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Choosing the Proper Cleaner

It is a common belief that a cleaner is a cleaner or if the label says it’s ok to use, then it must be ok. Others believe that because someone told them it’s a good idea it must be so. Yet, most people do not realize that 20% of all residential restoration performed on marble floors is the result of damage associated with the use of an inappropriate cleaner. Whether a good faith recommendation or not that small cleaner purchase can translate into a sizeable service bill. The average service bill in some markets is over $1000, because when we clean, we CLEAN everything. A little understanding and awareness can save you a ton of time, money and frustration.

Choosing the right cleaner is probably the single most important decision you will make when it comes to caring for your home.

Unfortunately, the marketing landscape is littered with well meaning recommendations and performance statements. MARBLELIFE is unique in being a service provider that manufacturers care products. This provides us expert feedback every day as we restore more than a 100 projects daily. We are called in to restore floors and counters as a result of a poor product choice, giving us live data unlike any other company. We understand what caused it, why, how to restore it, and more importantly how to build products that avoid these pitfalls to the joy and confidence of our craftsmen and our customers.

Here is a quick synopsis of common cleaning product errors and how to avoid them. As you can imagine, we recommend our own products, but then they have been designed with an ever expanding knowledge of what can go wrong and has as we restore other products after-effect problems. That said, this will allow you make an informed decision of your own.

Avoid Cleaners That Are Acidic

Acids will dissolve CaCO3, which is what your marble and travertine floors are made of. Acids will also damage silicone based grout and stone seals, as the reaction that created these products on application can be reversed in the presence of an acid allowing your cleaner to then remove the unreacted raw materials and leaving your floor unsealed and open to grout and stone staining. At this point the very act of cleaning will dissolve dirt and deposit it not ON but IN to the pores of your stone and grout.

It can be difficult at times to know if a product is acidic or contains an acid but here are a few clues.

  • Vinegar is a acid (killing that popular myth that this is a good green cleaner). The brightening effect observed is often the result of microetching the service which turns white making the surface look lighter.
  • If the product claims it can remove water stains or calcium deposits it generally employs a strong acid. Do not use on grout or marble. These products are generally so strong they will bubble the surface of your stone. If you have hard water stains reach out to your local MARBLELIFE office and they can discuss your specific situation in order to provide a strategy to remove this problem without doing damage. Solutions vary based on the type of surface involved.
  • Tile Cleaners often contain acids. Ceramic and Porcelain surfaces are NOT acid sensitive and these are what these products are seeking to clean. Problem here, is that the grout between the tiles usually has a seal that is acid sensitive, so over time the grout protection is eliminated and you will see the grout begin to darken as it absorbs dirt. Once this happens, you will need a professional to clean, restore color and reseal your grout. A tile cleaner should state MARBLE SAFE or STONE SAFE before you risk apply to a marble surface. Unfortunately, awareness of the deleterious impact acids have on grout dyes and seals is not called out on most products.

HOW TO TEST - One way to determine whether a product is acidic is to use a pool test strip to find the product’s pH level, but note that with cleaning products, this is not always conclusive. Dip the pool test strip directly into the cleaner. If the reading is BELOW 7 then the product is acidic and you should not use it on natural stone or cementitious grout. On the pH scale, 7 is considered pH neutral. Numbers less than 7 signal acidity with the lower the number the greater the acidity. Scores greater than 7 are referred to as being alkaline and allow you to avoid this issue.

The following are some helpful ways to determine if a product is acidic by reading the label.

  • Contains vinegar
  • Contains citrus
  • Contains any type of acid

The Neutral Cleaner Myth

There is a myth that says a cleaner cannot clean if it is neutral but must be either acidic or alkali. Not True. Many people do not realize that cleaners have a variety of ways they can remove dirt. In fact, cleaning action can be created with acid attack, solvents dissolving dirt and oils, or surfactants which surround oils and allow them to be lifted into water where they normally would not want to go. The idea that a product can be exactly 7 or neutral is also a crazy, as this requires a perfect balance and yet ingredients can take a system acidic or basic and off that 7.00 number with ease. The real issue here is to avoid acidity.

