Class Warfare Blog

May 10, 2013

Finally, A Decent “Green” Cleaning Solution

I don’t know how many spray cleaners I have used around the house over the last 60 years or so, but it is a great many. The only thing the “natural” ones had in common is that they didn’t work very well. (It is not easy being green.) Now, I have to disclose that as a chemistry professor of 40 years I have a bug about the word “natural.” I once gave my college chemistry students an impromptu quiz on “What’s Natural?” and they thought butter, apples, and peanut butter were all natural. Silly students. All of those are artificial, that is they were made by the artifice of man. You can’t go out and pick butter or peanut butter off of a tree, you have to make them. You can go out and pick an apple off of a tree, but the apples you can find growing now have been changed by selective breeding to be almost unrecognizable. (An artichoke is a thistle, for Pete’s sake.)

So, natural cleaners, aren’t natural, but it would be nice if they had a minimal ecological footprint (were biodegradable, had minimal impact on the acidity of natural waters, were non-poisonous to wildlife, etc.). But every damned one I have tried did all of that but clean, not so much.

All of that is now moot as I have found one that is good: Method All-Purpose Surface Cleaner. (I got mine at if you can’t find it locally.) Works on almost all surfaces and works well. I can’t be sure about all of the “green” aspects but I am fairly sure this is good stuff because as you see, uh, I have a secret to share with you: I can read the labels of these things.

For example, here is the list of ingredients for this cleaner:

Corn and Coconut derived biodegradable surfactants, corn-based cleaning salt, soda ash, potassium hydrate, fragrance oil, color, purified water

There is often more than a bit of pretension in these lists as well as some subterfuge. The “surfactants” mentioned are the active ingredients in detergents. The first detergent was “soap.” Later came “synthetic” detergents which used the word “detergent” to distinguish themselves from “soaps” (which is silly because they were both detergents) because they had some superior qualities (being biodegradable like soaps, wasn’t one of them initially). The word surfactant is short for “surface active agent” as these chemicals are schizophrenic, they have molecules that are on one end “oil soluble” and on the other “water soluble.” These molecules embed themselves so that one end is in something oily and the other something watery, which only occurs at the surfaces where oil means water. This behavior allows water and oil to mix, consequently they are useful for when you want to get oily dirt off of clothes or hands (you want the oil to mix with the water and be washed away) or when you want to have a salad dressing not separate into oil and water-based layers.

They brag, though, about their surfactants being “Corn and Coconut derived” which has an upside (they are almost guaranteed to be biodegradable) and a downside (these things have value as foods). Mostly they are advertising their “natural” ingredients, but moving on . . .

I couldn’t find out what “corn-based cleaning salt” was other than it was on the GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe). Many detergents are salts also, so this is not strange.

“Soda ash” is sodium carbonate, Na2CO3. “Soda ash” sounds more “natural” than “sodium carbonate” now doesn’t it? It also is quite alkaline. It is usually the case that detergents that are used to clean our clothes are alkaline because our skin oils are acidic and alkalis and acids react chemically to make salts and water and the salts are generally more water-soluble than the acids or alkalis, certainly more soluble than skin oils. Alkaline soaps often irritate human skin, though, so detergents made for our skin are often made to be pH neutral (rather than acidic or alkaline) to avoid this. But hair soaps are typically alkaline for the above reason. Safety Note Do not use a human shampoo on your dog. Your dog’s skin oils are alkaline and all you will do is give it wall-to-wall dandruff. Use a doggie shampoo that is acidic in nature. (If you want a recommendation for what to wash your cat with, you obviously do not own a cat.)

“Potassium hydrate” is a joke. Potassium hydrate (the word hydrate sounds “natural” doesn’t it?) is actually potassium hydroxide, KOH, a relative of sodium hydroxide, NaOH, also known as “lye.” Lye is a powerful alkali, so powerful it is used on farms to dissolve diseased animals. KOH is more alkaline than NaOH. Now I have no idea how much of this stuff is in the product. I suspect very little, just enough to make sure the product is slightly alkaline to it will dissolve human skin oils (fingerprints, etc.) KOH is more expensive than NaOH, so this might be a bit of subterfuge; clearly they didn’t want to raise any red flags for the “Green Hawks” out there, “Emmy Lou, Emmy Lou, this here stuff’s got chemicals in it!”

Just a fine point: everything is made of chemicals . . . every thing. So, all cleaning products are made of chemicals. All of them, 100%, end of story. (So are you, so is your dog, your car, I meant it when I said every thing.)

