A glass slide as part of a scientific experiment. The solution is used to test or demonstrate the science of cleaning.

Cleaning is as much a science as it is an art. Of course, it’s not the fun kind of art. It’s less about looking at upside-down paintings and ascribing meaning to random brush strokes while drinking overpriced wine; and more about figuring out how to remove your children’s expressionist experiments off the walls.

It’s not the fun kind of science, either. Although it does contain a dash of danger if you’re not careful, science of cleaning is hardly going to fill you with excitement. Yet it’s a good idea to know a thing or two about the scientific reality behind the veil of this seemingly mundane task if you want to maximise your effectiveness on the home front.

This is what today’s article is about. We’re going to embark on a thrilling journey, peering behind the curtain to unravel the secrets of cleaning products. What’s the science that empowers them to vanquish dirt, grime, and germs? How can you make better use of it? What are the safety considerations you should know? The answers to all these questions (and more) lie below.

In this article:

  • How cleaning products work: the basics
    • Solvents, surfactants, and emulsifiers
    • Key ingredients in science of cleaning products
  • Mechanisms of action
  • Understanding pH in cleaning
  • Safety considerations and best practices
  • Conclusion

How cleaning products work: the basics

Cleaning products are tasked with the difficult job of penetrating surfaces, trapping dirt and grime, and removing stains. While it looks simple on the surface, there’s actually a lot of work being done behind the scenes.

To understand how cleaning products do their job, we must understand a trio of essential components: solvents, surfactants, and emulsifiers.

Solvents, surfactants, and emulsifiers

Solvents dissolve and break down various substances. That’s their job and they’re pretty good at it. Grease, oil, and other organic substances crumble beneath their relentless assault.

Meanwhile, surfactants reduce surface tension. This enables water to spread with less effort and engulf every trace of dust, dirt, and grime. With the help of surfactants, cleaning solutions glide seamlessly, decisively dealing with dirt and leaving surfaces clean.

Finally, emulsifiers ensure that oil can be dispersed in water (which normally couldn’t happen). They facilitate easy rinsing, restoring balance to your cleaning endeavors.

Key ingredients in science of cleaning products

As we delve further into the science of cleaning, let’s get to know the ingredients that make our favourite cleaning products work:

  • Enzymes. Enzymes are remarkable biological catalysts. As such, they facilitate the breakdown of organic matter. For example, proteases are an excellent way to deal with protein-based stains. Amylases break down carbohydrates like there’s no tomorrow. And lipases triumph over fats and oils like true champions of cleanliness. Together, they dismantle the intricate structures of food stains, pet accidents, and other organic residues.
  • Acids. Acids are the rock stars of cleaning when it comes to dealing with certain deposits. In the context of cleaning, we’re talking about weaker acids, such as vinegar, citric acid, and hydrochloric acid. They destroy mineral deposits like limescale and soap scum like they’re nothing. Acids dissolve the bonds holding these unsightly residues together.
  • Alkalis. Alkalis are always there for you when you’re dealing with some of the toughest stains—grease and oil. Sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, and their brethren engage in a process known as saponification. They transform fats and oils into soap-like substances, ensuring that no greasy remnants escape their clutches.
  • Disinfectants. These agents of hygiene and health deal with microbial intruders. With quaternary ammonium compounds, hydrogen peroxide, and bleach in their arsenal, they vanquish bacteria, viruses, and fungi, leaving behind a sanitised landscape.

You can find natural versions or alternatives to most of the ingredients above.

Mechanisms of action

In the grand scheme of things, each cleaning product operates through specific mechanisms to conquer different surfaces and stains, depending on its type:

  • Enzymatic cleaners. As the name suggests, enzymatic cleaners are cleaning products that contain enzymes. Enzymes target organic stains and break them down into simpler components. This makes them much easier to clean up.
  • Acid-based cleaners. Acidic solutions work by dissolving mineral deposits like limescale and soap scum. Through their acidic nature, they neutralise alkaline compounds and dismantle the bonds holding minerals together. In the end, all you’re left with is a clean surface.
  • Alkaline cleaners. Alkaline cleaners contain alkalis. As we’ve already learned, through the process of saponification, they transform fats and oils into easily rinsed soap-like substances. Surfaces and fabrics are left free from grease.

As you can see, things are pretty consistent. Once you know the ingredients and what they do, it’s a lot easier to pick the right cleaner for the right stain.

Understanding pH in cleaning

Now, things might get more technical but it’s important to understand pH in the context of cleaning. PH is a numerical measurement of acidity or basicity.

Acidic cleaners have a pH below 7. On the other hand, alkaline cleaners have a pH above 7. Neutral cleaners, with a pH of around 7, provide a safe and balanced approach for everyday cleaning endeavors. Remember, choosing the appropriate pH ensures optimal cleaning results.

By mixing a high pH and a low pH cleaner, you neutralise their cleaning properties. That’s why it’s not the best idea to mix baking soda and vinegar, unless you do it on the surface you’re trying to clean.

Safety considerations and best practices

As we navigate the vast landscape of cleaning, let’s not forget about safety:

  • Read the labels. There’s a reason they’re there. Do not ignore them. Read the labels before you start cleaning and heed the manufacturer’s warnings. This will keep you and your family safe, while also minimising the chance of unintentionally damaging the items you’re trying to clean.
  • Ventilation. Ensure proper ventilation, particularly when using products with potent fumes. Open windows, let some fresh air inside (as much as you can get fresh air in a city like London), or employ fans to create air circulation.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE). Do not shy away from using gloves, goggles, or masks as advised by the product labels. Shield your skin, eyes, and respiratory passages from harm.
  • Keep out of reach. When the cleaning process has quieted down and you’re ready to hang up your equipment, don’t forget to keep it away from children and pets. Prevent any accidental ingestion or unintended exposure.
  • Don’t mix and match. Mixing cleaning products is a bad idea in almost all cleaning scenarios. Even seemingly harmless cleaners can become dangerous in a heartbeat if you don’t know what you’re doing.


Well, this is it. Now you’ve officially dipped your toe into the realm of cleaning science. Equipped with an understanding of how cleaning products operate, you now possess the knowledge to make informed decisions and embrace the path to a cleaner, healthier life. And, as always, if you need a hand, we’re never more than a phone call away.

Samyx Cleaning - Branding Consultant, Author - Atanas
Author: Atanas Dzhingarov

Hi, I’m Atanas - brand consultant and writer. I’m helping Samyx Cleaning create the best cleaning company blog on the Internet. Join us on our journey and learn how to live a cleaner, healthier, happier life in the process.