Detergents are chemicals that help you dissolve water-unfriendly grease and grime. The detergents you use, however, are for the most part dissolved in water or intended to be dissolved in water prior to use. Some so-called solvent-based detergents are mixtures containing organic solvents that strip oil, grease and other really tough stains from floors. Wax removers are a common example.
Solvent-based detergents incorporate an organic solvent such as white spirit. White spirits are a mixture of various saturated hydrocarbons that have between seven and 12 carbon atoms. Sometimes white spirit is called Stoddard solvent instead. The mixture also contains an emulsifying agent, a chemical that stabilizes a water-oil mixture; this kind of chemical is similar in its function to the types present in many of the detergents you use. In addition to the organic solvent and the emulsifying agent, the solvent-based detergent usually contains some water as well.
When applied to oil, wax or grease, the solvent soaks into the stain and softens it. The emulsifying agent enables the wax or grease to dissolve in the mixture, and the resulting paste can be cleared away by mopping with warm water. This combination of chemicals is superior to white spirit or paraffin by itself, because the emulsifying agent suspends the dirt and thereby makes it easier to remove with water.
Pure white spirit or paraffin evaporate more rapidly than the solvent-based detergent, and when they do, the loosened wax glues itself back to the floor. Usually it takes less solvent-based detergent than solvent to remove wax and grease. Since solvent-based detergents contain some water, they are also far less flammable than pure white spirit. They work on a wide variety of surfaces and floors, including concrete, linoleum, wood, cork and stone.
You cannot use solvent-based detergents on certain types of floors because the solvent will soak into the surface and damage it. Asphalt, PVC, rubber and thermoplastic tiles are all incompatible with solvent-based detergents. Some of the components in the solvent-based detergent may also pose health or environmental hazards if misused. Always consult the instructions on the product before use.
Based in San Diego, John Brennan has been writing about science and the environment since 2006. His articles have appeared in "Plenty," "San Diego Reader," "Santa Barbara Independent" and "East Bay Monthly." Brennan holds a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.