All-purpose cleaner: Everyone needs it, and everyone expects a heck of a lot from it. But this cleaning jack-of-all-trades is bound by chemistry to be a master of none. After over 60 hours of research, and more than 500 swipes with paper towels on five different stains and four different surfaces, we think Puracy Natural Multi-Surface Cleaner is the one to get. While it wasn’t fantastic at everything, it pwned oil and pasta sauce, and it was decent at getting crayon off a painted wall. It also cleaned granite without leaving a film and left only a little streaking on glass. It smells pretty, too.
This mighty cleaner from a tiny Austin, Texas, company both surprised and delighted, emerging as a front-runner in our tests. Puracy was ace at removing oil from a laminate countertop and eliminating baked-on pasta sauce from enamel. It was also among the best at getting crayon off a painted wall without taking the paint along for the ride (unlike other cleaners we tested). And while it wasn’t the best at removing wine or soap-scum stains, its strong performance on the other stains separated it from the rest of the cleaners we tried. The bottle claims a “green tea and lime” scent, but we thought it had more of a lemon pine, slightly patchouli-ish spicy smell. Despite being a little hard to describe, the scent is light and pleasant, and it floats away pretty fast. We tested only the grab-and-go version of the cleaner, but Puracy also comes in a concentrated version that you mix yourself, which is a nice option to have.
If Puracy is unavailable, Method is a good alternative. It’s about as ubiquitous as Starbucks shops, and you can take your pick from nine scents both in store and online. It didn’t work quite as well as the Puracy cleaner in our tests, but it was tops at getting wine stains off a laminate countertop. Plus, it ran second only to vinegar at getting soap scum off tile, a pretty mean feat for an alkaline-based cleaner.
Cleaning: It’s my obsession. I don’t mean actually cleaning my house. (Ha! Ha ha!) I mean figuring out what’s in cleaners and how they work. I have a PhD in chemistry and a wide practical streak, so I love learning about the chemistry of everyday things and how they apply directly to our lives. I’ve written several guides to cleaning products, including dish soap, hand washing detergent, and laundry detergent. In addition, I have two small humans in the house whose goal in life seems to be to smear foreign substances on every surface imaginable. All-purpose cleaner is a necessary part of my life.
For this guide, we picked the brains of experts such as Brian Grady, surfactant guru, chemistry professor, and director of the Institute for Applied Surfactant Research; Jim Hammer, president and founder of Mix Solutions, a chemical-consulting company for the cleaning and cosmetic industries; and Brian Sansoni of the American Cleaning Institute. I also delved into knee-deep piles of papers on everything from the toxicity of cleaning solvents to the downstream ramifications of disinfectants.
All-purpose cleaner—the name says it all. It’s meant to be a jack-of-all-trades cleaner, good for any mess that crops up, or so we’re led to believe. All-purpose cleaners (sometimes called multi-purpose cleaners by companies that presumably want to hedge their bets) are good for countertops, walls, floors, sinks, cooktops, oven doors, cabinets, doors, and even windows and mirrors if you want to get crazy.
But the jack-of-all-trades tends to be the master of none, of course, and all-purpose cleaners have that downside. All-purpose cleaners are good for a lot of things, but sometimes they’re not great. Glass cleaner is better for glass, for example, and a specific bathroom cleaner is probably better at cleaning your shower. And many all-purpose cleaners aren’t wonderful at eliminating soap scum or getting crayon off a wall (in our tests most of them sucked at this task, actually). But the convenience of an all-purpose cleaner is what everyone likes: Having one bottle that’s pretty good at cleaning most things is better than keeping a small army of cleaning products in the cabinet.
You can find oodles and oodles of all-purpose cleaners out there. Since it wouldn’t be feasible to test them all, we first winnowed down the field to only grab-and-go cleaners. None of the cleaners here need to be diluted before use (sorry, Pine-Sol). One of the most important benefits an all-purpose cleaner must offer is convenience, and while premixing your cleaner might be a step you’re willing to take, it wasn’t for us. At this stage of our research, we looked at past reviews from outlets such as Consumer Reports, Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required), and Good Housekeeping. We also factored in best-seller lists, customer reviews, and availability.
We then took the cleaners on our short list and tested their cleaning prowess against a variety of stains on a variety of surfaces. As I mentioned above, all-purpose cleaners need to be just good enough for a bunch of different messes. “Good enough,” in our minds, gets grease and various common stains off countertops and walls, doesn’t smell awful, doesn’t damage the surfaces in a home, and doesn’t wreak havoc on the environment.
