Not All Cleaners Are Created Equal. Here’s How to Choose Between Spray, Powder, or Cream.

published Apr 15, 2021
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Different types of cleaners and sponges on a green background
Credit: Joe Lingeman

Imagine you’re walking through the cleaning aisle to stock up on supplies, and you start feeling overwhelmed. There are not only tons of different brands to choose from, but also tons of different types of cleaners: liquids, creams, gels, even powders. Is there one type that’s superior to the rest? And which ones should you bring home?

According to Nathan Sell, director of regulatory science at the American Cleaning Institute, some of it comes down to preference. Companies may offer identical products in different formulation types to cater to different types of customers — for example, certain generations may prefer a powdered product over a liquid product, and vice versa.

But Sell says which type of cleaner you pick will ultimately depend on what you’re cleaning. “These different formulation types may have similar ingredients, but the way they are formulated makes them more adept at cleaning different surfaces,” he says.

Abe Navas, the general manager of Emily’s Maids in Dallas, compares the differences in cleaning products to your toiletries. In the same way you have a paste to clean your teeth, a cream to wash your hair, and a solid cleaner that can also turn into a liquid to clean your body, you can also choose your cleaner based on what you want it to accomplish. And while you can theoretically use your bar soap to wash your hair, it probably won’t be as effective. 

Curious what goes where? Here’s what the experts have to say about powder, cream, and liquid cleaners, and what each one is good for and when and how to use them.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Powder Cleaners

Powder cleaners are versatile and abrasive. Use them for heavy-duty cleaning jobs or anything that needs a strong scrub.

Bailey Carson, the head of cleaning at Handy, says powder cleaners are revered in the cleaning community, partially because they’ve been around for so long. But powder-based cleaners like Comet, Bon Ami, or Bar Keepers Friend also timelessly popular because, thanks to their abrasive texture, they’re powerful enough to clean away dirt and grime from surfaces. 

Irina Nikiforova, owner of Rocket Maids LA, says most cleaning companies use powder cleaners because they’re cheaper, and they can easily and quickly be diluted to the cleaner’s desired product strength.

Powder cleaner is usually mixed with water to form an abrasive paste, and it’s commonly used in laundry, and for heavy-duty cleaning jobs that require a bit of scrubbing, like removing deposits from hard surfaces, pots and pans, cookie sheets, and bathtubs or showers. 

That said, Carson doesn’t recommend using powder on porcelain, stainless steel, or other delicate surfaces that can be scratched by abrasive particles. And when you use powder in laundry, watch out for a build-up of particles. “Sometimes, the abrasive particles do not fully dissolve and can build up over time, causing damage to the septic system,” she says.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Cream Cleaners

Cream cleaners have the power of powder without being too abrasive. Great for vertical surfaces where you need something that sticks.

You probably associate cream cleaners with the bathroom — most typically, they’re used on the sink, toilet, bath, and shower, a la Soft Scrub — but Carson says they work on most surfaces. A creamy product is especially useful when you want a powerful cleaner without the potentially damaging abrasiveness of a powder-and-water solution.

According to Nikiforova, it’s best to use cream on vertical surfaces, like your shower tiles or the inside of your toilet bowl, where thanks to its sticky texture will stay put longer than a liquid spray if you need it to. Cream is also appealing because it’s easier to clean up than powder, and since cream products are diluted already, you won’t be at risk for inhaling particles. 

One equally sticky alternative to cream is gel. Carson says gel cleansers are known as deep cleaners, which is why they’re usually found in the bathroom — think toilet cleaners and mold removers. Gel cleaners also work well on tiles, bathtubs, sinks, and showers.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Liquid & Spray Cleaners

Liquid sprays can cover more surface area and get into corners, so they’re great for everyday cleaning.

If you’re going to be cleaning a hard-to-reach surface or a horizontal space, Nikiforova says a liquid spray will do the job effectively — the spray power helps reach corners and crevices, while the liquid lingers best on flat areas like countertops. And Navas says non-spray liquids, like bleach solutions, are convenient because they allow you to easily cover more surface area.

Though many all-purpose liquid cleaners contain abrasives like powdered cleansers, they’re liquified, which Carson says makes them more delicate than harsh powder cleansers — an ideal solution for everyday cleaning. Just be careful not to use liquid cleansers on copper and wood, which could be damaged by the excess moisture.

Credit: Joe Lingeman