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the cleaning process
What Does it Mean to Clean?

When you “clean” something, what are you doing?  By definition, you are removing soil from a surface, whether that soil is dirt or pizza sauce, or whether that surface is the kitchen counter or your pants.  There’s only one other item in the cleaning equation:  the cleaning solution.  In the cleaning process, the cleaning solution interacts with the soil, breaks its connection to the surface, and safely washes it away, restoring the surface to its original state.

Of course, there are many variables when it comes to cleaning.  Soils and surfaces vary wildly, and you wouldn’t have enough room under your sink to store a specially formulated solution for every surface/soil combination.  So the cleaning industry has formulated products that work effectively on most common soils and surfaces encountered in any given cleaning application. 

What’s in a Cleaning Solution?

A cleaning solution has to be fairly versatile and suitable for dealing with a variety of types of soils. For example, water normally does not work well to remove an oily soil, such as a greasy mess on the stovetop.  So, to enhance the power of water a number of ingredients can be added to form a more effective water-based solution.  Surfactants, solvents, and chelants mixed with water will improve its ability to dissolve the oily soil.  Builders, bleaches, and enzymes can be added to water to chemically modify the oily soil to make it more soluble in water.  The optimal combination of these ingredients in water will deliver a truly powerful cleaning solution.

Feel like you just got hit with a bunch of vocabulary?  Here’s a quick tutorial. 

  • Builders:  Compounds that adjust pH to optimize cleaning performance and contribute to suspending soils.
  • Bleaches:  Compounds that oxidize and remove soils and lighten the color of stains. 
  • Enzymes:  Biological proteins that speed the breakdown of soils. 
  • SurfactantsCompounds that allow cleaning solution to wet surfaces, emulsify greasy soils, and lift away dirt.
  • Solvents:  Organics that dissolves soils.
  • Chelants Compounds that bind with metal ions in solution (e.g., calcium and magnesium found in soap scum).

The cleaning solutions you use to clean your countertops, windows, and bathtub all likely have at least one or more of these “clean-boosters” in their ingredients.  The more “clean-boosters” there are in the solution, the more versatile it is. 

The Math Behind Cleaning

Did you know cleaning is more than just chemistry?  There’s actually an equation that determines the total amount of energy it takes to properly clean something:

Total Energy(Cleaning) = Energy(Mechanical) + Energy(Thermal) + Energy(Chemical)

There are three types of energy that combine to create a clean surface.  Mechanical energy comes from you, scrubbing away.  Thermal energy comes from the temperature of the cleaning solution, such as hot soapy water.  Chemical energy is what the chemicals in cleaning products bring to the equation. 

So, if you don’t want to scrub very hard, but still want the same Total Energy that gets the dirty surface 100% clean, you need to raise either the Thermal energy or the Chemical energy.  For example, imagine washing a dirty dinner plate with a sponge and some soapy water.  If the water is cold, you’ll have to scrub harder, but if the water is hot, you won’t get a sore arm. 

Chemical Energy Explained

You can tell the difference between scrubbing hard and barely scrubbing, and the difference between hot water and cold water.  But how does chemical energy vary?

Cleaning formulas provide chemical energy through:

  • Wetting of the surface and soil
  • Emulsification of oils
  • Saponification, or creating water soluble soaps with basic or alkaline compounds
  • Softening of water to neutralize the negative effects of  calcium and magnesium hard water
  • Adding enzymes and/or bleach to attack stains
  • Cleaning with solvents in combination with or in place of water

These factors are often used together to maximize effects.  Before commercial products are released to the public, the final cleaning products are tested extensively for performance, safety, and their impact on the environment.

Use What You’ve Learned!

Next time you attack a sink full of dirty dishes, think about what goes into getting those dishes spotless.  Crank up that thermal energy by using hot water, bump up the chemical energy by using a dish soap specially formulated to clean greasy food residue, and you won’t have to scrub very hard!