First of all, it is important to realise that the fact that something is naturally derived does not mean it cannot be as effective as something produced synthetically. Some of the best examples come from the world of health and wellbeing. Most of us reach for a cup of chamomile tea if we are having trouble sleeping, rather than jumping straight to strong sedatives in the first instance.
Furthermore, some of the most widely used and effective medicines are either derived or inspired from nature, such as aspirin, digoxin and morphine. It is therefore surprising that we trust natural (or naturally derived products) with our health but most of us are sceptical about their effectiveness in other areas of life, such as in cleaning products.
Natural vs Synthetic Cleaning Agents
Most common cleaning agents fall into the following four categories:
Surfactants (e.g. soap)
Work by solubilising grease, grime and dirt, which is then easily wiped or rinsed away
Acids (e.g. vinegar)
React with mineral deposits such as limescale to produce soluble metal salts that are again easy to wipe from the surface
Alkalis (e.g. bleach)
Work by dissolving fats, oils, grease and other protein-based deposits
Solvents (e.g. alcohol)
Solvents break up stains, dissolve soil particles, and help remove grimy residue from your surfaces.
When comparing like for like (natural vs synthetic cleaning agent), the main mechanism of cleaning action is the same. For example, it does not matter if the acid used is citric acid (natural) or sulfuric acid (synthetic), or the surfactants used are Castile soap or sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), the chemistry remains the same.
We must adapt when working with natural ingredients
In general, the ingredients used in natural cleaning products are chosen for their gentler properties towards our health and environment, and for sustainable sourcing and production. When working with gentler ingredients, we need to compensate in some way to achieve the same result as harsh chemicals. This can either be achieved during the formulation stage of the product, for example by using a combination of cleaning agents that work together in synergy (such as a combination of different surfactants, solvents or acids), or by using larger quantities of natural alternatives (for example, to reach the acidic pH of 2, we need approximately 50x more citric acid than sulfuric acid).
Both natural and synthetic ingredients can be harmful
It’s also important to note that just because something has a natural origin it does not mean it cannot be harmful, and vice versa. For example, both citric (natural) vs sulfuric (synthetic) acids can be equally corrosive to our skin at high concentrations. A lot of purely synthetic ingredients are completely harmless, but the reason we choose to replace them is due to their unsustainable production methods, avoiding any petrochemicals and other unsustainable sources. It is therefore very important to pick the ingredients we use with care.
It matters how you use it
One of the biggest factors when it comes to effectiveness, sustainability and health implications is in the way we use our cleaning products. Here at Purdy & Figg, we believe that cleaning ‘little and often’ allows us to maintain a clean home using carefully formulated eco-friendly products. This avoids any potential health hazards when relying on harsher ingredients to treat built-up problems or overusing them when they’re not needed (such as using antibacterial products at all occasions, but more about this next time!).
Read more about the science behind our Counter Clean and the natural ingredients used HERE.