Degrees of Clean: Consumer Cleaning Products Defined

By Joan B. Rose, Ph.D.
June 10, 2001

There are many products available for ridding our homes of dirt and germs. However, it is often difficult to decide which products are right for the job. Not all cleaning agents are the same, and improper use of these products could result in unsanitary conditions or illness.

Following is a list of the different categories of consumer products commonly found under the kitchen sink. Each product is composed of different compounds and offers different degrees of cleanliness and safety to the household. These products are not heavily regulated.

  • · Soaps – Cleansing agents that remove dirt and grime. They are made from a mixture of lye, sodium salts from various fatty acids, and fats. Generally, their purpose is to remove rather than to kill microorganisms.
  • · Detergents – Cleansing substances that act similarly to soap but are made from chemical compounds rather than fats and lye.
  • · Cleansers – A generic term describing detergents, powders or other chemical agents that remove dirt, grease or stains.

Antimicrobial agents are substances or solutions that destroy or suppress the growth of harmful bacteria, viruses or fungi on objects and surfaces. While common dictionary definitions adequately describe the terms above, antimicrobials are defined through their regulatory status. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), regulates each classification of antimicrobials for their chemical properties, the required testing and subsequent labeling. Antimicrobial products are the most powerful cleaning products available. Examples are:

  • · Disinfectants – Chemical-based products, such as chlorine bleach, which destroy or irreversibly inactivate bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. While hospital-strength disinfectants are used to control the infection of medical instruments and contact surfaces, general disinfectants are used in numerous cleaning products, swimming pools and water purifiers.
  • · Sanitizers – Products that reduce the number of living microorganisms by significant numbers, but do not destroy or eliminate all microorganisms.
  • · Sterilizers – Often called sporicides, these products destroy all forms of microbial life. Sterilization is performed in the hospital with pressured steam, liquid or gaseous chemicals, or dry heat. There is rarely a household need to treat surfaces so thoroughly.

To minimize risk of illness and promote a clean household, read the labels of all cleaning products before use and decide which situations require which products. For more information, visit the following on-line resources:

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Infectious Diseases: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/op/cleaning.htm

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pesticide Programs: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/citizens/antimic.htm

Water Quality & Health Council, Food and Surfaces http://www.waterandhealth.org/food_surface/index.html

Dr. Rose is chair of the Water Quality & Health Council and a microbiologist at the College of Marine Science, University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, FL.

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