Cleaners That Work
There are five basic types of cleaning chemicals: surfactants, alkalis, acids, solvents and disinfectants. Develop a basic understanding of these and you can pick the right cleaner for any job.
Surfactants, found in almost every cleaning product, help carry the ingredients into tiny cracks and pores. They also help loosen, emulsify (disperse in water) and suspend soils for removal. Alkalis, which have a pH higher than 7, are best at removing (neutralizing) acidic soils, which have a pH less than 7. Alkalis chew up acidic fats and oils (from hamburger grease to body oil to plain old mud), breaking them into smaller particles that can be washed away. Alkaline cleaners range from mild liquid dishwashing detergent and glass cleaner to strong lye (sodium hydroxide) drain openers and degreasers.
Acids work best on neutralizing alkaline soils (tough water stains), such as lime scale, soap deposits, rust and more. Acids break stains into small particles to be washed away. Acidic cleaners range from mild (vinegar, lemon juice) to heavier cleaners such as phosphoric acid (found in toilet bowl and tub/tile cleaners) and hydrochloric or sulfuric acids (found in toilet bowl cleaners).
Solvents such as mineral spirits work by dissolving soils rather than neutralizing them like alkalis or acids. They're distilled from petroleum or plant products and are mostly used on oily and greasy soils.
Disinfectants, such as quaternary ammonium or pine oil, are added to cleaners that tout antibacterial power. They kill germs that smell, cause disease, stain clothes and spoil food.