A Guide to Cleaning Chemicals

By Amy Milshtein

  • A Guide to Cleaning Chemicals
A Guide to Cleaning Chemicals
Pouring a pre-portioned chemical packet into an OmniFlex Trolley-bucket.

Cleaning chemicals are more than just soap. There's a different type of cleaning agent for every job and that boils down to lots of choices for cleaning professionals. But choose wisely. Use the wrong product and results will suffer. Use the right product incorrectly and again, results will suffer. 

This guide to cleaning chemicals will help janitorial crews make the right choice and provide best practices for using a variety of products. 

Types of Cleaning Chemicals

All-purpose cleaners contain a mixture of surfactants, and other sequestering agents. They tend to be pH neutral or weakly alkaline, which makes them safe for use on most hard surfaces. However, some all-purpose cleansers contain abrasives that may scratch surfaces over time, leaving them dull and harder to clean. 

Acidic cleaning agents are good for removing inorganic deposits like hard water scaling or soap scum. This makes these agents perfect for use in restrooms. Their high pH also makes them a good choice for neutralizing and removing road salts tracked in during the winter months. 

Alkaline cleaning agents readily dissolve fats, grease, oils and protein-based soils. They work well in food service and food processing. They are also appropriate in industrial applications where greasy soils are prevalent.  

Disinfect Versus Sanitize

The general public may use the terms disinfect and sanitize interchangeably, but there is a quantifiable, legal difference between the two terms. In the US, sanitizers are agents that destroy 99.999 percent of bacteria in 30 seconds during the Official Detergent Sanitizer Test. Disinfectants kill all organisms in 10 minutes during the EPA-regulated AOAC Use Dilution Test. 

Both methods go a step further than standard cleaning as they remove potentially harmful agents that may be left behind. Both also require that all visible dirt and debris be fully removed before beginning the process. "Germs can hide underneath dirt and other material on surfaces where they are not affected by the disinfectant," according to the EPA. And it gets worse. "Dirt and organic material can also reduce the germ-killing ability of some disinfectants."

Sanitizing is appropriate for surfaces that come into contact with food. They are also a good choice for items that might end up in a child's mouth like toys or pacifiers. 

There are many types of EPA-registered disinfectants like chlorine, alcohols and quaternary ammonium compounds or QUATS. They are identified with a number and have verifiable kill claims on their label along with explicit instructions on their use. Disinfectants work best on hard, non-porous, non-finished surfaces like: 

  • Toilets, urinals, diaper pails
  • Porcelain tile and restroom fixtures
  • Food contact surfaces, preparation areas and storage areas
  • Sinks, floors, walls, countertops, bathtubs, shower stalls, doors and more

How to Disinfect Correctly

While there may be an impulse to use a generous amount of product, less is more when it comes to disinfectants. Bleach irritates skin and eyes. QUATS have been linked to asthma and other autoimmune deficiency problems. Use too much on your floors and they will be sticky and discolored. Dilute as directed and the product will work.

Follow use instructions on a disinfectant carefully too. Most require a dwell time, where the product stays on a surface without drying, often for up to 10 minutes to effectively kill microbes. If the surface is allowed to dry it must be retreated and the clock starts again. Then follow instructions for rinsing and drying. 

Diluting Cleaning Chemicals the Right Way

Industrial cleaning chemicals are sold in concentrated form and need to be diluted with water before use. Manually mixing them, using something called the "glug-glug" method, is no longer acceptable according to CleanLink as they can cause costly and dangerous mistakes. 

Too much water will render the cleaning agent ineffective. A maintenance professional using the improper amount could end up spreading pathogens throughout the entire building.

Too much chemical can be just as dangerous and costly too. Excess product is splashed and releases fumes that impacts indoor air quality. It can leave floors sticky or gummy or damage expensive surfaces. Residue from too much chemical builds up over time and is difficult to remove. 

Follow manufacture guidelines for the optimal dilution rate. Automatic diluters are more accurate than "glug-glug" methods, but they tend to be costly and prone to mechanical problems. Pre-portioned cleaning packets, however, eliminate waste and guesswork, simplify training and are easy to transport and use. An article from the Professional Retail Store Maintenance Association suggests that using pre-portioned chemicals delivers positive environmental and social benefits.

Renewable Cleaning is the New Green Cleaning

Green cleaning means using products and methods that reduce environmental impacts including indoor environments. Green Seal is an independent, nonprofit entity that certifies proven-green products and services. Founded in 1989, the organization has put its official stamp on thousands of products and services including institutional cleaning products

While using green chemicals is a good step forward, renewable cleaning takes the process further by removing, inactivating and/or disposing of contaminants, pollutants, particles, pathogens and chemical residues to restore indoor environments to their original or desired condition using little to no chemicals and water. Renewable cleaning programs still use EPA-registered disinfectants and other chemical solutions but sparingly and only when and where needed. 

Renewable cleaning relies on process—spraying plain water, agitating the slurry and vacuuming it up, over chemicals. A test of the process conducted at the University of Washington found that using water alone resulted in an 89% reduction of ATP in restrooms while a more traditional method only produced a 56% reduction. 

The right technology is required for renewable cleaning to work. Mops, buckets and rags will not get the job done. Even with correctly diluted cleaning chemicals, these tools do not fully remove dirt and pathogens. Spray-and-vac machines and microfiber/squeegee method do, even without chemicals. 

Amy Milshtein

Amy Milshtein

Amy Milshtein covers design, facility management and business topics for a variety of trade publications and consumer magazines. 

Her work has won several awards, most recently a regional silver Azbee Award of Excellence.

She lives in Portland, OR with her family and Clyde, a 15-lb tabby cat. Once an avid hiker, these days she finds herself on the less-challenging -but-still-exciting 'creaky knees' trails.

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