Relative Cleaning Strengths of Solvents

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Solvents help break down various substances.
Solvents help break down various substances. (Image: bulle image by valpictures from Fotolia.com)

Solvents are substances that are used to dissolve other substances into a solution. Cleaning products are basically solvents that are intended to dissolve dirt, grease, grime and other substances in order to get objects clean. The strength of the solvent determines how well it is able to remove these substances. Solvents that are too strong for a particular material can sometimes destroy the objects they were intended to clean.

Butanone

Butanone or MEK is tied with acetone as one of the strongest solvents. This solvent is used as lacquer, varnish, paint remover, denaturing agent for denatured alcohol, glue and cleaning agent.

Acetone

Tied with butanone for strength is acetone. Acetone is the primary solvent used to clean laboratory equipment and is also used as a nail polish remover. Acetone is primarily used to clean plastics, fiberglass tools and vinyl. Acetone is also used to treat metal before painting it.

Toluene

Toluene is a little more than half as strong as acetone and butanone. Toluene is one of the primary ingredients found in paint thinner. Toluene is also used to dissolve adhesives, rubber and sealants.

Xylol

Xylol is a little weaker than toluene. Xylol is a solvent used for cleaning steel, rubber, leather and silicone. It is also used as a paint thinner. High exposure to xylol can cause harmful neurological effects such as headaches and dizziness.

Naphtha

Naphtha is a solvent that is half as strong as toluene. This substance is used as a general purpose solvent and has various other applications. For instance, naphtha has been used in lighter fluid because of its flammability.

Cleansers

Cleansers are very weak cleaning products that are used on the human body to remove dirt, makeup, oil, dead skin cells and other materials. They must be weak in order to avoid damaging the skin and harming the individual who applies it.

Specialized Solvents

Substances such as strippers, degreasers and enzymes are stronger on the materials that they are intended to break down than other substances. A stripper is a solvent that causes a substance (e.g., paint) to swell when the stripper absorbs into the substance. The swelling causes the substance to come off of the material that it has bonded to, such as a wall. Degreasers mix with grease and break the grease down, turning the grease into a solution. Degreasers are useful for removing objects that have been coated with grease, a substance that is often very hard to remove. Enzymes merge with fats, carbohydrates and other organic molecules in order to break them down.

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