Cleaning with Chemistry

Did you know that basis household cleaning can often rely on chemistry? It’s what makes the world go round. From doing your dishes to removing stains to vacuuming, it all comes back to fundamental interactions that can all be explained with chemistry. Ready to learn more? In this article we’re going to discuss the different ways chemistry can be used to explain how different cleaning methods work.

Hit It With Acid

So much around the house can be cleaned with white vinegar. Do you know what the main component of white vinegar is? It’ acetic acid. While it does a great job of cleaning surfaces around the house, it’s particularly fantastic for removing stains caused by metal deposits. Where would you see this most often? Generally speaking, they show up as rust stains around your faucets and fixtures.

If you see an orange buildup that you suspect to be caused by rust, you might notice that soap and water simply won’t do the trick. By using vinegar however, you are putting the metal deposits in an acidic environment which strips the metal of oxygen. With oxygen removed, the metal deposits once again become polarized and are much more happy to dissolve in water. Metal in an oxides state is next to insoluble, which is why it can only be removed by scraping, or by employing chemistry as we just discussed here.

Crank Up The Base

On the flip side of the pH spectrum, basic compounds are used all over the household. From ammonia, to bleach, soap, and Drain-O there are so many places where basic compounds come into play as cleaners. What do basic compounds work on? Grease. Why does it work? Well, similarly to how acid works on removing metal stains base works on removing grease stains. When grease is in an acidic in environment it becomes completely hydrogenated and subsequently non-polar. This means that it will resist water indefinitely. You could use a non-polar solvent such as mineral oil to remove these grease buildups, but you’ll always be left with an oily residue.

By raising the pH using something basic, you’ll strip the grease molecules of their protons giving them a polar functional group. Grease compounds are very unlikely to ever become soluble, but with polar functional groups they will be able to emulsify. Soap molecules will then form micelles around them, at which point they can easily be rinsed away. Side note – ever noticed how it’s easier to clean grease with hot water rather than cold? This is because you’re affecting the viscosity of the grease. More heat makes for less viscosity, and subsequently makes for easier rinsing.

Playing With Pressure

Chemistry isn’t just related chemical compounds, there are also the physical behaviors that can be manipulated to get the desired effect. One such phenomenon is pressure, which can also be used on both sides of the spectrum to clean around the house.

First and foremost is the vacuum. By using a high powered fan to create a void, you create a pressure gradient that causes air to come whipping into the chamber, taking dust and dirt particles with it. Want a stronger vacuum? Take a look at the ideal gas law:


You can either increase the power for the fan to lower the pressure, or you can decrease the volume of the vacuum chamber for the fan size you’re using. The problem with the former is that it will require more energy to run, and the problem with the latter is that you will have less time to clean before you have to empty out the vacuum chamber.

Let’s take a look at the flip side – using an abundance of pressure to clean. This is perhaps most properly visualized by looking at a pressure washer. Pressure washer’s take feed water and pump it through a small orifice, which results in a huge increase in the pressure leaving the orifice. This is like the effect of a syringe. The resulting pressure that comes out of the nozzle of a pressure washer is so much higher than that supplied by a garden hose that the water is able to bombard surfaces with a much higher force, and subsequently remove a lot more dirt and grime. This is the main principle behind how pressure washers work, such as those found here: .

Chemistry is all around us, and it can be fascinated to dig into the simple things to see how it is rooted in nature. Do you have any explanations of household cleaning phenomenons that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear what you have to say!