Updated: Sep 28
Most of us may be aware of the two widely known classes of cleaners which are natural and chemical cleaners. There exist several other categories of cleaners which are often included in the above mentioned widely used nomenclature of cleaner classes. Cleaners such as enzymatic, herbal and organic are grouped under natural cleaners conventionally. But there exist several differences between these types of cleaners based on the constituents, efficiency, safety and impact on the environment. There might exist some areas of intersections between these terms but, each type of cleaners has its own unique benefits and drawbacks.
This article is targeted towards helping making informed decision about which type of cleaners work best for you. We have selected 4 categories of cleaners which are commonly used namely, Natural cleaners, Enzymatic cleaners, Herbal cleaners and Chemical/conventional cleaners.
We will start our discussion with the most safe and eco-friendly option from the above-mentioned cleaners, which is “Herbal cleaners”.
What are Herbal cleaners?
Herbal cleaners are the safest option when it comes to cleaners. It is obtained from plants and does not contain any artificial chemicals in them. But they can be added with other chemicals to increase the efficiency of the cleaner. They perform the cleaning function solely from the constituents obtained from the plants. Herbal cleaners can be made of plant extracts, flowers, plant roots, leaves, etc. Some of the compounds generally used in herbal cleaners are as follows:
Lemon is a common household vegetable and can be found in every family’s fridge. Its acidic properties help in cleaning stains and patches. It is naturally antibacterial and antiseptic. Its citrus scent is also energizing and refreshing. Lemon juice should be avoided from using on tiles, marbles or any other material which can be get corroded with its acidity. Another drawback of using lemon juice is its inability to be stored for longer durations.
Tea tree oil
The tea tree oil has powerful antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties that makes it a perfect remedy for cleaning purposes. It can be used as an all-purpose cleaner by adding few drops to a cup of water mixed with vinegar. This can replace bleach and other harsh chemicals.
Soap nut extracts
Soap nuts are actually dried shells from the soapberry nut. The soap nut tree can be found in eastern and western hemispheres but are native to tropical conditions of India and Nepal. They contain natural soap called Saponin. Saponin is 100% natural and biodegradable
Liquid Yucca Extract
Liquid yucca extract is a naturally occurring non-ionic surfactants that is derived from yucca plant. The plant is generally found in deserts and contains its own saponins. It is mostly used for scalp treatment or as shampoo. But it can be used as a general-purpose cleaner for surfaces and laundry as well.
Soapwort is a long-standing alternative to soap, made from a plant. It has a variety of uses, including cleaning the skin, washing hair, and as a laundry detergent, particularly for delicate fabrics. To utilize soapwort, a one must steep the plant in water to create a solution, which can then be used in place of traditional chemical liquid soap.
Castile soap originated with olive oil first but expanded to include other natural oils. It is generally used for cleansing body and hair, but can also be used an all-purpose cleaner for household cleaning and cloth washing. The cleaning action of castile soap is because of its detergent action. This helps in cleaning the oil from surfaces and from laundry.
They contain natural soap called Saponin.
All these herbal cleaning products can be used directly without any processing. There are other cleaning products also which are obtained after processing the natural plant extracts. Some examples of such cleaners are:
Its most widely used because of its antimicrobial properties. It is typically made by fermenting the natural sugars found in fruits and grains into alcohol. This alcohol is then further fermented into acetic acid which is main component of vinegar other than water. Vinegar should be used taking into consideration the type of surface, as it might react with the surface materials like granite, marble, stone, cast iron products and hardwood floors. Since it is acidic, it’s great for getting rid of gummy build-up, rust and hard water stains.
These cleaning agents can be used by itself for cleaning but they are generally added with other chemicals to be sold commercially. So, next time you buy natural cleaners it is almost certain that you will read one of these substances in the ingredients table.
It is to be noted that these herbal cleaners are included in natural cleaners but not all natural cleaners are herbal cleaners.
The next class of cleaners are natural cleaners which broadly encompasses all the naturally occurring cleaning compounds some before processing and other after processing.
What are Natural cleaners?
Natural cleaners can be referred broadly to every type of cleaner which can be produced from naturally occurring things. These are also generally labelled as green or organic. Herbal cleaners are also a subcategory of natural cleaners, but we have a separate section for them as they can be differentiated on the basis of their source. Natural cleaners are less likely to be harmful to the environment. Natural cleaners can be made from simple ingredients at home as well. With few simple recipes, you can save money and get a satisfactory cleaning solution. This section includes natural cleaners from sources other than plants.
