Blog, Cleaning

Abrasives, Acids, Detergent & Degreasers, the 4 Types of Cleaning Agents

There are four main types of cleaning agents. We explain when to use each type of cleaning agents and what they do.

You’ve come to the right place if you’re interested in learning about cleaning agents, how cleaning solutions function or why baking soda is such a potent component. In order to help you clean more effectively and efficiently, we’ll explain the science behind some of the most popular cleaning techniques and equipment. Without getting too technical, see which agent is right for each cleaning task.

Depending on the item to be cleaned, the cleaning technique, and the kind of soiling discovered on the item, different cleaning agents are employed.

Although there are a huge variety of cleaning products available, they all eventually fall into one of four main categories: abrasives, acids, degreasers and detergents. In the end, each has a unique goal to complete, therefore it’s important to make sure you’re employing the right agent for the work at hand. In this blog, we explain where and when you should (and shouldn’t!) be utilising each one in order to make sure you’re property is clean and hygienic.

abrassive cleaning materials

Abrasive Cleaning Agents

You need an abrasive to remove a large volume of soil from a tiny, heat-resistant area. Both powdered and liquid versions of these cleaners are available, as well as scouring pads. A physical, mineral or chemical force produces the abrasive action. Abrasives can be chemicals, materials, or minerals like feldspar, calcite, silica, and more. They can also be substances like salt, baking soda, and powdered borax. Read labels carefully as the level of abrasiveness of these items can vary, often dependent on colour coding. Generally speaking, the harsher the cleaner, the larger the particles employed in the product.

Hydrochloric acid or muriatic acid is a colorless inorganic chemical system with the formula H2O:HCl. Strong and toxic acid for industrial use

Acid Cleaning Agents

Any cleaning solution with a pH of six or lower is considered an acid. Acids can be quite mild or extremely strong. Because of their pH, substances like coffee, cola, vinegar, and lemon are all regarded as acids. Cleaners for hard water or mineral deposits, toilet bowls, rust stains, tub and tile cleaners, and mould removers are all examples of acidic cleansers. When used in cleaning solutions, acids assist break down stubborn stains like soap scum, rust, or mineral deposits. You can use mild acids like vinegar and lemon juice around the house to aid with tiny spills or on a wider range of surfaces.

No matter what kind of acid you use to clean with, you should always use extreme caution and use safety goggles and a skin barrier (such as gloves). And never misuse these products; never keep them on surfaces for a longer period of time than recommended.



Degreasers are cleaning agents that are typically used to remove organic soils such fats, oils, and proteins. For optimal results, use alkaline (or higher pH) solutions to remove organic soils. You need a cleanser with a higher alkaline level the more caked on the mess is. For instance, oven cleaners are quite alkaline because they have to remove baked-on carbonised messes that accumulate over time. The mild degreasers at the opposite end of the range are typically utilised in cleaning the kitchen or garage; they are also present in the cleaners you use in your laundry room. Mild degreasers are made with the intention of maintaining the integrity of the surface they are being applied on.

They will not etch or fade. Degreasers of any kind should never be combined with other chemical cleaning products like bleach, acids, caustics, or ammonia.



A detergent is a synthetic, man-made derivative cleaning agent that belongs to the category of water-soluble or liquid organic preparations. They can emulsify oils, keep debris in suspension, and serve as wetting agents. One of our most effective tools in the battle to maintain a clean atmosphere is mild detergent. In the end, these cleansers are really versatile and exist in a variety of forms (from gel and powder to liquid), but practically all detergents on the market need water to function (so it’s not a completely common option).

Avoid using detergents on surfaces like cast iron frying pans, leather, silk, hardwood floors, and reflective surfaces.

team of cleaners

Handling cleaning products properly

Keep in mind that exposure to the chemicals found in cleaning products can cause respiratory issues, skin irritations, chemical poisoning, and, in severe situations, even death. All staff should receive the required training on chemical dangers, safe product handling techniques, and what personal protective equipment should be worn when handling the product.

Among the best cleaning agent handling techniques are:

  • wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling the product, such as gloves or safety glasses,
  • following the manufacturer’s instructions when using the product or disposing of the product,
  • cleaning and sanitising cleaning equipment, such as brushes, mops, and other janitorial tools after use and storing them in a secure place.