Notice something missing from that list? We don’t say that an all-purpose cleaner needs to disinfect surfaces. You can jump down here to read more about the topic, but the tl;dr is that, according to research by infectious disease prevention specialist Sally Bloomfield, you don’t need a disinfectant under most day-to-day cleaning circumstances. Just using a cleaning agent plus rubbing gets most of the germs and harmful bacteria off your countertops. For the times you do need a disinfectant, such as when you spill raw chicken juice everywhere or someone in your house is sick, it’s better to clean and disinfect separately. If you read the bottle of your disinfectant cleaner, it tells you to do just that.
The trouble is, a lot of people seem to think that they need disinfectants. In our super-scientific (not really) Twitter poll, 44 percent of respondents said they wanted an all-purpose cleaner with disinfectant. Of the remaining participants, 25 percent said they preferred no disinfectant, and the last 31 percent said they didn’t care either way. And too much disinfectant is not good. Some evidence suggests that one kind of disinfectant found in household cleaners (quats) may be promoting antibiotic and/or disinfectant resistance downstream. (You can read more details in the disinfectants section.) But in the end—and in the spirit of compromise—we chose to test four cleaners without disinfectants and five with disinfectants, plus everyone’s favorite DIY cleaner, vinegar. And as a control to compare all these cleaners against, we tested tap water, as well.
Since all-purpose cleaners are supposed to clean all kinds of messes, we designed tests that challenged the cleaners’ prowess in an assortment of circumstances. We bought pieces of laminate countertop, ceramic tiles, and slabs of granite. I drew on my walls with crayons. To simulate a stovetop, I baked tomato sauce onto enamel pans. I mixed up my own soap-scum solution and spritzed it on ceramic tiles. I sprayed oil and wine around with reckless abandon. In short, I made one hell of a mess.
According to Matt Craig, research insight analyst for the Home Improvement Research Institute, most people in the United States have either laminate or stone countertops (mostly granite but some quartz, too). To test the cleaners’ worth on these surfaces, I got a 25-by-39-inch laminate countertop from the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore and marked off 12 equal-size rectangles. I also scored some granite pieces and tested those for streaking. For our oil test, I sprayed an even layer of canola oil from a can over the surface and let it sit for three hours. I then blocked off half the rectangle with cardboard and sprayed on one squirt of cleaner. I let that sit for about 30 seconds and then wiped four times with a paper towel over the cleaner. After I let it dry for about 20 seconds or so, I felt both the cleaned half and the remaining oily half to test for residue.
To test wine-stain removal, I put some Ravenswood Zinfandel in a spray bottle, squirted an even layer on the laminate, and let it sit for seven days to get good and stainy.1 Then I blocked off half of each rectangle and hit it with two squirts of all-purpose cleaner, plus four swipes with a paper towel. Here I eyeballed the results, since the wine didn’t really leave much of a sticky residue.
To test crayon removal, I marked off the painted drywall in my bedroom in 12 equal rectangles and then wrote in the spaces with regular Crayola crayons.2 I let the marks sit overnight, after which I sprayed three squirts of cleaner on each mark and rubbed each 20 times. (Spoiler alert: Crayon is really hard to get off walls.) I then eyeballed the results.
Unlike most people, I don’t have an enamel stovetop, so we got some enamel pans to be our stand-ins. I washed and dried these, added 3 tablespoons of pasta sauce, spread it out with a pastry brush, and baked it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for six to seven minutes. After it cooled completely, I squirted it three times with the cleaner, let it sit for about 30 seconds, and gave it 20 swipes with a paper towel. After letting the pan dry, I both looked and felt for any sauce residue on the clean half.
Soap scum is a disgusting mixture of dissolved minerals and soap, so to make my own I grated some Dr. Bronner’s bar soap and stirred it gently into some hot water.3 I then crushed up a Tums tablet (calcium carbonate) and took a spoonful of epsom salt (magnesium sulfate), and dumped them into the water until it got good and globby. I then put this mix into a spray bottle and squirted it onto black 12-by-12-inch ceramic tiles. After each spritz, I allowed the soap scum to dry completely on the tile, and then I added another layer; each tile got five layers in total. After letting the tiles sit overnight, I covered half of each tile, applied three squirts of cleaner, and gave it six swipes with a paper towel. I let them dry and then examined each tile at multiple angles in bright light to see if any residue remained.
