How do Cleaning Detergents Work?

Cleaning Detergents Work

We always have dirty surfaces around us which need cleaning. Global Marine Renew Able Says, we grab our reliable detegents to do the cleaning, but, have you ever wondered how do cleaning detergents work? What makes them so efficient for cleaning boats, surfaces, or clothes? If you’d like know, read on below:

What cleaning are detergents made of?

The are four main components that makeup detergents are surfactants, carriers, chelators, and builders.

How cleaning detergents work

The above four elements work together, creating a mechanical action which removes dirt.


It is an abbreviation for the surface active agent. Like the name implies, they stir up activity on any surface you clean. Despite having different types of surfactants, all possess a hydrophilic tail and hydrophobic head.

The hydrophilic tail is water hating, while the hydrophobic head is water loving. When cleaning, the rear surrounds the dirt, while water surrounds the head.

When there are ample surfactant molecules in the cleaning solution, they combine and form micelles. Micelles are structures which ,during formation, ensure the surfactants head are in the water and the tails are clustered together away from the water. The micelles work together to get rid of the dirt.

There are three classifications of surfactants; cationic, nonionic, and anionic. The latter creates a lot more foam than the rest, and their hydrophilic end consists of negative charges. These negative charges help the detergent lift and suspend the dirt in the micelles.

As for nonionic surfactants, their hydrophilic ends do not possess any charges. Their neutral ends enable them to emulsify soils.

The hydrophilic ends of cationic surfactants possess a positive charge which gives them anti-static properties. They are common in fabric softeners. However, if mixed with anionic surfactants, then they fall off the solution and become ineffective.


They help in dissolving soils. Typically, water is a widely used carrier. After the surfactants reduce surface tension, water can penetrate the dirt, breaking the dirt molecules into small pieces. Once in small pieces, the soil gets suspended in the solution and moves away from the surface.

However, some cleaning detergents have chemical solvents. These solvents serve the same function as water, breaking up dirt molecules to smaller fragments. Nonetheless, some of these chemical solvents may be hazardous.


They are substances which bind metal ions and eliminate them from the solution. They play the most crucial role and determine the effectiveness of the detergent.

Metal ions such as manganese and calcium are present in water. The detergent surfactants are attracted to these ions, thus distracting them from removing dirt.

Chelators help attract these metal ions in water and make the ions surround them. The ions are then trapped by the electronic charges of the chelators. Thus, the detergent is no longer attracted to the atoms and can now focus on the dirt.


They are added to enhance the effectiveness of the detergent. Builders act as emulsifying, buffering, and softening agents. Similar to chelators, they soften water through neutralizing metal ions in the solution.

Builders neutralize ions by sequestration, precipitation, or by holding metal ions. The metal ions then become insoluble materials.

The buffering agents in builders help maintain the pH level of the solution. It is essential since the level of alkalinity affects the effectiveness of the detergent.

Builders act as emulsifiers by loosening the dirt on a surface and breaking the soil in small fragments. Examples of builder include potassium hydroxide and sodium citrate.


With our detailed explanation above, you are in a position to understand the chemistry behind cleaning detergents. The next time you reach out for a detergent for cleaning homes or cleaning boats, you will appreciate the process as the dirt disappear.

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