Cleaning Products Logo

What is a Detergent?

A detergent is a chemical compound that removes "soil".

The term "SOIL" refers to any stain or dirt that has to be removed. Chemical cleaning compounds are based on detergent concentrates produced through a process called sulphonation and are referred to as sulphonates.

These are the primary ingredients used in household detergents and cleaners. Detergents are biodegradable which means that after use they break down biologically so that the environment does not become polluted.

That's Detergent

There is a natural "SURFACE TENSION" between grease and water. This is where the old saying of "oil and water don't mix" comes from.

The main function of a detergent is to break down the surface tension that exists between grease and water. They are referred to as "surface active agents" or "surfactants". Another function is to remove the dirt (or SOIL) in question.

This dirt usually comes as:
1. Soluble salts (sodium chloride is an example).
2. Common dirt such as dust or soot.
3. Oils and fats.

The soluble salts can easily be removed by soaking but grease may hold the dirt on to the fibre or surface. Agitation will not be sufficient to remove the dirt, so a "surface active agent" must be used to assist removal.

Detergents have millions of molecules of electrically charged particles called ions, when dissolved in water. These molecules consist of two parts, Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic. The hydrophobic is the organic hydro-carbon part of the molecule and does not like water but dissolves easily in grease. The Hydrophilic is the sulphonate part of the molecule and dissolves easily in water.

How does a detergent work?

There is a "surface tension" to water with the molecules lining up. On dissolving detergent in the water the surface tension is broken down and the molecules separate into small spheres called micelles. The spheres can hold hydrophobic dirt and oil particles as they escape into suspension. Manual or mechanical agitation is necessary to obtain best results.


Are produced by different processes.

Alcohols are derived from Coconut oil, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and petroleum derived fractions combined with benzene, sulphonated with sulphuric acid.

These surfactants are normally used combined with acid, alkaline salts or solvents in formulas aimed at a specific need.

Four major types of surfactants are:
1. Non-ionic.
2. Anionic.
3. Cationic.
4. Amphoteric.

Non-ionic: This is the most commonly used surfactant and there are many types. They are made by combining ethylene oxide molecules derived from petroleum fractions into water soluble polymers that reconnect to a water insoluble molecule.

Anionic: The negative charged part of the molecule is known as an ANION. In an Anion is the active part of the surfactant. The properties of the surfactant are determined by the size of its petroleum fractions. The most commonly used anionic surfactants are made up by the action of concentrated sulphuric acid on benzene derivatives and is known as SULPHONIC ACID.

Cationic: In this surfactant the cation is the positively charged portion of the molecule and is the active part. The most commonly used cationic are the h atoms are replaced by many different kinds of organic groups. Cationic surfactants are generally poor cleaners but are widely used as germicides, fabric softeners and Anti-static agents.

Amphoteric: Hawley's condensed Chemical Dictionary describes this surfactant as "having the capacity of behaving either as an acid or a base". Amphoteric Depending on the conditions under which they are used they may react to either acids or alkalis.

Use of Detergents in Cleaning Surfaces.

The types pf surfaces to be cleaned are endless and range from engines, machinery, floors, walls, etc. through to dishes, carpets, fabric, etc...

The smoothness of the surface will affect the ability to clean. A rough or pitted surface tends to trap dirt and will therefore be more difficult to clean than a smooth surface. The most commonly used solvent is water. Water by itself is a poor wetting agent as many common soils (such as proteins and grease) are insoluble in water. The addition of a surfactant to the water enables the water to remove the soil.

The "wet ability" of the surface must be considered. In the case of woven fabrics it is very important for the detergent and water solution to penetrate the fibres. Cotton is an easily wetted material but materials like nylon and polyester are very hydrophobic. This means that they repel water and should be washed frequently and not allowed to become too heavily soiled. The greater the movement between the cleaning agent and the surface, the better the detergent will work.

Examples of this are mechanical agitation (a washing machine), a movement of the solvent when a detergent is sprayed (a dishwashing machine) or by manual cleaning (scrubbing).

Temperature can also affect the time it takes for a detergent to work. With some products heat will assist the process. With other soils such as blood and egg stains (protein) it is best to use cold water since heat will make them sticky.

Powdered Alkaline Cleaners:
Powdered alkaline cleaners are blends of alkaline salts. Each salt has a specific cleaning property. Brief examples of these properties are as follows.