To rank the cleaners, I put them in order from best to worst and gave each cleaner a score for each test.4 Then I took the top three and used them around my house. I took notes on how they smelled, how the triggers felt, if they left streaks on glass, and if they damaged any surfaces. That last bit is important, since one of the cleaners took the paint off my walls—this problem was a dealbreaker for us, and for everyone on staff we asked about it. So we chucked that cleaner out, and crowned our winner.
It’s pretty much impossible for one cleaner to be great at eliminating all kinds of gack. Chemically speaking, no one formula can break down both soap scum and oil. The type of cleaner that works well on oil, usually an alkaline type, will not work well on soap scum, which tends to need a more acidic cleaner.
For example, our top pick, Puracy, did well on oil and pasta sauce, but it was not so effective at soap scum. That result is hardly surprising, since its pH, the measure of how acidic or basic something is, was very alkaline at around 9.5. The cleaner that did great on soap scum? The vinegar-in-water solution—which is also not surprising, since it has a pH of 2, way acidic. This is the frustrating thing about all-purpose cleaners: Most of them are pretty good at a lot of stuff, but sometimes you need a separate cleaner to do your real dirty work. Our pick was not perfect in our tests, but it was the best overall cleaner we tested.
Puracy Natural Multi-Surface Cleaner was the one that did best overall while not damaging any surfaces. Among the all-purpose cleaners we tested, it was the best at getting oil off laminate and pasta sauce off enamel. All the cleaners we tested were horrible at removing crayon from the wall, but Puracy was marginally better than the others (and the only competing cleaner that removed the crayon well also removed the paint).
Puracy was not great at eliminating wine or soap scum, sadly. It’s an alkaline cleaner, so this shortcoming is kind of expected, but Puracy will do a fair job of removing both those stains. You just have to add more elbow grease.
In addition, Puracy did not damage any of the surfaces I tried it on. I rubbed it on all kinds of things around my house without doing harm: walls, countertops, floor, sinks, small children, the cat. (Okay, not the cat.) It didn’t leave streaks on the granite countertop. In a moment of lunacy, I also tried it on mirrors and windows, and was pleasantly surprised by the minimal streaking. It left some streaks, but let’s be honest here—no streaks at all would be bloody miraculous. Glass cleaner does work much better on glass, but Puracy was not bad in a pinch. It also streaked less than the other cleaners we tried in the glass test, Method and Lysol Power Kitchen Cleaner.5
Puracy smells nice, too. The scent is called “green tea and lime,” and it is very light and dissipates pretty fast. The spray handle is unremarkable, but it doesn’t hurt your hand. The bottle is a little heavy to haul around when full, but I am a pocket-sized person, so YMMV. Once it was about two-thirds full, I stopped noticing the weight. (Plus, more cleaner for your buck is a good thing.) Another nice thing is that the bendy tube in the spray bottle goes all the way down to the bottom, so you can actually get all the cleaner out. We tested only the ready-to-spray bottles for this guide, but Puracy does come in a concentrated form, as well. It’s also made in the US by a small company that doesn’t test on animals.
One thing to note: Puracy touts itself as a “natural” cleaner, but there really is no such thing if it has a surfactant. All soaps are manmade.
The biggest downside to Puracy is that you can’t march into your local grocery store or Walmart and walk out with a bottle. It’s pretty much available only online, from Amazon or Puracy’s website. Puracy does claim that its multipurpose cleaner can be found in person at T.J.Maxx and Marshalls stores. My local T.J.Maxx carries it—but who thinks to look there for cleaning products?
Puracy is not great on wine and soap scum. Instead, try a solution of half vinegar, half water; that combo works fabulously on soap scum, and quite well on wine, too. Puracy also isn’t effective at getting crayon off a painted wall, although it was better at that task than almost everything else we tried. (The crayon-wall bond is a strong one, apparently.)
Puracy comes in only one scent, so you if like to change the smell of your cleaner with your mood, go with Method, our runner-up. Sadly, neither Puracy nor Method has an unscented option. Actually, none of the cleaners we tested comes in unscented. I guess having a kitchen that smells like a fruit basket is in.
If you can’t get ahold of the Puracy cleaner, Method All-Purpose Cleaner is a decent alternative. In our tests Method was excellent at cleaning wine stains, mostly clearing away that Zin with just two swipes and making it vanish after four. Method also cleaned soap scum very well, a surprising result for such an alkaline cleaner. (Acids usually are better at removing soap scum, and Method’s pH goes to 11, so the Method people did something right here.) It even did relatively okay at getting crayon off the wall, a pretty big hurdle for all the cleaners we tried; nothing worked very well in removing crayon, but Method came in fourth. It was not great at removing oil or pasta sauce, finishing near the bottom of the pack for both stains—important if you’re using your cleaner primarily on food stains in the kitchen. However, its performance on wine and soap scum lifted it to near the top of the group.
