You don't need to know how to balance a chemical equation (remember that?), but understanding some science jargon can help, say our experts.

By Lauren Wellbank
October 21, 2020
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Credit: Getty / d3sign

If you're curious about how natural cleaning products work or why baking soda is such a powerful ingredient, you've come to the right place. We'll explain the science behind some of the most popular cleaning methods and tools, so you can you clean smarter—not harder. Follow along with Clean Science to see which technique we break down next.

Want to clean smarter, not harder? Brushing up on some Chemistry 101 can certainly help. Considering the fact that your cleaning products are composed of chemicals—and that most of your favorite shortcuts, like vinegar- or baking soda-based fixes, involve some science—this makes sense. Understanding how certain compounds react in real time, and with other ingredients and surfaces, will help you choose the best possible product for the job. Here, two experts bring it back to basics.

Know the Terminology

A product's mode of action is paramount to understand, explains Larry Beaver, Ph.D., the Vice President of Research and Development at RSC Bio Solutions and Clean-Safely.com. And almost all formulas call on surfactants, which physically remove grime and dirt from a surface, to do the job. "Soaps and detergents are both surfactants, which is chemical-speak for 'surface-active agents'," he says. "Surfactants can also chemically disrupt the cell walls of some viruses and bacteria and kill them."

They are the single-most important, effective ingredient in cleaning compounds, says Sean Busch, the co-founder and CEO of Puracy—so if you want to understand the science, start here. "They need to be mixed with water and balanced with water softeners, pH adjusters, and other ingredients in order to aid with surface safety and removal," he says. Surfactants are derived from oil, which—up until recently—meant they were sourced from petroleum; in the past two decades, plant-based oils have become more common. "In most scenarios, plant-based surfactants are equally effective, yet safer than their petroleum-based predecessors," he adds.

Understand the Methods

Sure, there's chemistry involved in at-home cleaning—but physics comes into play, as well. Choosing the right formula for a specific job is key, as is selecting the correct tool and applying the correct amount of force when you're scrubbing, notes Busch. So, if you're starting with a surfactant, which reduces surface tension and breaks down whatever it is you're trying to remove (say, built-up soap scum in the tub), you'll want to make sure you're using the right tool (like a brush) and giving the area a good scrub (physics!). With the correct technique and a frequent cleaning schedule, you'll be finished in no time.

You should also remember that not all surfactant-containing formulas are the same, which means that some are better geared for certain jobs than others. "Specific surfactants can be more effective for certain substances but, in general, they will all break down similar things," explains Busch. The difference, he says, is how long it will take, how much you need, and how balanced the cleaner is. For example, your soap scum cleaner may be great in the tub—but it wouldn't work the same on the inside of your toilet.

The Science Behind Cleaning and Disinfecting

Cleaning and disinfecting are two different steps, and you always need to clean prior to disinfecting. As for the science behind this fact? Physically washing away the dangerous or infectious material before applying the disinfectant will first break up, and therefore help remove, the pathogens on the surface. "Some disinfectants need to be applied and then removed with a cloth," Beaver notes. "Others just need to be applied and remain wet for a designated time period, which is known as the dwell time." If you're unsure which type of disinfectant you've purchased, check the label. "If the required dwell time is not adhered to, complete killing of all pathogens is unlikely to occur—leaving surfaces and those in contact with the surfaces vulnerable," Beaver continues.

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