Sodium Hydroxide:
Sodium Hydroxide is sometimes called Caustic Soda or Lye. It is added to neutralize acidic soil. It should never be used in the presence of Aluminum as it attacks that metal.

Sodium Silicate:
Added to disperse solids and assist detergency. The silicate softens the water and keeps the alkalinity level high. It protects the metal parts of a washing machine from corrosion.

Trisodium Phosphate:
Also known as TSP. Assists in peptizing (dispersing into a colloidal state) the soil.

Also known TPPP. A conditioner that softens the water and therefore assists the organic surfactant and aids rinse ability.

Sodium Tripolyphosphate:
Also known as STPP. A very commonly used phosphate as an ingredient in laundry powders. On hydrolysis it yields TSP and TSPP.

Sodium Sulphate:
Its function is to keep the powder mixture dry (and not going "tacky") by keeping the granules separated for the purpose of easy-pouring and free-flowing.

Sodium Perborate:
When dissolved in water releases hydrogen peroxide producing small bubbles of oxygen which remove stain discoloration without affecting the fabric or damaging the colors of the material.

Index and Descriptions of Chemicals

Alcohol: Ethyl, Methyl, Butyl, Propyl and Isopropyl are mentioned. Ethyl alcohol is the ingredient in alcoholic drinks. Ethyl alcohol that has been made unfit for consumption purposes has been denatured. It is called Denatured alcohol. It is used extensively in industry. It is used as a solvent for cosmetic products, perfumes, etc...

Methyl alcohol is a poison if consumed. It is also known as "Wood Alcohol". Normal Butyl alcohol is used as a solvent for items such as paint removers and industrial cleaners.

Propyl alcohol (also known as Propanol) is widely used as a solvent for lotions, essential and other oils, cellulose derivatives, coatings, etc...

Ammonia: Commercial grade ammonia is very strong and is at a strength of 28%. The ammonia known as "household ammonia" is a much diluted solution of the commercial grade in water. Chemical name is Ammonium Hydroxide. Handle with care.

Ammonium Carbonate: also known as "Hartshorne". A white powder which is soluble in cold water, when heated produces irritating fumes. Used in a wide range of products from pharmaceuticals to cleaners.

Benzene: A highly volatile liquid. Very widely used as a solvent. Highly flammable and can be toxic by prolonged inhalation. Handle with great care.

Butyl oxitol: Refer to Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl ether.

Calcium Carbonate: A white powder commonly known as Chalk. It is also known as whiting and precipitated whiting. Used as a filler in a range of products from paints to toothpastes and metal cleaners.

Coconut Diethanolomide: This is a commonly known in the chemical trade as CDE. This is a non-ionic component in Shampoos, Detergents and Bubble baths. It has foam boosting/stabilizing properties. It is also a viscosity modifying agent.

Creosote: Also known as Wood tar, Tar oil, Creosote oil. It is a yellowish to dark greenish brown oily liquid. At temperatures over 38 degrees Celsius it clears. Obtained by distilling coal-tar. Widely used as a wood preservative. It is also used as a fungicide, disinfectant and biocide.

Cresylic Acid: A commercial mixture of phenolic materials. Made from petroleum or coal tar. Corrosive to skin. Used in w wide range of products from pesticides, metal cleaners to disinfectants.

E.D.T.A.: Common term for Ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid. It is used in detergents, liquid soaps, metal cleaners, pharmaceutical products, and many other things.

Ethylene Glycol: Also known as Glycol. A clear colorless syrup liquid which is soluble in both water and alcohol. Widely used in the cosmetic industry and as an anti-freeze agent.

Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether: Also known as Butyl Cello solve. Work in a well ventilated area. Is a solvent used in spray lacquers, quick drying lacquers, enamels, varnishes, varnish removers, etc also used in various cleaning products.

Formalin: A solution of between 37% and 50% of formaldehyde in water (sometimes 15% methanol is added). It has a wide range of uses but the most common one is its use as a preservative.

Glycerol: Also known as Glycerin and Glycol alcohol. A sweet tasting clear, colorless and odorless syrupy liquid. Soluble in both water and alcohol. It is widely used in industry. Instances are pharmaceutical items, perfumery, cosmetics, inks, special soaps, hydraulic fluids, antifreeze mixtures and many more.

Hydrochloric Acid: Some years ago it was known as Muratic Acid. A colorless or slightly yellow fuming liquid. Comes in a commercial strength of 38%. Widely used industry for boiler scale removal, ore reduction, food processing, pickling and metal cleaning, general cleaning, etc.etc...

