Multi-purpose cleaners

spray bottles with cleaning fluid

Cleaning the kitchen, bathroom or laundry?

Multi-purpose cleaners are designed to be used on multiple types of surfaces, meaning you don’t need a specific cleaner for a specific area of your home. We tested a range of spray cleaners to see how well they removed greasy soil. Some products performed worse than water, while one cheap cleaner wiped out most of the competition.

From our test

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Our test

White tiles are covered in a greasy soil and, following the manufacturer’s instructions on applying the cleaner, we used a mechanical arm to clean the tile. The tile’s cleanliness is then checked with a spectrophotometer. The test is repeated 8 times and the results are averaged.

Where instructions stated, we applied the cleaner to the tile and left it for the designated time before scrubbing the tile clean. Not all cleaners had application directions. In those cases, we applied the cleaner to a damp sponge before placing the sponge on the tile and scrubbing the tile clean.

How does a cleaner score worse than water?

Yes, water did better than some of the products we bought off the shelf. This is because they acted more as lubricants, reducing the effectiveness of the mechanical scrubbing action and shifting the grime around rather than removing it.

Specialised cleaners

A few products in our test are marketed for specific purposes, such as spot or stain removal, grease removal and bleaching. But all of the cleaners in our test can be used on multiple surfaces. We think you should see through the name and use them as multi-purpose cleaners.

You might want a dedicated kitchen or bathroom cleaner for those areas of the house. Check the ingredients list: a dedicated cleaner can have the same ingredients as a multi-purpose cleaner, and just be labelled differently.

Cleaning wipes

Pre-treated cleaning wipes have become more prevalent in the cleaning aisle. They’re easy to use, the packs are generally resealable, and there’s little mess. But our previous test found wipes consistently performed worse than spray cleaners. Three wipes in the previous test garnered 3 of the lowest scores and we made them “don’t buys”.

We also found they often performed much worse than sprays of the same brand and they’re less economical. The wipes we tested came in packs of 36 or 40 and cost an average of 13¢ per wipe. In comparison, the spray cleaners we tested have, on average, 584 sprays per bottle. So, for example, if you use 5 sprays to clean an area, such as your kitchen bench, it’ll only cost 6¢ and you’d have an average of just under 117 applications per bottle.

You should never flush wipes down the toilet, even if they state they are flushable. Our previous testing of wipes found “flushable” ones don’t break down as readily as claimed. None of the wipes in our test claimed to be flushable.

Making your own multi-purpose cleaner

Pour some vinegar into a spray bottle. They’re available from supermarkets, hardware stores and garden centres, or you can re-use a clean bottle. Make sure to clearly mark it as vinegar or cleaner and keep it out of reach of children. We recommend storing the baking soda in an air-tight container, like a spice shaker. This makes it easier to apply and being air-tight means the baking soda won’t absorb moisture from the air. We also suggest having a second spray bottle of water, for rinsing off after cleaning.

For horizontal surfaces:

  1. For each tile, sprinkle a small amount of baking soda (about ¼ of a teaspoon) on the area to be cleaned.
  2. Spray a few sprays of vinegar (about 3 teaspoons worth).
  3. Once the baking soda starts foaming, scrub the surface.
  4. Rinse with water and wipe with a clean cloth.

For vertical surfaces:

  1. For each tile, sprinkle the baking soda on a cloth.
  2. Spray a few sprays of vinegar onto the cloth and immediately start cleaning the tile.
  3. Rinse with water and wipe with a clean cloth.

Note:

  • Don’t use malt or red wine vinegar. White wine vinegar won’t stain any surfaces, but other vinegars might.
  • Don’t pre-mix the ingredients. The baking soda will dilute in the vinegar mixture, its effervescence will be lost and you’ll probably recreate that school science experiment of making a volcano.

The chemistry

There are a few theories about why baking soda and vinegar works as a cleaning agent. When they are combined, the resulting chemical reaction produces water, carbon dioxide and sodium acetate. Its cleaning ability may be due to bubbling from carbon dioxide being released, the extra water being produced, the abrasive nature of the mixture, or a combination of all 3. But, however it works, it does.

Fragrances

Most cleaners are designed to leave a pleasant smell. Our home-made cleaner had an obvious vinegar fragrance, but you can mask it by adding ingredients such as citrus juice, vanilla or an essential oil. We tried all of these and found adding citrus juice worked the best (we used lemon). However, adding anything to the mixture affects how well it cleans, so try a test batch first.

A soda by any other name

Baking soda is known by many names, but it’s all the same product:

  • Bicarbonate soda
  • Bi-carbonate soda
  • Bi-carb
  • Bread soda
  • Sodium bicarbonate
  • Sodium hydrogen carbonate

Safety first

“Natural” doesn’t mean safe. “Natural” ingredients, even fragrances, can be harmful.

Always keep your cleaners away from children — ideally in a high or locked cupboard.

If anyone swallows cleaning product, immediately rinse out their mouth with water and phone your doctor or the National Poisons Centre (0800 POISON).

Spot test

Whenever using a cleaner for the first time, check it’s safe for your surfaces.

Follow the instructions on the label and spray a small amount the size of a coin onto the surface you want to clean (do this in an area where it won’t matter if it gets damaged). Wait a few hours to see if the product harms the surface.

Surfaces to avoid

Most multi-purpose cleaners shouldn’t be used on metals or unfinished surfaces.

Always check the pack to see which other surfaces should be avoided – we found a wide variety of “unsafe” surfaces listed.

Unless the product’s label specifically says you can, you shouldn’t use multi-purpose cleaners on these surfaces:

  • Acrylic plastics
  • Aluminium
  • Brass
  • Carpet
  • Clear plastics
  • Copper
  • Cracked and damaged surfaces
  • Fabric
  • Granite
  • Halogen hobs
  • Hot surfaces
  • Lacquered surfaces
  • Leather
  • Marble
  • Natural stone
  • Non-glazed surfaces
  • Soft porous surfaces
  • Suede
  • Terrazzo
  • Unfinished wood
  • Unwaxed vinyl
  • Vitroceramics

Claims

We list some of the claims made on the packaging of multi-purpose cleaners but haven’t tested them.

Surfactants can have adverse effects on the environment, but “biodegradable” ones will break down and have little effect. There is an Australian standard, AS4351, some manufacturers may follow but this only applies to surfactants. There are no guarantees the other ingredients are biodegradable.

If you have a septic tank, it can be hard finding household cleaners that are safe to flush down the drain. Cleaners can contain harsh chemicals that can damage a septic tank. We suggest contacting your septic tank manufacturer to see what it recommends.

This means the waste, or “grey”, water is safe for other uses, such as watering the garden. If you are using grey water in your garden, we suggest not using it on food that will be eaten raw.

Some cleaners state they kill a certain percentage of bacteria, but there is little evidence antibacterial cleaners stop the spread of bacteria in a home. There is even the risk they contribute to antibiotic resistance in the environment.

This claim may only apply to some ingredients in the cleaner, and may not mean the entire product is made from plant-based products. There’s no standard against which to measure these claims.

Usually listed on laundry detergents, this claim is best accompanied by a minimum phosphate percentage. See our article on green cleaning products for more about phosphates in dishwashing liquids.

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