Ever wondered how cleaning methods and cleaning products work? Short of wiping clean a dirty surface, what other cleaning actions do cleaners do? How can cleaning products make dirty surfaces “clean”?
If you were one of those kids who enjoyed playing around with chemistry sets when they were young, then you probably already know that it has a lot to do with chemistry and chemical actions. But how exactly can chemistry explain cleaning processes?
There are several different sides to a cleaning process, and these can involve any of the following:
“Surfactant” is short for “surface active agent.” They are active agents because they work to separate solid and liquid surfaces from each other. They do this because one end of the molecular composition of the surfactant is attracted to water, and the other end is attracted to oil, grease or dirt. The surfactant lines the surface area of substances like grease and dirt, and because the other end of the surfactant is connected to water, it essentially separates the dirt and dust from whatever surface area it has adhered to, basically suspending it in the liquid solution. You find this as a common occurrence in the cleaning process of products such as soaps and detergents.
Chelating agents work in concert with surfactants when added to water. Essentially, when there is too much presence of metal ions in water, such as calcium, iron, or manganese, the water “hardens,” making it difficult for surfactants to do their job. This is because the surfactant gets tied up in these metal ions and are unable to do their job.
Chelating agents address this issue by combining with the metal ions and then altering their electronic charge from positive to negative, thus negating their previous combining force with the surfactants. When metal ions are chelated, they remain harmlessly suspended in water, leaving the surfactants free to do their job.
Taking into consideration these two previous cleaning actions, we now consider the different soil types that need to be cleaned. There are three broad types: organic, inorganic, and a combination of both.
Organic soils include fat, grease, carbohydrates, protein, and other living compounds such as bacteria, molds, yeast, and mildew. Organic soils are best dealt with by alkaline cleaners, but as stated above, the best way to deal with these types of soils is by the use of surfactants.
Inorganic soils, on the other hand, include rust, mineral deposits like sand, silt, and clay. Whereas alkalines are used to deal with organic substances, acids are best used for inorganic soils. Again, as can be seen from the above, one of the best ways to deal with metals during a cleaning process is through the use of a chelating agent, which works by neutralizing the hardening effect of metal ions on water.
When we are dealing with a combination of soil types of both organic and inorganic, what you need is a potent combination of both surfactant and a chelating agent. Most soaps and detergents are equipped with both. Also, you will need to identify the appropriate pH level you need for cleaning and the level of acidity or alkalinity that is best used for the type of cleaning that you need to do. Most cleaning solutions that are commercially available aim for a neutral pH level, thus avoiding the extreme effect of too much acidity or too much alkalinity, both of which can be corrosive to certain surfaces.
Builders and Solvents
Finally, we have the builders and the solvents.
Builders work by intensifying the cleaning properties of surfactants. They do this through different actions: softening, buffering, and emulsifying.
And finally, solvent, the most common of which is water, is used as a solvent that breaks down barriers of soil particles and dirt, allowing the penetration of cleaning agents and the effectivity of surfactants and chelating agents.