Lanolin: Also known as Wool Fat. Derived from sheep's wool. Widely used in cosmetics, soaps, face creams, ointments and similar products.

Linseed oil: A yellow-gold to brown colored oil. Soluble in turpentine, ether, grades (Raw boiled, blown, etc.) Used in paints, polishes, varnishes, putty, inks, soaps and pharmaceuticals.

Methylene Chloride: This is a colorless, volatile liquid. It has a penetrating ether-like smell. Used in paint removers, solvent degreasing, aerosol propellant, etc. Only use in very well ventilated area. Hazards are that it is toxic, narcotic and a carcinogen.

Mineral Turpentine: Refer to white spirits and Stoddard solvent.

Monoethanalomine: Known in the chemical trade as MEA. Also known as Ethanolamine. It is a colorless thick liquid. Soluble in water, methanol and acetone. Used in emulsion paints, as a corrosion inhibitator, dry-cleaning detergents, polishes, pharmaceuticals, etc.

Oleic Acid: Commercial grade is a yellow to red oily liquid. It is derived from animal tallow or vegetable oils. Not soluble in water. Soluble in alcohols and most organic solvents. Widely used as a base in the manufacture of lubricants, ointments, soaps, polishing compounds, cosmetic etc...

Para dichlorobenzene: Comes in white crystal form. Commonly used in the manufacture of solid deodorants and insect repellents.

Petrolatum: (solid form) Known as Petroleum jelly. This is a solid form it is called Petroleum Jelly, Paraffin Jelly and Vaseline and other names. It is yellow, light amber or white in color. It is practically odorless and tasteless. Used as an ointment and cosmetics base. It is also used as a general lubricant.

Petrolatum Liquid: Known as Liquid paraffin. In its liquid form it is called Liquid Paraffin, Mineral oil, White Mineral oil and Paraffin oil. It is a colorless oily liquid and is practically tasteless and odorless, even when warmed. It comes in three densities (the "lightest" is 0,83-0,86 and the "heavy" is 0,875-0,905) It is used as a laxative, externally as a protectant and as a lubricant. Note: It must not be confused with what is commonly sold in Southern Africa as "Illuminating paraffin".

Paraffin Wax: Also known as Paraffin Scale and Paraffin. It is a White, Taste-less, odorless, translucent solid. It comes in different grades (yellow crude scale, white scale, refined wax, etc.) It is also graded by melting point in Fahrenheit degrees. It is widely used in industry in polishes, lubricants, protective coating of food products and numerous other things. It is also widely used in the manufacture of candles.

Paraffin: Read the item on Petrolatum carefully. Phosphoric Acid: colorless water-soluble syrup liquid. The commercial grade comes at 85% strength. It comes in 3 forms (Orthophosphoric, Pyrophosphoric and metaphosporic). The acid used in commerce is orthophosphoric. It has uses ranging from medicine to fertilizers but in our books it is used for its anti-rust properties.

Pine Oil: A colorless to light amber oily liquid having a strong pine smell. It is a disinfectant, wetting agent and preservative. Quaternary Ammonium Compound: Commonly known in the trade as QAC. One of a Group of cationic surface active coordination compounds. There are many compounds that fall into this category. The names of just two of them are Hexamethonium chloride and penpyrifinium chloride-there are many more. Do not worry about these names however-just ask your supplier for QAC. It is widely used as a disinfectant, cleanser and sterilizer. It is used in the cosmetic business as a deodorant, dandruff remover and emulsion stabilizer. A widely used local term is "Bac 50".

Rottenstone: The common name of soft, friable aluminum silicate. Also known as "Tripoli". It is a mild abrasive powder and is used as a polishing agent.

Soda Ash: Commonly known as Washing soda. The chemical name is Sodium Carbonate. Widely used in a range of detergents and soaps. Also used in water treatment and cleaning processes.

Sodium Bicarbonate: Also known as Baking soda. Widely used as the effervescent base for salts, minerals and soda waters. Also used as an antacid and mouthwash. Often used in cleaning preparations. Used as a de-odorant.

Sodium Gluconate: A white to yellow powder which is soluble in water. Used in paint strippers, rust removal, metal cleaners and many other products.

Sodium Hydroxide: This is the chemical name for the substance called Caustic soda. It is also sometimes known as "lye".