Avoid Cleaners That Leave a Residue

Many cleaners have ingredients that leave behind a residue. They simply do not rinse effectively. Over time, this can dull your surface appearance simply from build-up. Easily said, but how do you know? How do you check? A simple way to see if your cleaner leaves a residue is to use it on a mirror or glass cooktop. Apply the cleaner, and wipe it away as you would normally on your counter, but instead do it on a mirror, and see what happens. We encourage people to place a drop of oil or fat on the surface first, wipe it around. Then use your cleaner. In many cases, you are going to be disappointed as you see streaks from oil and cleaner left behind that normally would be camafloged by the counter surface. MARBLELIFE’s cleaners are designed to wipe away streak-free. In fact, when our technicians finish restoring and cleaning their floors their sneakers squeak. It is truly a squeeky clean floor.

The other issue is the use of waxes, which will also leave a deposit over time, but in this case it is by design. How crazy is this? We are going to clean a surface with the intent of removing all foreign sustances so we have a surface “so clean we can eat off it,” but we are given a product that puts by design waxes and chemicals intended to stay on the surface. If you are using a glass cleaner on your surface or a product that claims to promote shine that is generally a signal that this is happening. Waxes are included in glass cleaners to fill in microabrasions with wax in order to maintain a clean uniform visual appearance. This is important in a see-through application like windows, but then we do not eat off our windows. Over time these waxes build up to the point that often when we are called in to repolish a counter we find that in fact, the counter is not “worn” unless we are having some wild dance on the counter parties, but rather is hidden by a dulling wax. MARBLELIFE formulates without waxes for this reason. We do not need a product to impart an artificial shine, when all we need to do is allow the natural beauty and shine of the original surface to be seen. If there really is an issue with the surface, then we are better off fixing it, than hiding it under chemicals.


The other “shine” strategy is to deposit on oil which lays on the surface to provide a glossy appearance. These are temporary, and will evaporate over time. While suitable for a quick fix before a big event, these are not a longterm solution, and if used on a floor will increase slip-and-fall potential. Avoid such products. There is a difference between a product claiming to clean-and-shine, and one that claims to clean in order to allow the natural shine to come through.

Avoid Multifunction Cleaners

Building on this theme, avoid multi-functional cleaners in general. Multifunction cleaners are ones that say “Cleans & Protects”, “Cleans & Shines”, “Cleans & Seals” or “Cleans & Disinfects”.

If the goal is to remove foreign matter from the surface…too clean, then by definition such products are taking us into the weeds. These products come as a homogenous product, yet they want us to believe the product first cleans before depositing another product over what is cleaned. That simply doesn’t make sense, both processes are going on at the same time and invariably will trap some dirt beneath the treatment. If the treatment is meant to be there the next time we clean we are not going to be removing that treatment or addressing what is trapped in it or beneath it. Over time even small events pile up to dull the surface. These are feel-good products that market well but ultimately are not cleaners but depositors.

True professionals know that you use the right tool for the job. A cleaner should clean exceptionally, a polish or conditioner should do its job, a sealer should protect and a disinfectant should kill. Any two of these should not be in the same bottle.

Your Cleaner Needs to Remove Oils & Grease

Many cleaners promoted to be natural stone safe do not do a good job of removing oils. This is particularly true of products claiming to clean and polish at the same time. If they contain an oil themselves that they plan on leaving behind to enhance shine, how are they going to differentiate from the oils you are seeking to remove and that which they want to leave behind? If one is set on shining in this manner, better to clean to remove all oil deposits, then apply the dressing as intended. In this manner, you generally also have a means of removing this finish if and when so desired. In reality, if you are seeking to enhance the shine of an installed surface there are a variety of ways to do so in a permanent manner, whether fixing an existing issue, or modifying the surface permanently with a surface that can now be cleaned.

Removing oils and grease from the pores of the stone is among the most important job of a stone cleaner, particularly if your surface has lost its seal due to acid attack from cleaner, spills or cutting tomatoes and lemons.

How important is oil removal to cleaning a surface? Consider this you can walk outside and get a handful or dirt or sand and place it on a plate, turn the plate sideways and all the dirt falls off. Take the same plate and put a drop of oil on it, or wipe your hands on it, and the dirt and sand begin to stick. Oils are why we get dirty a they attract and hold dirt that would otherwise blow away.

Rest assured that if you tested your product to see if it leaves a residue and it does, its unlikely to be an effective remover of oils and grease. This is the primary function of every cleaner.

Eco-friendly & Made in America?

To some, these features are not important and yet to others, these are the most important aspects of their choice. Decide how important this is to you and add it to your buying decision.

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