Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

The science of clean: A look at enzymes

September 19, 2010
There is a science to getting a job done right.

For cleaning professionals, detergent science keeps their businesses running.

The cleaning trends of the last decade have spanned from the war-on-germs to the green revolution.

The next trend could very well be enzyme cleaners.

Until recently, the science of enzymes and their power as cleaning agents has stayed under the marketing radar.

As cleaning professionals begin harnessing the power of these specialized molecules, they must sell the power of enzymes to a demanding public. But how?

Let science explain
Enzymes are as old as life itself.

Enzymes are involved in nearly every chemical and biological process from the decomposition of litter (the enzyme xylanase) to digesting milk (the enzyme lactase).

Enzymes are protein catalysts that act in reactions without being used up.

They break and form bonds then return to their original state.

For spray-on cleaners, this means the enzyme is active on the surface until it is removed or washed away.

For cleaning professionals, this means the “elbow grease” portion is done for you.

Soaking a stain in the right enzymes can break it up over time rather than with additional effort.

Knowing the right enzyme to use for the right job is important.

Enzymes are often extremely selective.

Many enzymes will react only with one substance, such as the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which is involved in the metabolism of alcoholic beverages.

This enzyme binds only to ethanol.

On the other hand, some enzymes are more general and will react with a variety of substances.

Enzyme cleaners that work on a variety of surfaces may have a blend of selective enzymes and/or enzymes that are capable of reacting with multiple substances.

For cleaning purposes, an enzyme can break apart the grease, starch, or sugar component of a stain or soil.

“The enzyme protease will help clean most common kitchen messes,” says Eric Salo, formulation chemist for EcoDiscoveries. “On the molecular level, it breaks the chemical bonds, breaking the soil into smaller pieces so it is easier to wash away.”

Safety is a major concern for cleaning professionals and their clients.

Professionals who employ enzyme cleaners are often making a choice that provides such safety, especially when compared to chemical alternatives.

“Many enzymes are very gentle and completely safe,” explains Amanda Mason of Harvard University. “Dangerous enzymes aren’t really common. Most of the dangerous materials people work with are small molecules, like acetone and bleach.”

Both bleach and acetone are common cleaners or solvents that have been cited in industrial poisonings.

All organisms can produce enzymes, and in fact, they must produce enzymes to live.

“Enzyme-producing bacteria” usually refers to bacteria which have either been genetically engineered to produce great quantities of a particular enzyme or bacteria which have been selected and cultivated by man for their natural ability to produce useful enzymes.

“Since enzymes are such large and complex molecules, scientists can’t just build them in the lab,” says Mason. “They must instead take advantage of the fact that even the simplest living cell, like a bacterium, is perfectly engineered to be an enzyme factory.”

Bacteria are used to produce many commercially useful enzymes, like lactase, which aids in the digestion of dairy.

Enzymes are isolated from bacteria by complex methods that differ based on the type of enzyme.

For bacteria that secrete enzymes, separation may be as simple a running the mixture through a centrifuge to separate the enzyme of interest.

However, some bacteria will not release their enzymes and must be “opened” and then purified.

The leftover parts of the bacteria must be removed through physical and chemical processes.

Plants also provide enzymes for the cleaning industry.

Plant cells release their enzymes in a variety of ways.

Natural fermentation is one enzyme cultivation method.

In contrast to enzymes cultivated from bacteria, this is a simpler science.

Often, the addition of yeast or other organic material speeds up the fermentation process for large scale enzyme production.

The cleaning power of enzymes is unmatched for odor elimination.

Unlike perfumes and fragrances, enzymes actually remove VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

The enzymes bind to the odor-causing molecules and break them up.

Enzyme deodorizers are a great alternative to fragranced products when chemical sensitivity is a concern, such as in schools, churches, day care centers, and other venues where there are children present.

Enzymes are extremely effective for organic messes, such as mold and septic system cleanup.

Because these organic soils can be hazardous for the professional involved in cleaning them, letting the enzyme do the hard work for you is a safer alternative.

The enzyme cleaner can break apart a moldy biomass or a clogged septic tank on the molecular level before any physical effort is exerted.

For clogged pipes or other hard-to-reach areas, enzymes can significantly reduce effort.

Most enzyme cleaners are blends for broad spectrum cleaning.

The formulators want you to get the most power from each product.

However, there are some messes that enzyme cleaners just can’t handle, like petroleum-based soils.

Enzymes are natural, so they work well on natural soils.

Synthetic and petrochemical spills will require a different chemical cleaner.

Because enzyme cleaners are natural, they can degrade.

Light, heat, and long term storage can break down the enzymes and reduce their effectiveness.

Most enzyme cleaners come in opaque bottles to protect them from light, especially UV light (sunlight).

Heat can also degrade enzymes.

When cleaning with enzyme concentrates, it is best to use cool or tepid water.

Temperatures over 140 degrees will certainly destroy most enzyme cleaners.

Enzyme producers report a shelf life of approximately 24 months on their cleaning products.

This is an average and may vary by manufacturer.

As the cultural consciousness moves toward a concern for safer products, the efficacy of enzyme cleaners makes them a viable alternative to the petrochemical products that are currently under scrutiny.

Consumers demand cleaner, faster and greener.

Science is advancing, and new ways to utilize nature are revolutionizing the cleaning industry.

Since the science of enzymes is nature, perhaps these cleaners can satisfy the modern market.


Danielle Downs is a writer and environmental advocate for EcoDiscoveries in Atlanta, GA. EcoDiscoveries is the only safe and effective green cleaning solution she uses. For more tips on going green, contact her at ddowns@ecodiscoveries.com or check out ecodiscoveries.com.