Cleaning experts weigh in.

By Blythe Copeland
November 04, 2020
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sink running water wringing out soapy sponge
Credit: Getty / Westend61

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.

A bucket full of sudsy water may have been your grandmother's idea of the only effective way to clean her house, but eco-conscious home keepers today know that some chemical additives can produce less than sparkling effects. "The chemicals left from toxic ingredients can be absorbed through the skin, impact the air quality, and be inhaled into the lungs and ingested as chemical residues that remain after surfaces like dishes and clothes have been washed," says Marilee Nelson, a credentialed environmental consultant, building materials specialist, and the co-founder of natural cleaning brand Branch Basics. "A surface with chemical residues is not clean…or safe! Non-foaming soaps are products that have special ingredients that enhance cleaning power and can cut and dissolve dirt, grease, and grime without needing foaming action."

Surface tension is the property that allows water to hold itself together—to dome when you fill a glass just a little bit too full, bead up when it touches certain fabrics, and pool on the floor when you bump into your cat's water dish. When added to water, surface active agents—commonly known as surfactants—help reduce that surface tension, allowing liquids to spread more easily; you'll find them in liquid foundation, ink, and textile dye, and in countless other products and industries, from oil drilling to laundry detergent.

In household cleaners, says Nelson, the amount of foam a product creates results from the type of surfactant it contains. "Anionic surfactants have the greatest foaming potential and cleaning power," she says. "Old-fashioned natural soaps are anionic in nature, as are commercial, synthetic petroleum-based surfactants, such as sodium lauryl sulphate—they typically are the basis of foaming cleaners." Three other classes of surfactants—known as nonionic, amphoteric, or cationic—create less (or no) foam, but are still effective at emulsifying dirt to make cleaning products more effective.

Choosing natural or organic cleaning products for your home means you're likely to be using natural—or naturally-derived—surfactants. "The natural surfactants, like castile and vegetable-based soaps, yucca, soapwort, quillaja, and soap nuts, are natural and can be organic," says Nelson. Naturally-derived synthetic surfactants—which can also be labeled organic if they are properly manufactured—include eco-friendly alkyl glucosides, made from renewable resources. Fans of non-toxic surfactants appreciate their natural ability to loosen and remove dirt, oil, and grease, without potentially leaving toxins on surfaces. "Obviously, synthetic powerhouse surfactants will foam the most, and will give the consumer the feeling that they are using a dynamic cleaning product," says Nelson. "The use of safer surfactants like natural soaps—Branch Basics included—and the alkyl glucosides that may have less of a foaming action can effectively remove dirt, grease, and grim without a chemical residue, leaving a truly clean surface."

If you're starting to second guess the makeup of your household cleaners, the EWG's Skin Deep database rates the toxicity of common ingredients to help consumers find the safest options. "The key is not how much a product foams or not," Nelson explains. "The key is: What type of surfactant is being used to clean, what are the other ingredients, does the product leave a residue, is it safe, does it impact the environment, and does it work? Finding an effective and truly safe cleaning product is key and benefits not only the person cleaning but also the residents of a household. Safe effective cleaning products result in better air and better health."

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