All-Purpose Spray Cleaners
How we tested
When it’s time to clean grease, grime, and food splatters from your kitchen, a spray cleaner is a great solution. But which to choose? Store shelves teem with options, including all-purpose and kitchen-specific sprays, antibacterial products promising to wipe out food-borne bacteria, and scented cleaners that vow to leave the kitchen free of odors. Then there’s the growing category of “green” cleaning sprays claiming to offer a nontoxic, more “natural,” environmentally friendly choice. We wanted a spray that first and foremost works fast, cleaning thoroughly without leaving a sticky residue or damaging surfaces. Next, we’d consider whether we would insist that it also kill germs or be environmentally friendly. Frankly, “green” cleaners have always seemed pretty wimpy, and they cost more, too. Would newer products make that trade-off a thing of the past?
We chose nine cleaning sprays, all top-selling brands. Five were antibacterial; four billed themselves as green or natural. To mimic the most common kitchen use of these cleaners, we tested them on countertops made from a range of materials (including porous butcher-block wood and nonporous Corian and stainless steel) that we dirtied up by spraying them with vegetable oil. We then squirted the cleaners on finished-wood kitchen cabinets that we also coated in oil. Next we tackled the tougher jobs, attacking greasy stovetops, tomato sauce–splattered microwave interiors, and the grime on stainless steel range hoods. Finally, in a separate blind test with 23 America’s Test Kitchen staff members, we gathered opinions on the cleaners’ fragrances, giving preference to those whose scents were most appealing to the majority.
Lift and Separate
Household spray cleaners may promise unique cleaning powers, but when you decipher the alphabet soup on their ingredient labels, they’re mostly composed the same way. According to Jim Hammer, president of Mix Solutions, a product-formulation consulting firm in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, all spray cleaners have three main elements: surfactants, solvents, and a buffering system. Surfactants alter the surface tension of liquids, so water and solvents (the cleaning ingredients) can penetrate and dissolve soils. Buffering agents help by raising or lowering the product’s acidity to let it bond with (and fight) different types of soils.
The main difference between antibacterial and other cleaners is that antibacterial products also contain ingredients aimed at killing specific sets of germs. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies these as pesticides—which is why there are no green antibacterial cleaners (though these products can also be effective at killing the same types of bacteria; see “Do You Need an Antibacterial Cleaner?”). The antibacterial cleaners in our lineup use either bleach or powerful quaternary ammonium compounds (“quats”) derived from petroleum that work as both surfactant and disinfectant. Bleach and quats are toxic to not only bacteria but also humans. Cleaners containing them include warnings to rinse surfaces after use and to avoid contact with skin and eyes.
The active ingredients in some green cleaners, however, may not be quite as environmentally friendly or as natural as their labels would have you believe. (In fact, there are no government regulations controlling the use of “green” or “natural” on the labels of these products. The Federal Trade Commission has merely issued voluntary guidelines.) One such cleaner in our lineup, Simple Green, uses surfactants known as alcohol ethoxylates. While these compounds are far more biodegradable than the quats in antibacterial cleaners, the way they are manufactured is still a concern for environmental watchdogs, Hammer told us. The three so-called natural cleaners in our lineup use surfactants known as alkyl polyglucosides. Though processed from plant sources including coconut and corn, these agents are arguably no more natural than compounds derived from petroleum—also a natural source. However, they come from renewable sources and can claim to be more benign: None of the cleaners containing them cited warnings or required rinsing. “[Alkyl polyglucosides] have low toxicity and excellent biodegradability,” Hammer said. “On top of that, they just work very well. [These] products have really come a long way, just in the past few years.”