Definitions and Warnings on Labels

There are severe labelling requirements that must be observed since chemicals are categorised as irritants that could be dangerous to human health and the environment. Whether the chemical elements are extremely flammable, poisonous, corrosive, or hazardous will be denoted by symbols and drawings.

A red diamond surrounded by a black exclamation mark and two new symbols were recently introduced. This denotes potential health risks, such as eye or skin irritation or dangerous ingestion. Additionally, a red diamond with a blackhead-like image inside it and a white star covering its shoulders denotes the potential for respiratory sensitizers, reproductive toxicity, and germ cell abnormalities.

Wearing protective gloves and eye protection is advised while using high alkaline cleansers and degreasers to avoid injury. When different degreasing products are used with bleach, a chemical reaction may occur that results in the formation of toxic chlorine gas.

It is key that all substances that are hazardous to health are effectively managed.


COSHH stands for ‘Control of Substances Hazardous to Health’.

The COSHH regulations are designed to protect workers from injury and ill health when working with specific substances and materials.

RFM Chemical labels

Always sanitise after cleaning

An area that is free of germs requires more than just cleaning. Detergent is used for cleaning, however it doesn’t eliminate germs or other microbes that can lead to food poisoning. Sanitizing must come after cleaning in order to eradicate microorganisms and guarantee a sanitary work environment.

Additionally, thorough cleaning and sanitising:

  • keep pests out of your place of business
  • the avoidance of contamination
  • reduce cross-contamination-related allergic responses

Step by Step Guide to Switching Facilities Providers

We speak to businesses every day who feel they ‘don’t want the hassle’ of switching suppliers or are unsure about the terms of their current contract. That’s why we’ve created a Step by Step Guide to Switching Facilities Providers. See our three simple steps to switching your supplier and how easy it can be to make a significant positive impact on your business.

Whats the difference between cleaning chemicals and cleaning agents?

Cleaning chemicals and cleaning agents are related terms, but they refer to different aspects of the cleaning process. Here’s an explanation of the difference between the two:

  1. Cleaning Chemicals:

    • Cleaning chemicals are substances or products specifically designed and formulated to assist in the cleaning process.
    • These chemicals often contain active ingredients that help break down dirt, stains, grease, grime, and other contaminants on surfaces.
    • Cleaning chemicals can be categorized into various types based on their intended use, such as disinfectants, degreasers, detergents, sanitisers, and stain removers.
    • They are available in various forms, including liquids, powders, gels, sprays, and wipes.
    • Cleaning chemicals may contain various chemical compounds, including surfactants, solvents, enzymes, acids, alkalis, and antimicrobial agents, depending on their purpose.
  2. Cleaning Agents:

    • Cleaning agents, on the other hand, refer to the substances or components used in the cleaning process, which may or may not include cleaning chemicals.
    • Cleaning agents encompass a broader range of materials, including water, brushes, scrubbers, cloths, sponges, mops, and other tools and equipment used for cleaning.
    • While cleaning chemicals are one type of cleaning agent, cleaning agents also include mechanical actions (e.g., scrubbing), thermal actions (e.g., using hot water), and even the physical properties of the cleaning tools themselves (e.g., abrasive surfaces on scrub pads).

Cleaning chemicals are a subset of cleaning agents

In summary, cleaning chemicals are a subset of cleaning agents. Cleaning agents encompass all the tools, materials, and substances used in the cleaning process, whereas cleaning chemicals specifically refer to the chemical products formulated to aid in cleaning tasks by targeting and removing specific types of dirt or contaminants. Effective cleaning often involves a combination of cleaning agents, including both chemicals and physical tools, to achieve the desired cleanliness and sanitation standards.

Frequently Asked Questions: The four main types of cleaning agents

Here are some frequently asked questions about the four main types of cleaning agents:

  1. What are the four main types of cleaning agents?

The four main types of cleaning agents are water, detergents, acids, and alkalis.

  1. What is the primary function of water in cleaning?

Water is a universal solvent that is able to dissolve a wide range of substances, making it an effective cleaning agent on its own or when combined with other cleaning agents. Water is often used to remove dirt, grime, and other contaminants from surfaces, as well as to rinse away cleaning agents after use.

