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How Soap and Detergent Work

Soap May Be the Very First Cleaning Agent

Our forefathers made soap beginning hundreds of years ago by combining animal fat or plant oils with an alkaline like lye.  These combine to make a soap molecule.  One end of the molecule is attracted to water and the other end is attracted to things like grease.  So soap takes the soiled area to be cleaned and separates the grease molecules from the water molecules. The dirt or grease molecules become suspended in the water.   So that when we rinse the surface, we remove both ends of the soap molecule, thus removing the grease as well.  Rinsing is a key step when using soap to clean.  The drawback is that the bond between the two ends are weak and that is what requires so much rinsing.

Detergents Do Not Require as Much Rinsing

Detergents are synthetic cleansers.  They replace the fat or natural oil in the cleaning molecule with a synthetic hydrocarbon chain.  This means the bond between the two ends of the molecule is much stronger. That means that the residue that we are accustomed to dealing with when we use soap is not there.  A quick wipe will remove both the detergent and the grease or soil that it has put in suspension  There are several different classes of detergents, each with varying pH levels.  The higher the pH. the better the product will be on removing grease.  You must be careful when cleaning sensitive surfaces of natural stone such as granite or marble.  These surfaces require a pH of about 7 or neutral on the pH scale, anything higher (or lower) and you risk damaging the surface.

You should always know the pH level of cleaning products you use.  If it is not on the label, call the manufacturer’s phone number or visit their website to find out the information.

You can also call Custom Maid at 499-8568 to do your weekly cleaning in Norfolk. Chesapeake or Virginia Beach.  We thoroughly train our cleaning technicians in how to care for your fine surfaces.

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Editor’s Note:  We originally published this article in March 2014.  We have edited it for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.


  1. Nice article Alison – you really ‘got’ the detergent section in the science chapter of the House Cleaning Technician (HCT) course and could teach it too! Bruce would have added that the need for lots of rinsing after using soap is what led to vinegar’s reputation as a ‘cleaner’. It removed that alkaline residue leaving floors “squeaky clean” – but as a great rinsing agent, not a cleaner. Thanks for the good teaching!