Soaps and cleaners 101

By Jake Anderson

Soaps and detergents are heavily integrated into our lives. We use them to wash and clean our clothes, our dishes, and ourselves. The terms soap and detergent are often used interchangeably but are chemically different.
soap bubbles

Soaps are derived from fats and oils1, whereas detergents are synthetically derived and represent a diverse group of chemicals2. For the purposes of this discussion, the terms soap and detergent will be collectively referred to as cleaners.

Cleaning and animal health


The importance of using cleaners has been long established and their use is often of second nature. In animal health, these cleaners are just as — if not more — important as they are the foundation of a proper cleaning and disinfection (C&D) program.

The animal production facility environment lends itself well to the survival of infectious agents beyond what is typical in other environments.3 This extended survival is attributed to the organic load that is present in these facilities in the form of dirt, dust, feed, feces, etc.

The removal of the organic load on a surface prior to disinfecting is critical. If the organic matter is not removed prior to the application of a disinfectant, the efficacy of the disinfectant is negatively impacted by interaction with the organic matter. As well, there will be reduced contact with organisms on the surface.3 Organic matter must be cleaned off surfaces as much as possible prior to final disinfection.

The importance of proper cleaning and ensuring surfaces are clean prior to disinfection cannot be overstated. Think of the C&D process like a hand — four fingers and one thumb. Each finger represents cleaning and the thumb represents disinfection. Clean, clean, clean, clean, then disinfect.

Cleaning accounts for 80 percent of the C&D process, while disinfection only 20 percent. No amount of chemical can substitute for clean.

Cleaners available today are chemically diverse and are formulated from a laundry list of ingredients. These encompass alkalis, acids, chelators, oxidizers, solvents, and surfactants. Each ingredient in the formulation has a specific purpose to facilitate the breakdown and removal of surface soils. The number of individual product offerings in this category are just as diverse as the chemicals that compose them. Selecting a cleaner can be a daunting task due to the wide array of offerings; however, it can be somewhat simplified by splitting the cleaners into categories.

Cleaners used in animal health


Most cleaners used in animal health can be divided into two primary categories: alkaline cleaners and acidic cleaners. Alkaline cleaners have a pH of greater than 7; most have a hydroxide base such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH). Acidic cleaners have a pH of less than 7, will be acid-based, and can be composed of a variety of acids.

The importance in the distinction of the two cleaners is this: each type of cleaner is best suited to cleaning different types of soils.

Alkaline cleaners are better suited to clean soils that are composed of organic matter such as oils, fats, and grease. Acidic cleaners are suited to cleaning inorganic soils like mineral deposits. One example is calcium scale from hard water.

Cleaning accounts for 80 percent of the C&D process while disinfection only 20 percent. No amount of chemical can substitute for clean.


Alkaline cleaners are used for the bulk of cleaning in animal health applications due to the nature of the soils that are encountered. Acidic cleaners are more often used on a rotational or as-needed basis for the removal and control of scale formation. 

Cleaners are also sub-categorized by their foaming qualities or lack thereof. These foaming characteristics are separated into foaming or low or no-foam offerings. The importance of distinguishing the two is for the intended application.

Cleaners that are used for cleaning surfaces such as walls, floors, or animal enclosures are typically designed to produce foam. The production of foam in these types of applications allows for longer contact time on the surface in order to give the product more time to work on breaking down and removing the soil. Cleaners used in mechanical washers are typically no or low-foam formulations. This prevents equipment issues such as pump cavitation and over formation of foam. 

There are also niche-type categories of cleaners that are differentiated by chemicals that they do or do not contain. These product lines are typically designed for applications where discharge of chemicals such as phosphates, among others, are scrutinized by various regulatory agencies but still fall into the categories as described above. 

The selection of a cleaner is based on three things: soil type, surface type, and cleaning method:

  1. Soil type. What needs to be removed from the surface? Is the soil organic in nature, such as dirt, fat, feces, blood, etc.? Or is the soil inorganic in nature, such as scale? As mentioned above, certain types of cleaners are better suited to cleaning certain types of soils. Understand what needs to be removed from the surface and match the soil to the appropriate cleaner.
  2. Surface type. What is being cleaned? Concrete, metal, plastic? Is the cleaner compatible with the surface? Ensure that the cleaner is compatible with the surface that is being cleaned in order to prevent damage.
  3. Cleaning method. Is the cleaning process being done manually or with the use of an automatic washer or another piece of equipment? If the cleaning process is manual, more than likely a foaming cleaner will be used. If an automatic washer is in use, a low or no foam product should be selected; otherwise excessive amounts of foam may be generated.

There are many factors that influence the selection of a cleaner. Taking the time to answer the three questions above can result in well-informed decisions and be the foundation for a successful C&D program. For more information on cleaners, their selection, and the importance of proper use, please reach out to your MWI territory manager. 

Resources
1Bajpai, D. (2007). Laundry detergents: An overview. Journal of OLEO Science, 56(7)
2Smulders et al. (2007). Laundry detergents
3McDonnell, G., & Hansen, J. (2020). Block’s Disinfection, Sterilization, and Preservation (6th ed.). LWW.

About The Author

Jake Anderson

Water Treatment
MWI Animal Health
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