Consumer Products for Precision Cleaning – True or False

[This article appeared in Clean Source, October 2016]

Never use a consumer/automotive cleaning agent for precision cleaning high-value product. True or false

Quick! True or false. This is a timed test, and you will be graded. I hate true/false tests; there’s no room for nuance. In critical and precision cleaning, particularly of high-value product, most decisions are situational. If I had to make a quick either/or decision, I’d say “true.” In fact, awhile back I received a phone inquiry asking if it was ok to use a certain brand of automotive cleaner to manufacture medical devices. As you might expect, I rather discouraged that concept. 

Formulators, chemists who select the additives for cleaning agents and then blend those cleaning agents, are a bit like chefs. Like chefs, formulators begin with the end in mind. They have a vision of how the cleaning agent they design will be utilized. For example, automotive cleaners may be formulated to remove adherent lubricants, baked-on soils, and caked on road dirt from metal. The automotive cleaner may leave a residue that is acceptable (or even desirable) for automotive applications but not for, say, aerospace, navigation systems, or medical devices. The cleaner might be effective for metals but could damage polymeric materials or damage the surface qualities of precision optics.

Cleaning agents for household/consumer use may be designed to be safe for people and the environment. The cleaning agents may be relatively non-harmful in terms of things like skin exposure and inhalation. In terms of the environment, the additives may be low in aquatic toxicity. They may be biodegradable. The label may say “safe” and “gentle to the environment.” The advertisements may feature compassionate volunteers removing crude oil from distressed wildlife. With increasing consumer awareness, you may even be able to obtain an SDS (the globally-harmonized version of the MSDS) for the cleaning agent. The SDS may indicate that there are no hazardous ingredients, or that the ingredients have a favorable worker safety profile. 

However, worker, consumer, and environmental safety is not the same as product safety. For example, I would hesitate to use baby shampoo for critical product cleaning. The materials compatibility requirement for exposure to skin or hair may be quite different than materials compatibility for metals and glass. A safe cleaning agent designed for washing dishes is not the same as a cleaning agent with very low residue. Cleaning agents can leave residue. Residue deposited during surface preparation can lead to coating problems. The SDS should disclose all ingredients that are harmful to people and the environment but does not need to consider the effect of ingredients on the product surface. 

In addition, consumer-oriented cleaning agents are designed to be aesthetically pleasant. This means they may contain additives like colorants, lotions, and perfumes that, in product manufacturing, can lead to materials compatibility problems and rinsing/residue issues, without contributing to efficacy of soil removal. 

The manufacturer of a consumer-oriented cleaning agent could change the formulation in response to environmental pressures or for esthetic reasons. They might not disclose these changes other than by sales phrases like “new and improved” or “more environmentally friendly”. These changes may not affect personal safety but could have significant effects on product cleaning.

What if your current process specifies a cleaning agent that’s not designed for precision a critical cleaning? This can include household, automotive/consumer, and janitorial cleaning products. If the process has been working reliably for years and years, there may be no reason to panic. If the process has been validated or accepted by the customer, a change may not be desirable. In such instances, it is reasonable to learn as much as possible about the cleaning agent. A decade ago, I would have said this was impossible. At that time, if a client was using a consumer-oriented product, and if I attempted to contact the manufacturers of that cleaning product, I would be stonewalled. No information; comments that the product was not supported for precision or critical product cleaning. Occasionally, the manufacturers would provide supermarket coupons for me to download. The situation has changed. You are in a better position to engage the manufacturer of consumer-oriented cleaning agents.

My presentation to the Consumer Specialty Products Association, lead to quite a bit of interchange on the subject of “off-label” uses of consumer-oriented cleaning agents for high-end manufacturing applications. Cleaning agent manufacturers have become far more disclosive about their consumer-oriented products. They may not support the product for manufacturing; but they are increasingly aware that the cleaning agents may be used for precision cleaning. They may provide a SDS; in part, because they realize that the consumer has become more aware of the impact of “chemicals.” They may even discuss recent or projected product changes, especially if those changes are impelled by safety or environmental regulations. In addition, the interest in simple or clean or pure cleaning products means that products with fewer non-essential additives are becoming popular. With this, comes an increase in what might be termed “crossover products,” products or product lines that are designed for precision cleaning or medical applications. 

Let’s conclude by repeating the initial question:

Never use a consumer/automotive cleaning agent for precision cleaning high-value product. True or false! I think “True” is still the best answer. Cleaning agents have to be designed with the end in mind. The formulator or chef has to understand the soils, the substrate, materials compatibility issues, and end use requirements. However, your manufacturing situation is the one that matters. No formulator can forsee all possible issues and complications. You need to educate yourself, communicate, and do your own testing. 

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  1. Jack Sanders says:

    I have used two consumer products for precision cleaning, but not for critical components like optics. I used Walmart fingernail polish remover after making sure that it was only acetone. This was for surface cleaning of ground support equipment (GSE) used in a Class 10,000 cleanroom. It was followed by a final cleaning with ACS grade isopropyl alcohol.

    I have also used Simple Green numerous times to clean GSE. This practice was used widely enough that NASA convinced Simple Green to produce a version without perfumes called Crystal Simple Green that was used on GSE and select flight hardware items that required a stronger solvent followed by IPA. most items were verified clean afterwards including NVR verification.

  2. Barbara Kanegsberg says:

    Hello Jack – I appreciate the comments. I still have concerns about using consumer-oriented products. Why did you choose acetone marketed as nail polish remover? How did you know there were no additives. Simple Green has a number of products; some are designed for aerospace or medical. I don’t think of the Crystal Simple Green as a particularly strong cleaning agent nor as a household item. We’ve communicated with their lab; they manufacture to specific requirements..
    Barb K.

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