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What to know when buying surface cleaner

A guide to the best cleaning products across different rooms and surfaces.

using multipurpose spray on a benchtop

While few of us actually enjoy cleaning (and those of you who do – my house needs a going-over, please), we do expect that those few dollars we spend on cleaning products aren't just adding to the chemical load in our sewers, but are actually getting rid of the dirt from our house. But what else should you look out for, besides performance?

At CHOICE we don't just test one type of surface cleaner – marketers have diversified into many surface types like multipurpose, bathroom, floor, kitchen and window cleaner. We even test toilet cleaners too.

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How do surface cleaners work?

The main ingredient in surface cleaners is plain old water, but surface cleaners (or the good ones at least) will do a much better job of cleaning than water alone because of their other key ingredients – surfactants, acids, alkalines and alcohol.

Surfactants, or surface acting elements, are found in all manner of household cleaning products, like washing up liquid, laundry detergent and even your shampoo. 

They're unusual molecules because they'll dissolve in both water and grease at the same time. With one part (the head) dissolved in water and the other part (the tail) dissolved in greasy soiling, a surfactant can draw stains up and away.

Acids (citric, lactic and acetic acids are all commonly used) are great at removing mineral-based soils like limescale, tarnishing or even rust.

Alkalines on the other hand are best at removing fatty, oily soils and waxes baked on grease.

Alcohol, either denatured or isopropol alcohol, is a great degreaser – where the water is great for water-soluble stains, alcohol takes care of the oil-soluble stains that water can't clean.

Surface cleaners have other ingredients as well which are designed to make the active ones above work better, kill bacteria, or make them smell nice, but it's the water, surfactants, acid, alkaline and alcohol that do the heavy lifting, leaving your benches sparkling.

How safe are surface cleaners to use?

Many cleaning products are made of chemical concoctions that pose their own health and environmental concerns. And while many products don't list their ingredients on the pack, some labels give an indication of the potential hazards – "Danger/Poison" is the most hazardous, "Warning" is moderately hazardous and "Caution" is slightly toxic.

All products must have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). The MSDS is a document that contains more information about the product than what you see on the label. It details the composition of the product, providing information on the properties of dangerous substances and their effects on health and safety. 

Some ingredients are associated with eye, skin or respiratory irritations while others can have more long-term effects depending on the amount of exposure.

The MSDS also includes information about safe handling and storage procedures, emergency actions and considerations for disposal.

What to consider when buying a surface cleaner

An 'eco-friendly' and sustainable cleaner should be one that's non-toxic, uses natural ingredients and is readily biodegradable so it doesn't have a negative impact on the environment. 

Many surfactants used in cleaners biodegrade slowly or into more threatening chemicals, so look for a product that is biodegradable to AS4315 or an international standard. 

Avoid chlorine or ammonia (listed as active ingredients) and detergents containing phosphates. Rather, look for products made from plant-based ingredients and those that have specific ingredient information listed on the pack. 

Some manufacturers are starting to make improvements in this area, developing products that are not only safer for consumers but also more sustainable for the environment. 

New eco-friendly cleaning products

In recent years products have hit the market that aim to reduce and eliminate the amount of single-use plastic bottles entering landfill. 

They come in the form of dissolvable tablets or powder sachets, and we've tested multipurpose, kitchen and glass cleaners from brands like Cleanery, Eco Turtles Cleaning, Resolv and Re.stor.

To use them, you simply add the tablet or sachet into an empty spray bottle, fill it with water and away you go. They come with minimal packaging and are usually made from plant and mineral based formulations.

In our testing, these dissolvable products generally give mediocre results, and it's likely because the level of active ingredients in them is much more diluted than fully formulated products. 

What surfaces are surface cleaners not suitable for?

While ideally a surface cleaner would clean everything, most cleaners warn they're unsuitable for some surfaces, such as acrylics, wood veneer or unsealed marble. 

Take a close look at the label before buying a product you haven't used before, or patch-test sprays on a small area where any damage or discolouring won't be too noticeable. 

There are a few products that don't list any surface they aren't suitable for, but it's best to be cautious and patch-test with these as well.

Surface cleaners and child safety

Vivid colours are largely for marketing purposes to make products stand out on store shelves, but they can also make surface cleaner sprays very attractive to younger children because they look like cordial. 

Combine that with the fragrance of some of them and they could be a hazard, so remember to store them out of reach of children and pets and switch them to the 'off' position if there's one on the trigger.

Homemade cleaning alternatives

If you're looking to make more sustainable choices when it comes to what you're cleaning your home with, you can make up your own cleaning products with minimal fuss and by using some simple ingredients. 

There are many home recipes you can find using ingredients like bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), white vinegar, pure soap, borax or lemon juice, all readily available from the supermarket to help clean the surfaces of your home. Using microfibre cloths with water is also a great tool for surface cleaning.

Multipurpose cleaner

A multipurpose cleaner can be made using warm water mixed with pure soap or white vinegar for general cleaning throughout the home.

Window cleaner 

Windows can be cleaned by adding half a cup of vinegar to a litre of warm water. 

Kitchen surfaces

Kitchen surfaces can be cleaned by adding bicarbonate of soda to a damp cloth. 

Toilet cleaner

Toilets can be cleaned regularly with hot, soapy water and the seat can be sprayed with vinegar and wiped with a moist cloth. You can also add a cup of vinegar to the toilet bowl and leave it overnight before scrubbing. Stubborn stains can be treated with bicarbonate of soda.

Disposing of old household cleaners

Don't pour old surface cleaners down the drain – our waste water has enough contaminants to deal with without harsh chemicals adding to the workload. There are many recycling areas that will dispose of household cleaners, including many councils that have departments that offer pick-ups or drop-off stations. 

So if you have a store of old household cleaning chemicals – whatever chemicals they include – try searching on Recycling Near You for a list of nearby options so you can get rid of them safely.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.