How Cleaning Products Work

Knowing how cleaning products work, can really help when it comes to understanding the most effective and time efficient way to clean.

It’s not surprising that amid a global pandemic, cleaning has become a topic of conversation amongst many people. Cleaning surfaces, clothes and even our hands has never been as important as it is right now. You are not alone if you have noticed people taking cleaning more seriously in recent months and although Covid cleaning will eventually fade away, there are still some powerful lessons we can take away from this season of procedure and protocol.

For many, cleaning is a mundane household task that just needs to get done, but what often misses the eye is the complex and exciting science behind cleaning and how certain products work.

The power of cleaning is rooted deep in chemistry so it is, therefore, necessary to understand some basic terms to better understand how cleaning works the way it does. To keep it simple, here are a few basics:

  • Surfactants: are simply substances that reduce the surface tension of liquids. Surface tension is the force that helps water hold its shape when it hits a surface. Imagine a blob of water.
  • Detergents: a type of surfactant with cleansing properties that work because they are amphiphilic, meaning they are both “water-loving” and “fat-loving”.
  • Disinfectants: a chemical substance that is used to kill microorganisms.

The effectiveness of the cleaning products we use comes down to a combination of the above elements working together. The chemistry behind cleaning products is truly fascinating, as they not only need to keep things looking clean, but also keep us safe and healthy.


Due to their amphiphilic nature, detergents can break down dirt. For this reason, detergents are most often used for dishes, surface cleaning and laundry. Detergents get their power from surfactants which enable them to trap dirt and soil. The molecules within surfactants work as one side of the molecule loves water and is attracted to it and alternatively, the other side loves and is attracted to fats. This helps the surfactant molecules to attach to the dirt, helping to pull the soil off the surface.


In a household setting, degreasers are often used to clean dirty stovetops and ovens. Degreasers are formulated to dissolve grease, making it easier to “lift” and to clean greasy surfaces. There are various types of degreasers, including solvent-based degreasers which are often used on mechanical devices and cars.

On the other hand, there are Water-based degreasers which are most often used in agriculture and food manufacturing. Last but not least, there are Natural-based degreasers that are used in households and often contain vinegar or baking soda.


Abrasive cleaners are most often used on very soiled items and can be easily defined as materials that wear off dirt by rubbing. Abrasives are used to agitate dirt and do so in varying degrees depending on the type of abrasive cleaner it is. They can come in liquid or powder form and can often be utilized with a steel wool pad to maximise effectiveness. As abrasive cleaners work by agitating the dirt, it is recommended to use these as a last resort as over time, abrasive cleaners can damage certain surfaces especially if they are glazed or coated.

Sanitisers and Disinfectants

Covid has proven the importance of sanitizing and disinfecting, from our hands to the standing passenger rails on trains and just about everything in between. The purpose of sanitising is to disarm and deactivate microorganisms that may be harmful to us. When we think of sanitising, our minds usually go straight to hand sanitiser, however, several other terms get used interchangeably with sanitising but achieve very different outcomes.

It is important to keep these differences in mind when selecting a product to use. According to the University of Florida, sanitising reduces the number of microorganisms to levels that are safe for human beings. On the other hand, disinfecting refers to the breakdown of vegetative cells (not including spores), while sterilizing refers to the destruction and removal of all living organisms.

Although these words get mixed up in our everyday use, the differences can be significant, so understanding these differences can be very helpful when the best products to achieve the results we need.

If you would like to know more about how cleaning products work, or advice on the best way to tackle your particular cleaning related problems, please feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] or (02) 9838 1220