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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Ask a Cleaning Lady - Soaps vs. Detergents

Resident cleaning lady over at Smibbo has a very important message for your bathroom. But it starts with some knowledge of cleaning agents.


I would like to give you a quick lesson in surfactants. A surfactant is a substance which lowers the surface tension between two liquids or a liquid and a solid. There is surfactant in nearly everything you come into contact with. There is surfactant in your lungs. Surfactants are what help us clean. By lowering the surface tension, the surfactant can connect two different kinds of substances which normally will not connect – substances like dirt and water, or oil and water. Cleaning surfactants come in different types but for our purposes all that matters is you understand there is detergent and there is soap. Both clean by attaching one end of the surfactant to the dirt/oil and one end to the water/oil. But they are made different ways, with different ingredients and they have different properties.

When you use soap, you are using a fat-based surfactant. The cleaning power of hand soap has a direct relationship to its alkalinity which means that the milder the soap, the less it cleans, the harder it is to rinse and the more residue it will leave. When you are washing dried barely soiled hands, that’s fine, but anything more is a waste and over time, hand soap residue will build up and cause the surface to be *harder* to clean than before. Other soaps, like Pine oil cleaner and de-greasers can be so harsh they will strip the fat out of normal skin – that’s some serious cleaning power! But its also not something to use every day – because its soap it still needs heavy rinsing and will leave a (slight) residue behind.

When you are cleaning your floor or toilet, that’s fine, but not so much your food preparation surfaces or pool equipment. For things that should not have a residue, there are detergents, instead of soap.

Detergents are like soap in that they are surfactants and they saponify substances in order to make them rinsible but detergents are made with chemicals that have lower Ph than soap. This is why most “beauty” products are detergents rather than soap – skin Ph is around the same as water (7) whereas most soaps are highly alkaline, detergents can be acidic instead. This does not lessen their cleaning power, in some cases it heightens it! If you’ve ever washed your windows with vinegar and water, you’ve made a weak detergent. Detergents saponify better than soaps and therefore rinse cleaner in all water. Minerals do not interfere with detergents during rinsing. If water is added to the detergent, rinsing may not even be necessary, as in the case of glass cleaner or most “general purpose” sprays. Detergents are what you want to use when it is time to clean something that absolutely MUST have no residue.

So this is why you cannot use hand soap or Castille soap (hand soap made from olive oil) or glycerin soap (sort of a redundancy really) to clean anything in your house. It might look clean-ish the first time or two you use it, but over time, you are merely trading one type of coating (dirty oils) for anther (semi-clean oils) If you were to use soap on your food surfaces, you’d be preparing food on top of soap residue – fat and sulfur. If you want to use “natural” products, there are many to try an some you can make on your own, but using a soap base is foolish and possibly damaging. Also, powdered laundry detergent has soap in it as well as silicas (to keep it from clumping) which effectively lower the detergents ability to rinse clean in cold water. This is why you have a ring of residue in your tub and your washing machine. Even though laundry detergent is *mostly* detergent, some brands do have soap in them and all powdered brands have silicas. Even if your water is very soft, there will be residue. It is the nature of soap.

This is why I say NO MURPHYS.

Now there are two more:


I know this is not technically a cleaning product but I have found that many people mistakenly believe bath products are somehow helpful for keeping their tub clean. I’m not talking about shampoo or body wash (both are basic detergents with possibly some oil and fragrence tossed in and are perfectly safe to use and in fact can in a pinch be used to clean surfaces when watered down properly. But that’s pretty expensive and I suggest you use dishwashing detergent before you go wasting a whole bottle of Herbal Essence)

I’m talking about bath oils, body creams and even some bath salts.

Once again, let’s look at composition. These products are designed to do pleasant things to your skin (and attitude). But your skin and your bathroom surfaces are entirely different things. The tile on your floor does not need lotion to enhance the cleaning process. The tub you lie in does not benefit from eau de peony rubbed all over it. The ingredients in most tub enhancers are either mineral based or oil based. To be blunt, minerals harden the water, gum up small parts (such as in a jet-tub) and can cause damage to plumbing parts. Oils, as you’ve probably guessed, are even worse; they tend to settle into crevices and attract dirt and bacteria. Micro cracks in your tub’s finish will collect the oils and whatever is clinging to them. Part of what clings to them is …your dead skin. This creates a scunge that is not just gross but a serious pain to deal with the longer its allowed to marinate in your bath. If you have a tub with jet sprays or a whirlpool or even just an external heater, that means whatever is in your water will go through numerous mechanical gizmotrons as its moved from one place (the intake screen) to another (the jets or exit valves) I’ve spent quite a bit of time using a toothbrush trying to remove the gunk that accumulates in a soaking tub. All I was trying to do was clean what I could reach too. I don’t want to imagine what is still sitting inside the plumbing that collects the water and feeds the valves. *shudder*

Heck I’ve spent far too much time merely scrubbing the gummy residue from the walls of a regular tub that was never cleaned properly. And that stuff doesn’t come off without some heavy duty product – straight detergent (fun times rinsing that over and over and over and over), solvent (the fumes, THE FUMES!) or acid (whee! I don’t need skin anyway!)

I understand how nice it is to soak in a soft scented bath. Stop doing it. Just buy yourself some really nice lotion or body oil and indulge in a sun lamp. Put some soft music on and lay down a towel and relax under the sunlamp while you bake your lotion deep into your dermis. Or get someone to give you a massage. I’m willing to bet that is a lot more pleasurable than gumming up your $3000 whirlpool.

If you absolutely must do it, please use hair conditioner instead. Most hair conditioners are made with lubricants, polymers, and surfactants! This means less build up and slower build up (if at all) many hair conditioners also have fatty acids rather than straight oil to replace the sebum. That means it will feel smooth and silky on your skin but its not oil. Hair conditioner will still build up a bit and needs to be scrubbed off periodically, but its nothing like essential oils and salts. Read the label and make sure there’s no petroleum or food oils and I’m sure you’ll agree the difference is hardly noticable to your relaxation but definitely better for your home plumbing.


Don't forget to visit Smibbo for more tips!


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