Cleaning and chemistry

lab, research, chemistry

Chemistry is one of the many foundations of cleaning- arguably the most important one. Every single cleaning product you use- whether it is a specialist cloth, water or any chemical out there- is carefully crafted using knowledge of reactions, properties of molecules and the interactions and attraction between such molecules. In today’s blog, we will be explaining the relationship between varying ‘ingredients’ of cleaning chemicals and how they affect the surfaces you are cleaning.


Starting off with the oldest, simplest and most used cleaning product not only for us, but organisms all around us: water. Water is what we call a ‘universal solvent’, it has the ability to dissolve more substances than any other liquid. An item that we use every single day may go under-appreciated, but water, alongside oxygen, food and other basic necessities is essential for ALL life. But how does the structure of water make it so valuable for cleaning?

Well, water is a polar, covalent molecule, there are differences in electronegativity between atoms in a water molecule. This polarity means water is both attracted to negatively and positively charged molecules in a solute. 

However, there are substances water cannot clean. Have you noticed you can’t wash a pan with oil on it? Well, this would be because oils, grass and some other similar substances are hydrophobic. They will not interact with water and will not dissolve in water.


Quaternary ammonium compounds are the main chemical components of disinfectants. Chemically, they are classed as modifications of ammonium salts – commonly spotted by the central N+ atom. These have an overall positive charge and therefore are attracted to varying microbes- including harmful ones.


Carbolic soaps often contain phenol derivatives- phenols are carbolic acids meaning they have the functional group -COOH. Each has a benzene ring- making the molecule generally very stable (due to delocalisation energy present within the benzene ring). Derivatives and mixtures of phenols are some of the very first antiseptics used and were very popular in the medical industry for disinfection of equipment as well as wounds.

Fatty acids

As discussed in our series ‘Cleaningtermsexplained’ on our Instagram, fatty acids are organic substances which react with bases to form soaps. They are used in the production of soaps via a process called saponification. This is essentially the breaking of an ester bond in triglycerides between glycerol and fatty acids using a hydroxide group from a base. This leaves you with soluble, separate fatty acid and nose components. Fatty acids can essentially influence the properties of a soap, and differing fatty acids present different properties. You can learn more about fatty acids and oils in soaps by checking out ‘The Ultimate Guide to Soaps’.


Enzymes are biological catalysts. But did you know, enzymes are present in a multitude of cleaning products- including laundry detergent and washing up liquids? Enzymes have a variety of functions, one of them being catalysing the break down of large, complex molecules into smaller, soluble ones.  Many detergents contain lipase and proteases which break-down fats and proteins into their constituent monomers/ shorter polymer chains. They help remove stains that water and normal soaps may not break down- especially food related ones! As a bonus, they work best at lower temperatures- similar to our body temperature- as they can get denatured at temperatures beyond the optimum, therefore you can wash at lower temperatures and save money and electricity! You can read more about enzyme uses in detergents in this article by Persil: ‘Enzymes in Biological Detergents’