Detergent, Degreasers, Abrasives, and Acids: Understanding the Four Types of Cleaning Agents and What They Do

Plus, we explain when to reach for each type.

cleaning supplies in a basket
Photo: Getty / didecs

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.

There are so many cleaning supplies on the market, but all formulas ultimately fall into one of four distinct categories: detergents, degreasers, abrasives, and acids. Ultimately, each has a specific job to do, which means it's critical to ensure you're using the correct agent for the task at hand. To ensure you're doing just that, we tapped two experts to find out which category common household products fall into, and we asked them to share when and where you should (and shouldn't!) be using them.


A detergent is a synthetic, man-made derivative, which falls into a water-soluble or liquid organic preparation category, says Sarah Cook, the owner of Nanny's & Granny's, a company that specializes in placing housekeeping staff. "They are able to emulsify oils, hold dirt in suspension, and act as wetting agents," she explains. "Mild detergents are one of our best weapons in the fight to keep a clean environment." Ultimately, these are extremely versatile cleaners, and come in many different forms (from gel and powder to liquid)—but almost every detergent on the market requires water to work (which means it's not a completely ubiquitous option). Janice Stewart, the owner of Castle Keepers House Cleaning in Charleston, South Carolina, says that you should skip detergents on surfaces like hardwood floors, leather, silk, cast iron frying pans, and mirrored surfaces.


Degreasers remove organic soils, like fats, oils, and proteins; you use these primarily in the kitchen. "Organic soils are best removed with higher pH (or alkaline) solutions," notes Stewart. "The more caked on the kitchen mess is, the higher alkaline cleaner you need." Oven cleaners, for example, are highly alkaline, since they need to clear baked-on carbonized messes that build up over time. On the other end of the spectrum are mild degreasers, which are most commonly used in the kitchen or garage; they can also be found in the cleansers you turn to in your laundry room. "Mild degreasers also are designed to keep the integrity of the surface they are being used on. They won't fade or etch," says Cook, who cautions against mixing degreasers of any kind with other chemical cleaning agents, like bleach, acids, caustics, and ammonia.


To remove a heavy amount of soil in a smaller area that can take the heat, you need an abrasive. These types of cleaners come in both powdered and liquid varieties—or in the form of a scouring pad. According to Stewart, the abrasive action is provided by a physical, mineral, or chemical force. Minerals (like feldspar, calcite, silica, and more), substances (like salt, baking soda, and powdered borax), or materials (like steel wool, copper, nylon, and metal) can all qualify as abrasives. "The degree of abrasiveness of these products vary, sometimes based on color coding, so read labels carefully," Stewart says. "Generally, the larger the particles used in the product, the harsher the cleaner."


An acid is a cleaning solution with a pH of six or lower. "Acids range from very mild to very strong," explains Stewart. Substances like coffee, cola, vinegar, and lemon are all considered acidic, due to their pH. "When used in cleaning products, acids help break down difficult stains like soap scum, rust, or mineral deposits," she says, adding that hard water or mineral deposit removers, toilet bowl cleaners, rust stain removers, tub and tile cleaners, and mold removers are all examples of acidic cleansers. Cook says that mild acids, like vinegar and lemon juice, can be used around your home to help with smaller messes or on a wider variety of surfaces. "Harsher acids can be used in special situations, with great caution," she says, adding that you should always don protective eyewear and a skin barrier (like gloves) regardless of the type of acid you're utilizing to clean. And never leave these agents on surfaces longer than the directions advise: They will cause damage if used incorrectly.

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