to be flushed from a surface easily and completely with water


Changing insoluble animal fats and oils into a soluble soap

How Detergents Work – Four Basic Qualities

Wetting Agents

The chemical process that breaks down surface tension

Penetrating Agents

Actually penetrates the soil surface

Emulsification Agents

One portion of the detergent molecule is attracted to oil and the other portion is attracted to water

Soil Suspension

After wetting the surface, penetrating and emulsifying the soil, it is necessary to suspend the soil so that it will not redeposit onto the surface.  Once suspended, the soils are easily washed away or removed.

The formulation of a detergent would normally have all of the above qualities but should be specific to the type of soil that is necessary to clean.

pH (Percentage of Hydrogen)

The concentration of IONS containing hydrogen in a compound is measured and expressed as pH

Hydrogen Ions are Acidic in Nature and Referred to as Acid Ions

One example would be hydrochloric acid

Hydroxides (OH) are Alkaline in Nature and Referred to as Alkali Ions

One example would be caustic soda (lye)

In Neutral Solutions, the Acid Ions Equal the Alkaline Ions

One example would be distilled water

Why is pH Important?

It’s Critical in Selecting the Proper Chemical Cleaner for a Particular Job

When cleaning, we are attempting to neutralize the impact of acidic or alkaline ions.

Acidic Soil Conditions – Require Alkaline Cleaners

Alkaline Soil Conditions – Requires Acidic Cleaners


Bowl Cleaners………………………………….pH 0-1
Lemon Juice…………………………………….pH 2-3
Beer………………………………………………..pH 4-5
Potatoes…………………………………………..pH 5-6
Neutral Cleaners & Milk……………………..pH 6-7
Distilled Water…………………………………..pH 7
Blood……………………………………………….pH 7-8
Floor Finish………………………………………pH 9-10
Oven Cleaners………………………………….pH 13-14

IMPORTANT NOTE – Always remember to use recommended safety equipment for all of your cleaning procedures.

You can improve the ability of any cleaner by increasing the contact (dwell) time and agitation.    Always use products according to label instructions.  Observe safety precautions at all times.  Train your staff in the proper use of all chemicals and equipment.

Contact us to discuss your situation.  We can help!