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When Choosing Cleaners, It Helps to Know Your Chemistry

The chemical ingredients in cleaning products can seem like a foreign language. Professor Eric Beckman helps us translate.

Cleaning products are flying off grocery shelves. Hand sanitizers can be hard to find. In the age of COVID-19, consumers want products that will clean, disinfect and keep them safe. 

But one look at the list of ingredients on the back of your favorite cleaner may leave you wishing you had paid more attention in chemistry class.

“When you read a label, the names seem like a different language, and so people just see gibberish,” said Eric Beckman, PhD, Bevier Professor of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering. “As a chemical engineer, I see a structure.”

“Most of the things we use day-to-day that are chemicals were invented before most of us were born,” said Beckman, who also is co-director of science and technology at the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. “People don’t really think about them."

Until now. We asked Beckman to explain some of the ingredients in cleaning products and how to choose the right one for the right job.

Sodium Hypochlorite

You’ll find it in: Clorox Bleach

What it does: “Chlorine bleach is a blunt object—it crushes everything in its path,” said Beckman. “It chops up molecules—it destroys mold and germs, but if you drip it on your clothing, it’ll destroy the dye molecules, too.”

Keep in mind: Because it’s a volatile molecule, you shouldn’t use it in strong concentrations in a closed space without ventilation. For surfaces, dilute with water according to the package’s recommendations and spray on the solution. Rinse with water after a few minutes. Never, ever mix it with other chemicals, especially ammonia.

Sodium Percarbonate

You’ll find it in: OxiClean

What it does: These milder forms of bleach work the same way as chlorine bleach to disinfect, but they won’t ruin your clothes. Because these brands are gentler, Beckman says, they just need a little extra time to work.

Keep in mind: Make sure to let the cleanser sit on surfaces 10 minutes to sanitize before wiping off.

Tetra-alkyl Ammonium Halides 
(like alkyl ammonium chlorides, alkyl ammonium saccharinates or alkyl ammonium sulfonates)

You’ll find it in: Lysol All-Purpose Cleaner

What it does: “Most antibacterial cleansers use this class of compounds—tetra-alkyl ammonium halides. It’s in Lysol, Scrubbing Bubbles, and a wide variety of products,” said Beckman. “What they do is worm their way into cell membranes and make them fall apart. They’ve been tested against a wide range of bacteria and viruses.”

Keep in mind: These molecules aren’t volatile, so they don’t leave a strong smell in the air, and they are relatively safe, cheap and effective.

Hydrochloric Acid

You’ll find it in: Lysol Heavy Duty Toilet Bowl Cleaner

What it does: A very concentrated, strong acid, this ingredient will obliterate rust stains and bacteria—as well as your skin, if you’re not careful. “If you want to clean bricks, it’s a good option, but it’s probably overkill for most toilets.”

Keep in mind: In a lab, chemists would work with this acid under a ventilation hood, wearing lab gloves and eye protection, Beckman notes. Make sure you wear gloves, and don’t use it in an unventilated space.

Ethanol and Isopropanol

You’ll find it in: hand sanitizers

What it does: Ethanol or isopropanol, also known as rubbing alcohol, dehydrates the cell and disrupts the cell membrane, so it kills cells that rely on water—like most bacteria and viruses. When used as a hand sanitizer, it dries out your skin cells, too, which is why it’s usually combined with other moisturizing ingredients to keep your skin from feeling dry. Beckman says 60 percent alcohol or higher is strong enough to be effective.

Keep in mind: Alcohol is very flammable, especially in the concentrations used for disinfecting, so keep it away from open flames.

Acetic Acid

You’ll find it in: distilled white vinegar

What it does: When used with water, the mild acid in vinegar helps loosen dirt and oil from the surface. A favorite among DIY cleaners, vinegar is very gentle.

Keep in mind: Because it’s so gentle, vinegar shouldn’t be relied upon for disinfecting. “Vinegar is one of the safest and smelliest options, but it is one with a high risk—we just don’t know that it’s effective against bacteria and viruses,” said Beckman. “When it comes to killing the virus, the gentler the compound is, the less effective it probably is.”

Citric Acid

You’ll find it in: Method All-Purpose Surface Cleaner

What it does: In food, citric acid is in the coating that gives Sour Patch Kids their sour flavor. When used in a cleanser, however, the mild acid helps water clean away grime and grease, much like vinegar does.  

“Citric acid and vinegar are both acids, but citric acid is also a mild reducing agent, meaning it can do chemistry that acetic acid (vinegar) cannot,” said Beckman. “Reducing agents like citric acid can actually ‘denature,’ or unravel, proteins—including proteins that make viruses function.”

Keep in mind: While it’s not quite as potent as some other ingredients when it comes to disinfecting, it still has an effect, making it a great, gentle option for day-to-day cleanup.


Author: Maggie Pavlick