Fragrance, water, yada, yada, yada.

So, a fairly benign contents list and the stuff works. Hope it sells well.



  1. Baking soda and vinegar…. Nothing beats it!

    Comment by john zande — May 10, 2013 @ 2:32 pm | Reply

    • John! You made a chemical joke! (Baking soda and vinegar…. Nothing beats it!!)


      Comment by stephenpruis — May 10, 2013 @ 3:00 pm | Reply

      • Did I? Cool!

        Comment by john zande — May 10, 2013 @ 3:32 pm | Reply

        • Yeah, those two singly or together are truly rotten cleaners. So, is joke hearkening back to the early days of the environmental movement when cleaning guides came out recommending either or both to clean, well, everything.

          Flower Power plus vinegar plus baking soda can solve all problems! Sing along with me: “All we are saying . . . is give nonsense a chance. . . .”

          Been in overdrive all day, starting to unravell.


          Comment by stephenpruis — May 10, 2013 @ 3:46 pm | Reply

          • Put your feet up and have a beer… or a nice cup of tea, whatever takes your fancy 🙂

            Comment by john zande — May 10, 2013 @ 3:49 pm | Reply

            • Love both, a pint sounds better right now.

              Comment by stephenpruis — May 10, 2013 @ 7:39 pm | Reply

              • Steve, as a chemist, you have just got to watch this! “Wierdest Chemical Reaction I have Ever Freaking Seen!!”

                Comment by john zande — May 11, 2013 @ 8:14 am | Reply

                • Ah, the Pharoah’s Serpent Demonstration! Chemistry teachers have bound volumes of “demonstrations” from which they can draw from to amaze the kiddies. I used to do quite a few of these (as they get people interested for a few minutes at least) until I did a fatal experiemnt. The day after each such “demonstration” I gave a short quiz asking, basically, what they had learned (all “demos” were explained, often with handouts supplied). What I learned is that my students didn’t read the handouts, nor could they describe what happened or even remember it correctly. Since this things, although fun, seemed not to be effective, I only did demos that actually worked (that is taught something) from that point onward (which was maybe 4-5 per semester). I wasn’t about to take valuable class time to do something so very ineffective (just as “eye candy,” as it were).

                  It all comes back to me . . . arrrrggghhhh, run, run! Oh, I’m okay now.

                  According to Wikipedia: “This property was discovered soon after the first synthesis of mercury thiocyanate by Whler in 1821: “winding out from itself at the same time worm-like processes, to many times its former bulk, a very light material the color of graphite…”. For some time, a firework product called “Pharaoschlangen” was available to the public in Germany, but was eventually banned when the toxic properties of the product were discovered through the death of several children mistakenly eating the resulting solid”

                  I won’t go into the nature of the inorganic C-N polymer just formed, but it is interesting (at least to this inorganic chemist).


                  Comment by stephenpruis — May 11, 2013 @ 9:15 am | Reply

                  • “I used to do quite a few of these (as they get people interested for a few minutes at least) until I did a fatal experiemnt…..”

                    OK, do tell…

                    Comment by john zande — May 11, 2013 @ 9:17 am | Reply

                    • I told you of the “fatal experiment,” I asked my students what they were learning and that was fatal to the demonstrations themselves.

                      While there have been demonstrations that have resulted in tremendous unjury, I am not aware of any that were actually fatal, certainly not done by me.

                      My favorite example is a teacher who wanted to emphasize the protection aluminum (aluminium to you) had to oxidation. Aluminum is an very reactive metal that should react with oxygen almost spontaneously but does not. The reason is that Al reacts with O2 and foms a coating that prevents further contact between the two. The coating (actually the stuff of sapphires) is water insoluble and doesn’t flake off easily (unlike rust) and stops the reaction because the “reactants” are no longer in contact. Any way, this genius decided to up the ante, as we say, and mixed *powdered* Al (which has a great deal of surface contact area) with *liquid* O2, which is a great deal of O2. The first three times he did it, they mixed without notice. The last time he did it, the mixture detonated, demolishing the bench the teacher was standing behind, injuring dozens of students in the first rows, and throwing the teacher through the blackboard into the room behind, with much bodily injury.

                      I tell you this story to convince you that chemistry teachers are made of sturdy stuff . . . and not particularly bright.


                      Comment by stephenpruis — May 12, 2013 @ 7:17 am

  2. Useful info Stephen. Thanks.

    Comment by lbwoodgate — May 10, 2013 @ 2:46 pm | Reply

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