Let’s back up a bit and look at the big picture of how things get clean. There are three ways by which anything can be cleaned: Thermally (heat), Mechanically (scrubbing), or Chemically (bonding/dissolving).
Thermal cleaning works in several ways depending on the nature of the dirt. For greasy dirt, heat melts the oil allowing water to wash it away, or if soap or detergent is involved, the liquid grease more easily bonds with the soap or detergent and can be carried away. For germy dirt, heat can kill the beasties. And overall, high enough heat will burn away anything.
With mechanical cleaning, we’re talking about elbow grease, brute force, i.e. old fashioned hard work. Fortunately, many modern devices do the sweaty work for us. We no longer need to beat our carpets with a broom handle; we have vacuum cleaners to beat them for us. We also no longer need to spend hours with a washboard; our washing machines have taken their place. Mechanical methods of cleaning work by pushing, scraping, sucking, blowing, beating, rubbing or otherwise physically moving dirt from an object.
Lastly, let’s take a look at chemicals. The connotation of the word “chemical” can be rather negative, but for the purpose of this classification, even Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap, vinegar, and baking soda are chemicals. Chemicals work at the molecular level, eliminating dirt by either bonding with it so that water can carry it away, or by breaking apart the dirt at the molecular level, or by killing germs through various means of cell destruction.
Combining the power of three
In many situations, we use all three methods without thinking about it. In hand washing dishes, we start with some detergent (chemical), add hot water (thermal), and start scrubbing with a brush (mechanical). In our washing machines, we set the water as hot as the clothes can take (thermal), add some detergent (chemical), and let the machine agitate the clothes clean (mechanical). Even for ourselves, we step into a hot shower (thermal), apply some soap (chemical), and scrub ourselves down (mechanical).
Occasionally, one cleaning method is used alone. When that happens, the intensity of the method must become extreme. For example, when an oven is set on “self clean”, wherein the oven is cleaned by heat (thermal) alone, it reaches a temperature around 900° F. This is why most ovens automatically lock.
Similarly, when chemical cleaning is used alone, the chemical must be extra powerful. Herein lies the problem. The selling point for many conventional cleaners is that they require little, if any, work other than spraying them on. Maybe you’ll have to wipe them away, but maybe just a rinse with water. Maybe not even that.
In order for these chemicals to be able to do that, they must be very intense. They are effective at eliminating dirt and germs, but they do it in such an over the top, no holds barred, anything and everything sort of way. They are toxic to any living thing including us; they don’t readily biodegrade so they’re around for a while; and they’re contributing to a vicious cycle of fostering resistant bacteria which require even harsher chemicals. They’re about as safe as sticking your hand in that 900°F oven.
Instead of relying on these Pyrrhic chemicals, remember the other weapons in your arsenal. When faced with a cleaning challenge, figure out how you can combine thermal, mechanical, and chemical action. These three forces combined will get the job done.