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The Basics Of Cleaning Chemistry


In households, restaurants, retail stores, and offices around the world, there is a closet or cabinet full of cleaning supplies, most of which contain chemical compounds. These chemical compounds, whether natural or artificial, are what give cleaning agents their unique ability to cut through grime, dirt and bacteria. However, most people go their whole lives using these products without ever actually knowing how they work.

The most important chemical in most cleaning agents is the surfactant. Surfactant is a actually a short hand for “surface cleaning agent” and is meant to improve the cleaning power of water. As we know, everything is made from molecules, but water molecules on their own have a hard time removing stuck on grease or dirt on their own because water tends to want to stick to itself. What a surfactant does is attach one end of its molecule to the water and the other end to the molecules of messes so that when the water is wiped away, it carries the mess along with it.

While water is an essential ingredient in the cleaning equation, using regular tap water can actually hinder the cleaning process. Tap water contains a number of impurities and contaminants that actually interfere with the action of the surfactant. Molecules of calcium, magnesium and iron float freely within tap water, and these metals prevent the surfactant from bonding to the molecules of water, reducing its effectiveness. That is why most cleaning products include what is known as a chelating agent. The chelating agent bonds with the floating contaminant particles, preventing them from interfering with the activation of the surfactant. You know your cleaning product includes a chelating agent if it includes ingredients like EDTA, an acronym for ethylene diamine tetra acetate, or a phosphate compound.

Newer formulations of cleaning products will include what are called builders. These builders have the same effect as chelating agents with an added benefit. Not only do they bond to free metallic ions that interfere with the surfactant they also maintain an optimal pH balance in the water. These formulations also generally include solvents such as alcohol to break up grease or dirt to more efficiently facilitate the action of the surfactant.

Despite their ubiquity and simple application, the chemical reactions taking place when we clean with chemical cleaning products are actually quite complex and are understanding how they function can actually help improve the way we clean as individuals.

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