A Chemist Explains How to Clean Your Kitchen

Learn how a chemical engineer—who is also an avid home cook—keeps her kitchen spotless.

Published Jan. 24, 2023.

We all dream of a spotless kitchen filled with sparkling appliances, crystal-clear glassware, gleaming pots and pans, and brilliant white kitchen towelsbut what’s the easiest and best way to maintain a pristine workspace? For advice, I got in touch with a chemical engineer who is also an avid home cook.

Dr. Nancy Falk, principal and owner of Nancy A. Falk, Ph.D, Formulation Consulting LLC, talked me through the most common types of products that cooks should keep on hand for quick and efficient cleanup. Falk, who was a formulation scientist for Clorox and Unilever for nearly three decades, firmly believes that “If you have a nice clean kitchen to work in, where everything is ready to use, cooking is a much more pleasurable experience.”  

I couldn’t agree more.

Read on to learn about the eight types of products Falk discussed that can be used to tackle just about any type of mess you may encounter.

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ABRASIVE CLEANSERS (such as Bar Keepers Friend, Bon Ami, Comet, or Ajax)

What Makes It Effective: Mineral abrasives create a scouring effect to remove dirt from a surface with scrubbing. 

Best For: Sticky, stubborn messes such as baked-on grease, milk, or sugar that clings to a pan, silicone baking mat, or surface. (Sprinkle the powder on and add a bit of water before scrubbing.) In the test kitchen, we like to use a chain-mail scrubber to help scour superdirty cookware.

Chemist’s Tip: Bar Keepers Friend contains oxalic acid, which makes it good for removing rust stains.


What Makes It Effective: The acetic acid in vinegar breaks down the calcium carbonate in limescale, creating a soluble material that can then be washed away. 

Best For: Removing spots on glassware, getting rid of soap scum in sinks, diluting with water and using to clean a coffeemaker (follow the manufacturer’s instructions), and cleaning the interior of a dishwasher. Vinegar can also be used as a deodorizer for musty smells, though its own odor will linger.

Chemist’s Tip: Avoid using vinegar on unsealed marble or metal surfaces since it will pit and dull those materials.

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What Makes It Effective: Bleach is very reactive, efficient, and inexpensive. It works via oxidation, breaking the chemical bonds of stains and soils into soluble particles that can be removed with detergents and rinsed away with water. One of the active ingredients in bleach is sodium hypochlorite, a disinfectant that deactivates bacteria, fungi, and viruses by denaturing their proteins.

Best For: Sanitizing surfaces, cutting boards, and cookware that have been in contact with potential pathogens such as raw chicken or cold or flu viruses. Bleach can also be used to remove food stains such as turmeric, annatto, pesto, and mustard from cookware, surfaces, and fabrics.

Chemist’s Tips for Using Chlorine Bleach: 

  • Never use undiluted bleach straight from the jug. Follow manufacturer recommendations for diluting bleach with water depending on the intended use. If you don’t know what concentration to use, start with a tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water and gradually increase the concentration from there. 
  • Pathogens aren’t killed instantaneously by bleach. To guarantee efficacy, the bleach must be left on the surface to be cleaned for the recommended amount of time, so read labels carefully.  
  • In addition to removing dye from clothing, bleach can react with metal and plastic surfaces.
  • Never combine bleach with any other cleaners as it may create toxic gasses.

LIQUID DISH SOAP (such as Dawn)

What Makes It Effective: Dish soap contains cleaning agents called surfactants that emulsify grease and dirt, making them easy to rinse away. Surfactants (short for surface-active agents) have a part that likes oil and a part that likes water on the same molecule. The two parts form a film between the oil and the water that makes it easy for the oil to get carried away by the water you’re cleaning with.

Best For: Removing grease, starch, and proteins from dishes, utensils, and cookware.

Chemist’s Tips: 

  • Dawn is one of the most concentrated brands of dish soap on the market. For the best results, let dirty pots and pans soak in hot soapy water for about 15 minutes before scrubbing them clean.
  • Make an effective surface cleaner by putting a small amount of dish soap in a spray bottle and diluting it with water. (This solution cleans well but won’t disinfect surfaces.)
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NON-BLEACH DISINFECTANT (such as Lysol or Formula 409)

What Makes It Effective: These cleansers contain multiple surfactants that help to remove soils as well as antimicrobial ingredients such as benzalkonium chloride. 

Best For: Cleaning and sanitizing counters, cabinets, faucets, and stovetops.

GLASS CLEANER (such as Windex)

What Makes It Effective: The active ingredient in glass cleaner is ammonia or vinegar. Ammonia chemically converts grease and grime in a way that leaves no residue behind. It also evaporates rapidly, which helps to avoid streaking. The acetic acid in vinegar breaks up grease, grime, and streaky films on glass.

Best For: Lightly cleaning the exterior of countertop appliances, stoves, and microwaves, leaving behind a pleasant shine. 


What Makes It Effective: Sodium carbonate (or soda ash) is a fairly strong alkaline salt that raises pH. A high pH gives fabrics a negative charge, which helps push dirt away from fabrics so that they stay whiter and brighter. Washing soda also acts as a water softener, which helps the detergent to lift soil from fabrics.

Best For: Laundering grimy kitchen towels and aprons; helps to brighten whites.

In the test kitchen, we use also sodium carbonate to remove greasy, sticky buildup from walls, appliances, or grills. Dissolve 1 cup sodium carbonate in 2 quarts water. Sponge off messes and see how fast grease disappears. (Note: Though this powder is very safe, its also strong, so protect your hands by wearing rubber gloves and avoid contact with your eyes. Dont use sodium carbonate on aluminum, fiberglass, or waxed or varnished surfaces, as it can cause damage.)

Chemist’s Tip: Unlike alkaline laundry detergents of the past, many modern laundry detergents have a neutral pH, making them less effective at whitening. Washing soda can be used as a laundry additive to give modern detergents a whitening boost.

NON-CHLORINE BLEACH (such as OxiClean)  

What Makes It Effective: These products usually contain hydrogen peroxide, which is made by adding an extra oxygen molecule to water. The extra oxygen creates an oxidizing reaction that helps to lift dirt from fabrics. 

Best For: Non-chlorine bleach is good for laundry stain removal and is safe on most fabrics. Mix it with water for pretreating laundry stains such as mustard, adobo sauce, and fruit and vegetable stains such as tomato or carrot juice.

Chemist’s Tip: Powdered OxiClean contains washing soda in addition to peroxide, making it very effective at removing soils. 

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Falk noted that the Environmental Protection Agency Safer Choice program helps consumers find cleaning products that are safer for their own health and for the environment. She recommends looking for the Safer Choice logo on cleaning products, which indicates that EPA has reviewed the formula for the product and it is best in class in terms of environmental and human safety. 


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