Types of Cleaning Agents

There is a wide variety of cleaning agents available in the modern world. There are bleaches, cleansers, polishes, gels and sprays of every conceivable variety as well as dusting cloths and more. In recent years, many products have responded to concerns about health and safety by creating new formulas that use all-natural ingredients rather than harsh chemicals.

Close-Up Of Spray Bottles In Kitchen
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Types of Cleaning Agents

What Is a Cleaning Agent?

A cleaning agent can be described as any product used to clean. This does not mean a tool for cleaning. A broom, a mop or a paper towel would not be classified as a cleaning agent. So, a cleaning agent is not the instrument used for cleaning but rather the solvent or product that actually does the cleaning. They are either natural or synthetic substances that are used to aid the cleansing process.

Some of the most typical kinds of cleaning agents are broadly defined as disinfectants, deodorizers, detergents, polishes, abrasives and other types of cleaning agents. These are all chemically different and perform different tasks, but they are all used in the pursuit of a cleaner environment. They remove dust, bacteria, grease, mold, fingerprints, dirt, cooking fluids and organic matter.

How Many Types of Cleaning Agents Are There?

It often surprises people that one of the most important cleaning agents of all is water. Water is the basis for every possible cleaning agent, and it is also a solvent cleanser in itself. It can dissolve minerals and break up fats and oils. However, there are many other cleaning agents available on the market, and they all mostly fall within four to five different categories.

Almost every single cleaning agent can be classified as one of the following four varieties: alkaline, acidic, neutral or degreaser. These four categories are the broad umbrella terms for cleansers that have similar chemical properties and react in similar ways with the substances that need to be cleaned. Certain cleaning jobs are a job for alkaline cleaners only, while other messes or bacteria or stains may require the use of a detergent or a degreaser or both.

How Are Cleaning Agents Classified?

All cleaning agents are not created equal. To understand exactly what cleaning agent to use for a specific cleaning job, it is important to understand that all cleaning agents are classified by their pH levels. pH stands for "potential hydrogen." This means that an agent is rated on the pH scale for how many hydrogen molecules it is likely to add when added to water. The scale goes from acid to neutral in the middle with alkaline on the far end.

All cleaning agents are given a rating on the pH scale that goes from zero (most acidic) to 14 (most alkaline). In the center, at seven on the scale, is water. Cleaners like detergent are more alkaline and fall somewhere around 10 or 11 on the pH scale, while acids like white vinegar or lemon fall closer to two.

Many people assume that the higher a cleaning agent's pH, the stronger a cleaner it is. This is actually incorrect. pH is not a measurement of cleaning strength or power. Something with a very high pH can be the absolute wrong variety of cleaning agent for a particular mess. The trick to finding the right cleanser for your situation is to be aware of the alkaline or acidity level that you need and choose your cleaning agent accordingly based on its pH.

What Are Acidic Cleansers?

Acidic cleansers are any cleaning agent that can be described as low on the acid side of the pH spectrum. These cleansers generally contain minerals like chelates or sometimes hydrochloric acid. The goal of acidic cleaning agents is generally to brighten up metals or dissolve existing minerals. For example, a grime-covered stove will benefit from a spray containing vinegar or another acid because the acid helps to dissolve and break up the bonds of the grease on the stove.

Acidic cleansers are also used in bathrooms to break up lime, scale and calcium deposits that have adhered to the bathtub, sink and other areas. These deposits are heavily prevalent when water is regularly used in a room. This is why bathroom fixtures and hardware can take on a dull, spotty appearance after a while. Acidic cleansers help to break up the film so they shine again.

What Are Alkaline Cleansers?

Alkaline cleaners are all the way at the other end of the cleaning agent spectrum. The role of an alkaline cleansing agent is to dissolve fats, oils and proteins. This is found in dirt and oil but also in organic matter like blood and body fluids like sweat. Alkaline cleaners break down these entities and in doing so make them easier to remove with water.

Alkaline cleaners are in almost every case meant to be used with water. Water is the partner with an alkaline cleaner like bleach or OxiClean. While the cleansing chemicals in an alkaline cleanser may break down the matter that needs to be cleaned, water is the critical component. After using the alkaline cleaner, the water washes away what the cleaner itself has helped to dissolve.

What Do Degreasers and Neutral Cleaners Do?

Degreasers serve a similar function as alkaline cleaners in that they can help break down oil, fats and petroleum byproducts. They are useful in a variety of settings but particularly of use in a construction capacity or when cleaning kitchen appliances or hard kitchen surfaces and floors. Degreasers are also a critical part of most facility maintenance cleaning regimens.

Neutral cleaners are the cleansers that are not brought out to break down matter but are mostly used in order to clean dust or remove surface dirt. Water is one of the most popular neutral cleaners. While it lacks cleaning chemicals, it has the right pH for removing surface dust and debris from floors, tables and counters.

What Cleaner Is Best for Glass?

While housekeepers and scientists all generally agree that water is the most important and effective of all cleaning agents, certain materials require specific types of cleaning. Whether it's a mirror, a window or a tabletop, glass cleaning has its own set of requirements and rules. For glass, you want a cleaner that is powerful enough to dissolve things like fingerprints, grease, dust and other grime without leaving streaks or marks.

Ideally, you will want to choose a cleanser without ammonia. Ammonia is a harsh chemical that can irritate the respiratory system and is toxic in large quantities. While many mainstay glass-cleaning products do contain ammonia, the emphasis on natural products in recent years has given the market a significant number of nonammonia cleansers that rely on household ingredients like vinegar and baking soda to get the job done.

The most-recommended glass cleaner is Sprayway glass cleaner. It is an aerosol spray that is good for mirrors, windows, tile and enamel surfaces. The foam does not drip unlike many ammonia-based liquid cleaners, and it is strong without being overpowering. The most highly recommended natural cleaner is Method brand's glass and surface cleaner. It is ammonia free and entirely nontoxic, which is a benefit for families with small children or pets.


Ashley Friedman

Ashley Friedman

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience working in the home, design and interiors space.