Chemicals make up most of our household cleaning products, but this is not to say that there are no natural products which can be used for household cleaning. Here’s a guide for quick reference to household cleaning substances.
- Abrasives are rough or gritty products used to rub out stains or raise the nap of a fabric, such as whiting, pumice, scourers and sandpaper etc.
- Absorbents soak up liquids (salt, fuller’s earth, French chalk, talcum powder, silver sand, tissues etc.).
- Acetic acid (vinegar) is a colorless liquid used to brighten colored fabrics by rinsing away alkaline residues caused by hard water which make colored fabrics dull. Dilute it in the proportions of one tablespoon to one gallon of water. Vinegar is a dilute, impure form of acetic acid but does many cleaning jobs very well.
- Alkalis (ammonia, caustic soda and other soda compounds) neutralize acids, will rot animal and vegetable substances (wool and silk or rayon, among them) and will change colors in many dyes. Strong alkali washing powders are mainly used for cotton and linen.
- Air fresheners and purifiers mostly conceal odors while some actually destroy smells by reacting with them chemically. There are different aerosol air fresheners—some refresh from a wick, some hang inside the lavatory pan, and some release their odor gradually when opened. A clean home should not need air fresheners or purifiers but they may be useful to counteract the smell if someone’s been sick or the cat has been caught short indoors. If you want to be green, don’t use the aerosols.
*Air purifiers contain an antiseptic ingredient such as triethylene glycol.
- Alcohols (including ethanol, methylated spirit, surgical spirit, methanol or wood alcohol, isoprophyl alcohol) are a large class of organic chemicals of which the most important is ethanol, produced by yeast during the fermentation of sugar. A 70 percent solution of ethanol in water is a good disinfectant. It is useful in cleaning because it dissolves grease and evaporates rapidly.
- Ammonia is a colorless gas with a pungent, penetrating odor. It dissolves readily in water to form ammonium hydroxide, which is an alkali and grease solvent. Household ammonia is an ammonia solution specially prepared for domestic use; cloudy ammonia is household ammonia with a little soap added.
*Do not use ammonia on silk, wool, aluminum or sisal.
*Don’t sniff the liquid; wear gloves while using ammonia, and handle with caution. If you get any on the skin or near the eyes, wash off with plenty of cold water. Then use a dilute acid (one level teaspoon boric acid to 600ml/one pint water) for the eyes and a weaker one (one tablespoon to 600 ml/one pint water) for the skin.
- Castor oil comes from the bean of the castor oil plant. It is a good leather conditioner, especially for polished leather.
- Chlorine bleach (Sodium hypochlorite) is a chlorine compound used in household bleaches. It is useful for bleaching white cottons, linens and synthetics, but it should not be used on silk, wool, mohair, leather, elasticated drip-dry or other resin-treated fabrics. It is best to test a sample of the fabric first because even cotton and linen will weaken if left in the solution too long. Follow manufacturer’s instructions.
*Chlorine bleach will remove stains from baths, sinks, enamelware, tiles and woodwork.
*If bleach is used as a lavatory cleaner, other cleaners should not be used at the same time. Chlorine and ammonia and other preparations used in lavatory cleaners produce a chemical reaction and a poisonous gas which can be very dangerous.
*Chlorine bleach can lose its effectiveness if stored for too long.
- Citric acid (lemon juice) is a mild acid which can be used to counteract alkali stains, remove hard water scale, clean brass etc.
- Detergents are traditionally described as any substance that cleans surfaces or removes dirt. Most synthetic detergents are based on petroleum by products. Additives or builders of various kinds are added to many detergents to make them clean better and to prevent dirt being redeposited on the fibers. Perfumes and bleaches are also included. An important feature of detergents is their degree of alkalinity. Most household detergents are neutral as this does little damage to surfaces or skin, but the higher the pH value of a detergent, the better it is at removing dirt.
*Synthetic detergents dissolve easily in hot or cold water and are effective in hard water without the use of water softeners. They do not create scum and don’t leave a film on washed surfaces or in bowls or buckets.
*Detergents vary in strength and blueness. Too much detergent will eventually make clothes greyish and colored clothes dull because of the added blue. Heavy-duty detergents have the most additives.
*Biological (enzyme) detergent must be used with cool water. The enzymes need time to work and are best used as a pre-wash treatment. Soaking in ordinary detergent is safer and probably just as effective.
*Greener detergents are those which have the fewest, if any, phosphates, bleaching agents, enzymes and perfumes.
- Disinfectants are used to kill or check germs and bacteria on surfaces (as opposed to antiseptics which are used in or on the body). The main types of disinfectants used in homes today are chlorine bleaches, hydrogen peroxide, phenol, cresol, chloroxylenol, quaternary ammonium compounds and triethylene glycol used in antiseptic air purifiers.
- Germicide is anything that kills bacteria, mould and yeast.
- Hydrochloric acid (spirits of salts) is a colorless liquid with a strong smell. A solution of hydrochloric acid in water is called muriatic acid and is used to clean down new bricks and tiles. The solution is dangerous, will damage skin, woodwork and fabric and should be used only by professionals.
- Hydrogen peroxide is a disinfectant and a bleach available from chemists in a dilute solution (usually in 20 parts its own volume of water) which should be further diluted for use at home. Will damage fabric and skin if left in contact too long or used in too strong a solution.
- Isopropyl alcohol is a solvent sometimes used instead of methylated spirit for dissolving lacquer, vanish, French polish and removing ball-point pen marks.