  1. What is the primary function of detergents in cleaning?

Detergents are surfactants that are able to break down and remove dirt, oil, and other contaminants from surfaces. They work by emulsifying the contaminants, allowing them to be rinsed away with water. Detergents are commonly used in cleaning products for laundry, dishes, and surfaces.

  1. What is the primary function of acids in cleaning?

Acids are chemical compounds that have a low pH and are able to dissolve and remove certain types of stains and contaminants, such as rust and hard water deposits. They are commonly used in cleaning products for removing scale and mineral deposits, as well as for brightening and sanitizing surfaces.

  1. What is the primary function of alkalis in cleaning?

Alkalis are chemical compounds that have a high pH and are able to dissolve and remove certain types

FAQs About Cleaning Chemicals

1. What are cleaning chemicals?

Cleaning chemicals, also known as cleaning agents or cleaning products, are substances specifically formulated to remove dirt, stains, germs, and other contaminants from various surfaces and objects. They are used for both domestic and commercial cleaning purposes.

2. What types of cleaning chemicals are available?

Cleaning chemicals come in a wide range of types, including disinfectants, detergents, degreasers, sanitisers, bleach, solvents, abrasives, and more. Each type serves a specific cleaning purpose.

3. Are cleaning chemicals safe to use?

Many cleaning chemicals can be safe when used correctly and as directed. However, it’s crucial to read product labels, follow instructions, and take appropriate safety precautions, such as wearing gloves and ensuring proper ventilation. Some cleaning chemicals may contain hazardous ingredients, so it’s essential to handle them with care.

4. What are some common safety precautions when using cleaning chemicals?

Safety precautions when using cleaning chemicals include wearing protective gear (gloves, goggles, and masks), ensuring adequate ventilation, keeping chemicals out of reach of children and pets, and never mixing different chemicals unless instructed to do so.

5. Can cleaning chemicals be harmful to the environment?

Yes, some cleaning chemicals can be harmful to the environment. Certain ingredients in cleaning products may contribute to air or water pollution if not disposed of properly. Environmentally friendly or “green” cleaning products are available as a more eco-conscious alternative.

6. How do I choose the right cleaning chemical for a specific task?

Select a cleaning chemical based on the type of surface or material you need to clean and the type of contaminants you want to remove. Read product labels for guidance on suitable applications and follow manufacturer recommendations.

7. What is the difference between disinfectants and sanitisers?

Disinfectants and sanitisers both kill or reduce the number of germs on surfaces, but they have different levels of effectiveness. Disinfectants are stronger and capable of killing a broader range of pathogens, while sanitisers reduce the number of germs to a lower, safer level.

8. Can cleaning chemicals expire?

Yes, cleaning chemicals can expire or lose their effectiveness over time. Check the product label for expiration dates or indications of shelf life. Using expired cleaning chemicals may result in reduced cleaning power.

9. How should I store cleaning chemicals safely?

Store cleaning chemicals in their original containers, out of reach of children and pets, and in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight or heat sources. Keep the containers tightly sealed to prevent leaks and contamination.

10. What should I do if I accidentally ingest or come into contact with cleaning chemicals?

If you or someone else accidentally ingests, inhales, or gets cleaning chemicals on the skin or in the eyes, seek immediate medical attention. Follow the first aid instructions on the product label and contact medical services if needed.

11. Can cleaning chemicals be used on all surfaces?

No, not all cleaning chemicals are suitable for all surfaces. Some chemicals may damage or discolour certain materials. Always check the product label or manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure compatibility with the surface you intend to clean.

12. Are there alternatives to chemical cleaning products?

Yes, there are alternative cleaning methods and products, such as steam cleaning, vinegar, baking soda, and eco-friendly cleaning solutions. These options can be effective for many cleaning tasks and are often considered safer for both health and the environment.

Remember that using cleaning chemicals responsibly, following safety guidelines, and choosing the right product for the job are essential practices to ensure effective and safe cleaning.


A full glossary of cleaning terms can be found in RFM Group’s Industry Terms in Cleaning Glossary.

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