How Cleaning Works

How Cleaning Works

No matter the type of product you are using (soap or detergent), good cleaning takes a lot of energy. Three different kinds to be exact:

• Chemical energy, provided by the soap or detergent
• Mechanical energy, provided by a machine or by hand and
• Thermal energy, provided by heating water.

Let's look at how all these elements work together.

Assume we have a great, big, oily, greasy stain on one of our favorite shirts. Water alone is not enough to remove the stain and get our shirt clean.

Now let's add some laundry detergent. Click the button that says “Chemical”.

The laundry detergent provides chemical energy. This energy is created because of the way the ingredients in the detergent interact with the stain on our shirt. You cannot see it with your eyes, but the molecules in the detergent are attracted to the stain and help pull the dirt from the shirt to the wash water.

Next, let’s see what happens when we add mechanical energy. Click the button that says “Mechanical”.

Inside a washing machine clothes move back and forth rubbing together with other items. This is mechanical energy. The rubbing actions helps to loosen the stain and free it from the surface of our shirt. When you look in your washing machine and see laundry moving, you are watching mechanical energy in action.

Mechanical energy can even be created by hand.

The final type of energy is thermal energy. Click the button that says “Thermal”.

Thermal energy means temperature. Warm or hot water can help the stain dissolve quicker. While warm water can help speed things along, most laundry detergents today can work just as well at colder temperatures.

All three of the types of energy need the right amount of time to work best. The more one type of energy is used, the less others are needed.

For example, delicate clothes would be damaged by the mechanical energy of the washing machine and hotter water. So instead, we can use chemical energy – detergents and increase time to get them clean.

Click a type of cleaning energy to see it in action.


The American Cleaning Institute ® (ACI) is an organization of companies in the U.S. Cleaning Products Industry, including producers of household, industrial, and institutional cleaning products, their ingredients and finished packaging; chemical producers; and chemical distributors.

Science is at the heart of ACI and its member companies. Established in 1926, ACI is dedicated to serving the growth and innovation of the U.S. cleaning products industry by advancing the health and quality of life of people and protecting our planet.

We value sound science and strive to advance public understanding of the safety and benefits of cleaning products. Our mission with this website is to demonstrate how science plays an essential role in our daily lives and from that vantage point inspire children to seek careers in STEM fields. The next generation of scientists and other STEM workforce are vital to the continued advancement of health and quality of life around the world.


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STEM Toolbox

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