What are Cleaning Agents?

Cleaning agents remove dirt, soil, odors, stains, and grease from various surfaces. These products come in many forms, including liquid, powder, cream, and granules. Depending on their intended use, they can be basic, acidic, or neutral.

Cleaning Agents

Most people use cleaning agents daily for washing dishes, doing laundry, and wiping countertops.

Cleaning Agents and PH Levels

There are three types of cleaning agents: acidic, alkaline, and neutral.

Acidic Cleaning Agents

Acidic cleaning agents have a PH level below 7, ranking from 0-6. These cleaners remove hard water build-up, mineral deposits, rust, corrosion, and grease. Examples of acidic cleaners include white distilled vinegar, toilet bowl cleaner, and citrus-based cleaning products.

Alkaline Cleaners

Alkaline cleaning agents have a Ph level above 7, ranging from 8-14—they clean grease, oils, proteins, and fats. Examples of alkaline cleaners are bleach, ammonia, borax, tub and tile, and oven cleaners.

Neutral Cleaners

Neutral cleaners have a PH level of about 7, ranging from 6-8. They are the most gentle cleaners safe for use on hardwoods, laminate flooring, most stones, and countertops. They remove light amounts of dirt and grease. Examples of neutral cleaners include dish soap and mild all-purpose cleaners.

Top 10 Cleaning Agents and Their Uses

All-Purpose Cleaners

Most all-purpose cleaners are PH neutral, capable of removing light dirt and grease. All-purpose cleaners are safe for most countertops and flooring, including tile, vinyl, hardwood floors, and laminate. 

While ingredients vary by brand, most all-purpose cleaners contain a mixture of nonionic and anionic surfactants, polymeric phosphates, polymeric compounds, corrosion inhibitors, skin protective agents, solvents, hydrotropic substances, and perfumes.

Examples of all-purpose cleaners:

  • Method Multi-Surface Cleaner
  • Lysol All Purpose Cleaner
  • Mr. Clean Neat Freak Mist
  • Fabuloso

Dish Soap

Dish soap is neutral, with a PH level of about 7. When combined with water, it’s safe to use on delicate surfaces like natural stone. Dish soap is capable of powering through grease and dirt.

The most common dish soap ingredients are water, detergent, surfactants, perfumes, salts, dyes, and hydrotropes.

Laundry Detergent

Laundry detergents have PH levels of 7-11. The high alkalinity of these products raises the PH level in the water, allowing the detergent to clean better. The alkaline nature also makes laundry detergent more efficient in removing grease and dirt from fabric. 

Detergents designed for cold water are less alkaline than those designed for hot water.

The ingredients in laundry detergent vary by purpose and brand. Common chemicals include builders, surfactants, bleach, foam regulators, enzymes, dye transfer inhibitors, fragrance, dye, corrosion inhibitors, optical brighteners, fillers, and soil anti-deposition agents.


Chlorine bleach is an alkaline substance with a PH level of 11-13. Bleach is an oxidizing agent – it can kill bacteria and viruses and remove stains. It can also remove color from fabric.

The primary uses for chlorine bleach are disinfecting and brightening white clothes. But rather than using bleach at full strength, you must dilute it. Also, because of bleach’s high alkalinity, it’s not suitable for all surfaces. Avoiding using it on natural stone, wood, and colored fabrics.

Most household bleach only has two ingredients: water and sodium hypochlorite.

Tub and Tile Cleaner

The average tub and tile cleaner is alkaline with a PH level of 11-13. The high alkalinity helps break through soap scum and body oils left in the tub and shower walls. 

Tub and tile cleaner ingredients vary. For example, some high-powered versions contain bleach, while more eco-friendly versions use plant-derived agents.

Glass Cleaner

Glass cleaners have PH levels from 6 to 10, depending on the active ingredient. One of the most popular glass cleaners, Windex, contains ammonia and has a PH level of 9. 

You can use glass cleaners to clean dirty windows, mirrors, and other glass pieces.

An effective homemade glass cleaner combines equal parts white distilled vinegar and water. Store-bought glass cleaners have a wide range of ingredients that may include ammonia.

Stainless Steel Cleaner

Stainless steel cleaners are acidic to neutral. For example, Weiman Stainless Steel Cleaner and Polish has a PH Level of 6.4. Stainless steel cleaners remove dirt and fingerprints from appliances while leaving behind a shiny, protective topcoat.

Most stainless steel cleaners contain a mild cleaner and oil. The active ingredients in Weiman Stainless Steel cleaner and polish are white mineral oil and petroleum.

Oven Cleaner

Oven cleaners are alkaline with a PH level of 11 to 13. The high alkalinity helps these cleaners power through caked-on grease. 

Common chemicals in oven cleaners include sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, monoethanolamine, and butoxydiglycol.

Toilet Bowl Cleaner

Toilet bowl cleaners are very acidic, with Ph levels ranging from 1-3. The high acidity allows them to break down limescale and other mineral deposits. 

Common active ingredients in toilet bowl cleaners include sodium hypochlorite, hydrochloric acid, hydrogenated tallow amine, benzenesulfonic acid, and myristyl dimethyl amine oxide.

Drain Cleaner

Drain cleaners can be alkaline or acidic, depending on the type. High alkaline drain cleaners generate heat that melts clogs and dissolves grease. Acidic drain cleaners release ions that also cause a chemical reaction producing heat. The heat breaks down the clog.

Because there are both alkaline and acidic-based drain cleaners, the ingredients vary.

Top Household Cleaning Agents

Aside from commercial cleaners, some household products work as cleaning agents. Here’s a look at the most common types.

Baking Soda

Baking soda is a mild alkali with a PH level of 8. It’s also a mild abrasive that scrubs away stains without scratching hard surfaces. 

Cleaning uses for baking soda include removing odors, boosting laundry detergent performance, cleaning the inside of refrigerators and microwaves, and unclogging drains.

White Distilled Vinegar

White distilled vinegar is acidic with a PH level of 3. It can remove mineral deposits and grease. You can combine white distilled vinegar with water to create an all-purpose spray for windows, mirrors, and hard non-porous surfaces.

But because of vinegar’s high acidity, don’t use it on natural stone, laminate, or hardwood floors. 

Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol has a PH level of 6 to 8. It can be neutral, acidic, or alkaline, depending on the strength and rate of dilution. 

You can use rubbing alcohol as a disinfectant in the home – combining half rubbing alcohol with half water to create a spray. It’s also a component in homemade stain removers and DIY window cleaners.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Standard 3% hydrogen peroxide has a PH level of about 6. It’s an effective stain remover for clothing and carpets. But because hydrogen peroxide is an oxidizing agent, it can lift the color from fabric. Spot test in an inconspicuous area before using.

How to Handle Cleaning Agents

Follow the direction labels on the cleaning agent you’re using. Wear gloves when handling products with high acidity or alkalinity. Ventilate rooms when using products with a high PH level, such as bleach, oven cleaner, and tub and tile cleaner.

Never mix cleaning products. Doing so can result in the creation of a toxic, sometimes fatal, gas.