Method is easy to find in brick-and-mortar stores, so you can usually pick it up on a trip to your nearest grocery store, Walmart, or convenience store. With a gazillion scents (okay, nine; we tested the lavender), there’s probably something to make almost anyone’s nose happy. Since the squirt trigger has a wider and more curved handle than the one on Puracy’s bottle, pulling the trigger repeatedly is more comfortable. The bottle is also squared off on the sides, so you might be able to squeeze it into an overcrowded cabinet more easily.
In our tests, Method did streak a bit more than Puracy on glass, so you might not want to use it on mirrors or windows. But like Puracy, it did not damage any of the surfaces I tried it on: All of my paint stayed in its rightful place. Also like Puracy, Method does not test on animals. And we’re not the only ones who like Method: The all-purpose cleaner comes highly recommended by Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required), and its review section on Amazon is gushing.
You can find a myriad of all-purpose cleaners, which use a myriad of ingredients. But they boil down to three basic kinds of ingredients: a surfactant, a solvent, and a buffer.
A surfactant, short for “surface active agent,” takes two things that don’t mix (oil and water) and forces them together, effectively serving as the cleaning world’s activities director. The result is that it takes something oily, such as a grease stain, and lets water wash it away. Soap is a surfactant. Detergent companies don’t use straight-up soap, however, since it tends to form soap scum in hard water (as we saw in our tests with castile soap) and therefore doesn’t clean as well as surfactants. In pretty much all detergents and cleaners that you can buy right now, surfactants act as the cleaning ingredients. And each all-purpose cleaner tends to have a plethora; certain surfactants are better at cleaning up certain kinds of oil and dirt, so the manufacturers cram in bunches of surfactants to try to cover all the bases. In the case of Puracy, the surfactants are decyl glucoside and a small army of alcohol ethoxylates: C6-C12, C12-C15, and C9-C11. Those C numbers indicate how many carbon atoms are in the molecule, so C6-C12, for instance, means a mixture of compounds that have anywhere from six to 12 carbons in the chain. Brian Grady, director of the Institute for Applied Surfactant Research, told us that cleaning products have a mix to maximize performance. Shorter chain compounds act faster, so they can get from the cleaner to the stain better, while longer chains dissolve oil a bit better.
A solvent is something that dissolves stuff. All of the cleaners we tested are liquid, so each one is basically a liquid chemical full of dissolved chemicals. You need a solvent to achieve this, as well as to dissolve whatever gunk you’re trying to get off your countertops. Twenty years ago, the main solvent in cleaners was ethoxyethanol, said Jim Hammer, president of Mix Solutions, a chemical-consulting company. But no more, he told us, because of connections with liver damage (PDF). Over the past 10 years, manufacturers (and buyers) have favored solvents that clean just as well but are less toxic, so glycol ethers are the new black. In both Puracy and Method, the solvent is water, pretty straightforward.
Added buffers, commonly salts of citric acid, control how acidic or basic the cleaner is. Acidic cleaners, which have a low pH, are good for soap scum, Hammer told us, and alkaline cleaners (those with a high pH) work better on grease. We used pH strips to measure how acidic or basic the cleaners were in our tests, something you can do at home, too. A substance with a higher pH feels slippery between your fingers because the alkaline ingredients are converting the oils on your skin into soap. If you feel like continuing the chemistry experiment, add some vinegar to your fingers. The slippery feeling will go away, Hammer said, because the acid stops the soap-forming reaction.
Some all-purpose cleaners also contain a disinfectant, which can kill some viruses and bacteria. The two main types that companies put in all-purpose cleaners are bleach and quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats for short.
Most people are familiar with bleach, aka sodium hypochlorite. It’s pretty much tippy-tops in the virus-and-bacteria-killing world. Some evidence suggests that chlorine bleach can react with other compounds in household cleaners and form VOCs, aka volatile organic compounds, some of which are carcinogens. However, according to the CDC, breathing small amounts is unlikely to harm you. Some people also assert that chlorine is bad for the environment, which is why it tends to be frowned upon, but the jury is not back on that claim. The CDC says that sodium or calcium hypochlorite breaks down in sunlight and in water, and does not accumulate in wildlife. Wastewater treatment plants also remove it for the large part, so any of it going down the drain is unlikely to reach a water system. Chlorine bleach can be dangerous, though: It’s corrosive, so keep it far out of reach of children. And never, ever, ever, EVER mix chlorine bleach and ammonia—doing so creates chloramine gas, which can kill you in horrible ways.
Quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, are disinfectants that also sometimes serve as cleaning agents. Quats don’t have a strong scent like bleach, and will not leave white spots on your clothes. But quats don’t disinfect as quickly as bleach does: In the labeling on some of the all-purpose cleaners with quats, we saw suggestions to let the cleaner sit for as long as 10 minutes to disinfect the surface, versus 30 seconds to one minute for bleach. We’ve also seen some evidence that quats are contributing to disinfectant resistance, the sad little brother of antibiotic resistance.
Bleach alternatives, like hydrogen peroxide, don’t kill bacteria as quickly or completely as chlorine bleach, Hammer told us. They’re good at removing stains from carpeting and clothing, however, because they don’t attack dyes the way bleach does.
But here’s the deal with disinfectants: You need to use them only in certain situations, such as if you have a sick person in the house or you got raw chicken juice everywhere. In these cases, you can make a bleach-and-water spray to combat the nasties. To sanitize a surface after potential salmonella exposure, add 1 teaspoon of bleach to 3 cups of water, spray on the surface, let it sit for a bit, and then wipe it off. In cases of norovirus, you should use 5 to 25 teaspoons of bleach per gallon of water to disinfect,6 and let the bleach sit for up to 10 minutes.
Quats are great at killing bacteria and some viruses, which can help keep you healthy. But evidence suggests that they might make people sicker in the long run, as some scientists think they’re contributing to both disinfectant resistance and antibiotic resistance (which is becoming more common).
Here’s how it works: When you have quats in a higher concentration, it kills some viruses and types of bacteria, such as E. coli, staph, and salmonella. However, once the concentration gets lower, such as when it’s diluted in the wastewater system, things get dicey. The amount of quats in wastewater is constantly changing, since people, industries, and hospitals are not putting the same amounts down the drain all the time. This shifting concentration usually gets diluted to an amount that scientists call sub-inhibitory. This means the concentration is high enough to cause a reaction in the microorganism but not high enough to kill it. Some scientists have discovered that the microorganisms can gradually gain resistance to the disinfectant. Scientists have found bacteria with quats-resistant genes in healthcare facilities, and those bacteria frequently have resistance to multiple biocides and antibiotics. So this issue goes hand-in-hand with antibiotic resistance, and it’s a serious and scary problem.
But the notion that quats could be involved in antibiotic or disinfectant resistance comes with a couple of caveats. The biggest is that scientists don’t even know how to classify a microorganism as resistant to a disinfectant, since there aren’t any clear rules. And in cases of L. monocytogenes (the bacteria that causes listeria) gaining disinfectant resistance, there have been a lot of studies but not a great number of actual cases, say the authors of this paper. The other caveat is that industries and hospitals use more quats than you would while cleaning your kitchen, so home use of these disinfectants may not have much impact on antibacterial resistance.
So we need more data before we can give the definite word to avoid quats. For now, however, it gives us pause. Bleach has its downsides (its status as a strong corrosive agent probably being the top one), but bacterial resistance isn’t one of them.
You don’t need a disinfectant in your day-to-day cleaning. You abolish most pathogens by using a cleaner with a surfactant in it. Rubbing plus soap is a magical combo that can physically remove germs and bacteria from surfaces. Plus, guess what? That cleaner with disinfectant might not actually be disinfecting your house. The label on Clorox Clean-Up Cleaner + Bleach, for example, tells you that to clean and disinfect, you should spray the surface until thoroughly wet, wait 30 seconds, and then wipe or rinse clean. For “heavily soiled surfaces” the directions say to clean first and disinfect after. For a cleaner with quats, such as the Lysol antibacterial kitchen cleaner we tried, if you want to sanitize or disinfect the surface, you need to clean its surface first—no kidding—then spray until totally wet and let sit for 30 seconds to sanitize and 10 minutes to disinfect. And then you need to rinse it with fresh water. If, instead, you use all-purpose cleaners like I do, you spray and then wipe off immediately, and move to the next section. According to the cleaner manufacturers, this process is not disinfecting.
Also, in our tests, all the cleaners without disinfectants outperformed the ones with disinfectants. With the exception of the top finisher, Lysol Power Kitchen Cleaner—which we threw out because it took the paint off our walls—the disinfectant cleaners landed in the bottom half.
We tested the following cleaners:
Christine Herman and Melissae Fellet contributed to this guide.
Originally published: January 9, 2017