Sodium Hypochlorite: This is common bleach used widely in industry and in the home. In addition to being the most common bleach used in laundering it is also widely used as a fungicide, germicide, disinfectant, in water purification, swimming pool disinfectant and other uses.

Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulphate: Commonly known in the trade as SLS or SLES. Small white or light yellow crystals. Soluble in water. Used as a wetting agent in the textile industry.

Sodium Metasilicate, Anhydrous: White granules that are soluble in water. Used extensively for laundry, floor cleaning, metal cleaning, dairy cleaning. Also used as a bleaching aid.

Sodium nitrate: Comes in granular, sticks or powder. In our drain cleaner formula use powder. Used in many capacities from rocket propellant, fertilizer, dynamites, pharmaceuticals, etc... In our formula used as ingredient to a drain cleaner.

Sodium Orthophosphate: Also known as Sodium Phosphate and TSP. Colorless crystals that is soluble in water. Used in industrial cleaners, water softeners, boiler water compounds, detergents, paint removers. Sodium Perborate: A white odorless powder, soluble in water. Decomposes in water to release oxygen. Tetra hydrate form used in domestic detergents. Is a bleaching agent used in laundry powders. Also used as a mild antiseptic and denture cleaner.

Sodium Sulfate: White crystals or powder. An ingredient in a scouring powder. Other uses are as in ingredient in a synthetic detergents and soaps.

Sodium Tripolyphosphate: A White powder, soluble in water. Also known by the abbreviation of STPP. Often used as a water softener (especially in conjunction with other detergent chemicals).

Stearic Acid: Wax like solid. Soluble in alcohol, ether and carbon disulphide. Not soluble in water. Derived from high grade tallow's or from oleic acid. Used in the manufacture of stearic acid.

Stearin: Also known as Glycerol stearate, tristearin. Is a constituent of most fats. Used in the manufacture of soaps, candles, metal polishes, etc... Used in the manufacturing of stearic acid.

Stoddard Solvent: A widely used dry cleaning solvent. Also known as White spirits and Mineral Turpentine. Used in dry cleaning and spot and stain removal. Used in variety of industrial cleaners. Not usually known as Stoddard Solvent in Southern Africa.

Tall Oil: This is a mixture of rosin acids, fatty acids and other materials as a by-product from the pulping of pine wood. Used in disinfectants, paints, drilling oils, lubricants, etc...

Trichloroethane: A liquid with chloroform like smell. Always work with it in a well ventilated area. Do not inhale the vapors. Used in dry cleaning, Fumigating, cleaning and drying electric parts and as a dilatants in paints and adhesives.

Trisodium Phosphate: Commonly known in the chemical trade as TSP. Also known as Sodium Phosphate, tribasic and trisodium orthophosphate. Used for a variety of purposes, some being, water softening, Detergent, metal cleaner, laundering, paint removing, industrial cleaner. It has many other uses in the fabric, food and photographic industries.

Waxes: Waxes used in the production of wax polishes are basically of 5 types. There are the hard ones like Carnuba, Montan and Ceresin and the softer ones like Beeswax and Paraffin wax. Combinations of these are used to make a wax to penetrate the market aimed for. Most of the waxes mentioned are based on natural plant and animal waxes. SASOL now have a wide range of synthetic waxes which can duplicate the role of the natural waxes and, being locally produced, are more cost effective.

White Spirits: Refer to Stoddard Solvent.

Xylol: Known in most countries as Xylene. It is a clear liquid which is soluble in alcohol and ether but is not soluble in water. Care must be taken when working with it as it is flammable. Fumes must not be inhaled. It is a solvent for, amongst other things, alkyd resins, lacquers, enamels, rubber cements, etc...

We realize that some of the chemical names mentioned in our books might be confusing to a starter in the chemical manufacturing business.

The above explanations will give you a basic knowledge of their description and what they do. The above information has been passed on to give you a general idea of the properties and usages of the different ingredients.

Envirochem cc cannot be held accountable for any omission which may have occurred from our sources. As we have informed you elsewhere, reference should be made to the data sheets supplied by the suppliers of chemicals or to authorities like the Merck Index or Hawley's Condensed Chemical Dictionary.

Read our page on "cautions" very carefully, especially the possible hazards with solvents and acids.

It is our aim to give our clients as good a background as possible so that they can be successful in their venture. I sincerely hope that these notes are of help to you.

Buy now!