Some commonly used natural cleaners are as follows:
Baking soda also known as Sodium Bicarbonate (NaHCO3) is available naturally and can be extracted by mining. Baking soda can be used as a multi-surface cleaner. It is a mild alkaline substance that can neutralize acidic substances, making it effective for removing tough stains and grime. It can be used to clean countertops, sinks, pots and pans. It is also a natural deodorizer and can be used for fabrics and surfaces.
Washing soda also known as Sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) is a salt derived from soda ash, which is obtained from natural mineral trona [Na3H(CO3)2·2H2O)] or from Solvay process. Solvay process involves the reaction of salt, limestone and ammonia. Washing soda is a highly alkaline substance that is effective in removing grease, oils, and dirt. It can be used as a standalone cleaner or as an ingredient in cleaning products. Its cleaning properties are similar to those of baking soda, although it is generally considered to be a stronger cleaner. However, washing soda is also more caustic than baking soda and can be harmful if ingested or if it comes into contact with sensitive skin, so it should be used with caution.
Borax, also known as sodium borate (Na₂[B₄O₅(OH)₄]·8H₂O), is a naturally available cleaner. Borax is a naturally occurring mineral that is obtained from boron-rich deposits in the earth. It has been used as a cleaning agent for many years due to its ability to soften water and boost the cleaning power of detergents. When dissolved in water, borax creates an alkaline solution that can effectively remove dirt, grime, and stains. However, it is important to use caution when using borax, as it can be harmful if ingested or if it comes into contact with sensitive skin.
Common salt or Sodium Chloride (NaCl) is a naturally occurring substance which can be used an abrasive and used to scrub away dirt and grime. It can be mixed with lemon juice or vinegar to be used for cleaning kitchen counters, bathroom tiles and other surfaces. It can also be used as a degreaser from pots, pans and also for rust removal. Salt has been a promising solution for cleaning carpets.
Some of these cleaners are readily available and can be used by itself for general purpose home cleaning. But others may be combined with other compounds such as emulsifiers and stabilizers to make commercial cleaning solutions. It’s on us if we want to make our own cleaners at home or buy it from stores if we don’t want to spend our time making them.
The thing which we need to keep in mind while buying natural cleaners from stores is to check the ingredients on the label. It is a general practice in market to sell dubious products greenwashed as natural cleaners.
The next type of cleaners which we will discuss is Enzymatic cleaners. They are made from enzymes extracted from living organisms.
What are enzymatic cleaners?
These types of cleaners can also be included under natural cleaners. But we have made a separate section for such cleaners for better understanding. Enzymatic cleaners are cleaning products that contain natural enzymes that break down and remove organic materials, such as food, grease, and bodily fluids. These cleaners are used in a variety of applications, including household cleaning, laundry, pet messes, and medical equipment cleaning. Additionally, enzymatic cleaners are often more effective than traditional cleaning products because the enzymes can target specific types of stains and soils.
There are several types of enzymatic cleaners based on the type of material it needs to clean. They are namely:
Amylase cleaners contain amylases, enzymes that break down starch-based substances such as bread, pasta, and other carbohydrates. They are effective in removing stains and residues that contain starch and are used in various cleaning applications, including laundry and household cleaning products.
Amylase cleaners are known for their effectiveness and gentleness, making them a popular choice for cleaning applications where delicate fabrics or surfaces are involved. They are also environmentally friendly and biodegradable.
Lipase cleaners contain lipases, enzymes that break down grease and oil-based substances. There are different types of lipases with varying specificities, which make them useful in various cleaning applications.
Lipase cleaners are known for their effectiveness in removing grease and oil-based stains and are considered environmentally friendly and biodegradable.
Cellulase cleaners contain cellulases, enzymes that break down cellulose-based substances such as paper, plant material, and fibres. They are effective in removing stains and residues that contain cellulose and are used in various cleaning applications, including laundry, household cleaning products, and industrial textiles.
Cellulase cleaners are known for their effectiveness in removing stubborn cellulose-based stains and are considered environmentally friendly and biodegradable.
These enzymatic cleaners are often mixed together for a wholesome cleaning action which is able to break down most types of organic materials helping in removal of stains and grime. These types of cleaners are commonly known as multienzyme cleaners. It is available in market often mixed with emulsifiers and stabilizers which is for increasing its efficiency and shelf life.