Down in the Dirt
We couldn’t take Hammer’s word for that, so we headed into the kitchen. The most common use of multipurpose sprays is cleaning countertops after prepping food and cooking. As a challenge, we spritzed Corian counters and finished-wood cabinets with vegetable oil and left it to sit and get sticky over a weekend before bringing out the battery of spray cleaners. We repeated this test with freshly sprayed oil on nonporous Corian and stainless steel, as well as on porous butcher-block wood, comparing the results. Each time, we noticed that some cleaners took much more spraying and wiping to get surfaces grease- and streak-free (making the products less cost-effective, too). Porous wood absorbed strong fragrances from some sprays, so we needed to rinse them off, adding steps to our cleaning. Bleach in one product seemed harsh for everyday use; it discolored the wood where we’d scrubbed. Several cleaners left traces of oil that took multiple rounds to remove, while one or two stood out for making it possible to clean quickly and thoroughly with minimal swipes. And the green and natural cleaners? A mixed bag. Some did very well, others left streaks and took extra wiping, but all were gentle on wood. We observed very similar results in further tests in which we cleaned smears of lasagna from stainless steel worktops and oil from finished-wood cabinets.
For a really tough job, we tackled greasy stovetops and the stainless steel hoods over our test kitchen ranges. All of the cleaners cut grease in both locations—eventually. On the stove, the best (including one particularly effective natural cleaner) took as few as eight sprays, the worst (an antibacterial product) up to 14—nearly 75 percent more. A handful of offenders left streaks on stainless steel, despite our best scrubbing efforts.
Cleaning food-splattered microwave ovens is a job nobody likes. We took it to extremes, heating an uncovered bowl of tomato sauce until it erupted on every surface; we even cooked the mess for an extra minute and let it cool and harden. This test really separated the powerful from the weak: Some cleaners cut right through the sticky globs of sauce; others merely smeared it around.
This test highlighted another problem: the impact of overpowering scents in a confined space. Several sprays were too potent to leave in the microwave without rinsing them out, and antibacterial cleaners carry warnings about breathing fumes. Fragrance is a big deal: Companies work hard to conjure up fields of flowers, pine forests, and other signals that your kitchen is fresh. Familiar scents also build brand loyalty. In our blind smell test, participants described memories, both pleasant (“reminds me of Mom’s house”) and not (“smells like the stuff they used after a kid threw up in school”). Only one antibacterial cleaner made it into the top three most appealing scents; generally, testers were put off by their chemical smell. (“Quats are pretty stinky,” Hammer agreed.) Attempts to hide overpowering chemical odors with strong fragrances usually backfired. In our smell test, natural cleaners took three of the top spots—-including an unscented spray (though a few testers wanted a scent, just to prove that they’d cleaned).
Streaking to the Finish
By the conclusion of our testing, we had found our favorite. The top spot went to a natural, green product. It packed plenty of cleaning power into each spray and cost just 14 cents per ounce, which turned out to be the average price among the nine top-selling brands in our lineup. It cut through grease and food splatters quickly and efficiently and didn’t leave a cloying smell, streaks, or residue, saving effort, time, and money. We’d be happy to use it in our kitchen—and we won’t feel we’re sacrificing cleaning performance for an environment-friendly choice or paying more for it.
We tested nine national top-selling brands of all-purpose or kitchen spray cleaners drawn from data compiled by the Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group. In final rankings, we weighted cleaning performance more heavily than scent preferences. Information about ingredients, antibacterial claims, and product warnings (which may be excerpts of longer lists) are from product labels and manufacturers’ websites. We purchased products in Boston-area supermarkets. They are listed below in order of preference.
Cleaning Performance: We cleaned counters (Corian, wood, and stainless steel), wood cabinets, and stovetops that we made sticky with vegetable oil; microwave interiors splattered with cooked-on tomato sauce; and stainless steel range hoods encrusted with the grime of a day’s worth of cooking. We assessed how much scrubbing and additional spraying were needed to eliminate the food and grease. Cleaning performance was weighted most heavily in the rankings.
Streaking: Sprays that left few or no streaks after cleaning received higher scores.
Sprays to Clean Stovetop: We sprayed a stovetop with a measured amount of vegetable oil; turned all burners to high for one minute; allowed the stovetop to cool for two minutes; and used each cleaner, wiping with paper towels and keeping track of the number of sprays required.
Scent: We rated each product’s scent in a blind test with 23 staffers. We weighted scent less heavily than cleaning ability in our rankings.