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You can’t clean with just water! Here’s why.

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How do cleaning products work? Every day, people use cleaning chemicals to remove dirt and unwanted contaminants from surfaces.  Through the use of cleaning chemicals, surfaces are made more hygienic and the indoor environment is made safer for people.  Cleaning chemicals are similar to the soap we use to clean our bodies and the shampoo that cleans our hair.

ScientistTurning ordinary water into a powerful cleaner.   The basic building block  that makes a cleaning product work so effectively is a chemical called a “surfactant”. To understand what makes a surfactant transform ordinary water into a powerful cleaner, we need to start with a little chemistry lesson.


Water and Surface Tension  Water is the most abundant chemical on the face of the earth.   Water (H2O) is a simple molecule composed of 2 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of oxygen. The chemical structure of water is such that individual water molecules tend to stick together through a phenomenon called “hydrogen bonding”. This intense attraction between adjacent water molecules prevents water from spreading over surfaces. Instead, water tends to ‘bead up’ as if being repelled from a surface. This beading affect means water has a high surface tension, making it a poor cleaner by itself.


High Surface Tension Water beads up

Water + Surfactant = Making Water Wetter:  Adding relatively tiny amounts of a chemical compound called a surfactant (stands for Surface-Active-Agent) radically changes the properties of water. The surfactant is able to interfere and prevent the hydrogen bonding allowing a cleaning solution to penetrate and lift dirt from surfaces. The resulting cleaning solution has a low surface tension which enables effective soil suspension and removal from surfaces.

Surface Tension Graphic

Every Eat a Surfactant?  You might be surprised, but you are consuming surfactants on a regular basis.  Items such as milk and eggs contain natural surfactants that stabilize various fats in water.  Natural surfactant extracts and synthesized surfactants are commonly used in the food processing industry for added taste and texture of prepared foods.  Surfactants are used extensively in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, soaps, paint, and of course cleaning formulations.

Washing hands

Washing with a surfactant (soap)

Show and Tell: A Dramatic difference with a Surfactant:  Use a disposable plastic plate  and add about 10-20 drops of water on it.  Swirl the plate to try to get the water to cover the surface of the plate.  It won’t, it just beads up.  Now take a single drop of cleaning solution (we used a Green Seal Certified neutral cleaner,  Multi-Clean brand Century Maintenance Cleaner) and apply to the same plate.  Watch how the solution rapidly and uniformly covers the plate surface.

plain water tray lo res

Water by Itself


century m tray

Water + Surfactant

Cleaning without surfactants?  A number of companies have come up with devices they claim makes an effective cleaner from ordinary water.  Products marketed under such names ecH2OTM™, ecH2O NanoClean™, Orbio® 500 sc, Orbio® oS3, and Geneon™, are some examples of surfactant free systems.  In a future blog post, stay tuned as we will discuss  how these systems compare to surfactant based systems.

 Multi-Clean is a company dedicated to making cleaning products that work better, faster, and safer. 

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