The above-mentioned cleaners are the natural alternatives for widely available chemical cleaners. Let’s discuss about what are chemical cleaners, what are its various types and what are its applications.
What are Chemical/Conventional cleaners?
Chemical cleaners as the name suggests, are made synthetically using chemicals. They may give excellent cleaning but at the cost of harm to ourselves and the environment. They come in variety of forms, including liquids, powders, gels and sprays. They can be acidic, alkaline or neutral and the pH of the cleaner determines its cleaning power. They were the first cleaners available in the market because of their efficiency in cleaning but later with the raise in environmental consciousness, people have started using natural alternatives.
Some broad categories of chemical cleaners are:
Acidic cleaners contain acidic substances and are used to clean mineral deposits, hard water stains, and other substances that are difficult to remove with neutral or alkaline cleaners. Examples of acidic cleaners include:
- Muriatic acid
A strong hydrochloric acid (HCl) based cleaner used to clean masonry and concrete surfaces, as well as swimming pools.
- Phosphoric acid (H3PO4)
A commonly used cleaner in the food and beverage industry for removing mineral build-up in equipment.
It is important to use acidic cleaners with caution, as they can be harmful if not used properly. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions and use personal protective equipment when handling acidic cleaners, and rinse surfaces thoroughly after cleaning.
Alkaline cleaners contain alkaline substances and are used to remove grease, oils, and other organic substances. They work by breaking down the molecular bonds of these substances, making it easier to remove them. Examples of alkaline cleaners include:
- Sodium hydroxide (lye)
A strong alkaline cleaner used in drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and other heavy-duty cleaning products.
- Potassium hydroxide
An alkaline cleaner commonly used in the production of soap and other cleaning products.
It is important to use alkaline cleaners with caution same as in the case of acidic cleaners as they can also cause skin irritation and other health complexities. Wearing protective equipment is advisable while dealing with alkaline cleaners.
Chemical disinfectants are substances used to kill or eliminate harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Some common examples of chemical disinfectants include:
Ethanol (C2H6O) and isopropanol (C3H8O)
They can be used for a broad range of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses and fungi. They work by denaturing the proteins and dissolving the lipid membranes of the microbes, leading to their death.
- Chlorine compounds like Sodium hypochlorite (NaClO)
NaClO commonly known as bleach is a powerful chemical disinfectant. It helps in oxidising and disrupting the cellular structure of the microbes. They are effective against all types of microbes. It's important to note that sodium hypochlorite can be corrosive and may cause skin irritation, so proper safety measures should be taken when using it as a disinfectant. Additionally, sodium hypochlorite is reactive with some materials and can discolour or damage surfaces, so care should be taken when using it on certain surfaces.
- Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2)
Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is a commonly used cleaning solution that also has disinfectant properties. It works by releasing oxygen, which oxidizes and breaks down organic matter and kills microorganisms.
Hydrogen peroxide is effective against a wide range of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and is often used in healthcare settings for surface disinfection. It is also commonly used as a household cleaner for surfaces such as countertops, cutting boards, and bathroom fixtures.
- Phenols like Ortho-phenylphenol (C12H10O)
Phenols are used as disinfectants due to their antimicrobial properties. They are effective against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms. Phenols are commonly used in household disinfectants, as well as in healthcare settings to clean and sanitize surfaces and equipment. However, it is important to note that some microorganisms have developed resistance to phenols, and they can also be toxic if not used in appropriate concentrations. Additionally, phenols can irritate skin and cause respiratory issues if not handled properly.
It's important to note that the effectiveness of a chemical disinfectant depends on various factors such as the type of microorganism, concentration, and exposure time. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions for proper use and dilution.
Chemical solvents are substances that dissolve or suspend other substances, forming a solution or dispersion. They are commonly used in various industrial and household applications such as paint and coating removal, cleaning, and extraction.
It's important to use caution when handling chemical solvents as some can be toxic, flammable, or pose environmental concerns.
All the above-mentioned substances are available as mixture of these chemicals to give an all-round cleaning solution. It is always advisable to use natural cleaning solutions whenever one can. At some places, chemical cleaners might be only option like in case of very tough stains which are deposited over a long time period. The natural alternatives are priced a bit high because of the ingredients used in them.