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In 1861, a woman named Isabella Beeton lamented the "discomfort and suffering" in households that came with "untidy ways." She set out to remedy that situation with her book, "Beeton's Book of Household Management," which became essential reading for women of her times - who were as often as not judged by the spotlessness of their homes.

Among other things, Beeton advised women on how to make their own soap. Then there were the rugs that had to be physically beaten to remove dust and dirt, the wash boards required for scrubbing clothes. And a special mixture of vinegar, dried fowl droppings, soap and onions that was designed to get "whiter whites." Elbow grease was the order of the day, and women could expect to spend a great deal of their time in the relentless quest of achieving cleanliness.A lot of water has gone down the drain since then. And a lot of energy has gone into the development of cleaning products that are both easier to use and that do a more effective job.

Cleaning products have evolved over the years to respond to the needs of changing consumer lifestyles and scientific advances to benefit both consumers and the environment, says the Soap and Detergent Association, a trade group for cleaning-product manufacturers. Consumers now spend less time than ever before keeping things clean.

But despite all the advances science has made, consumers still have questions about how some of these products work and how to tackle particular cleaning challenges. Here are answers provided by the SDA to some of today's cleaning questions:

Q: What is a surfactant and why is it important for detergents?

A: A surfactant (surface active agent) is a wetting agent that lowers water's surface tension. Surface tension is what causes water to bead up on hard surfaces and prevents fabrics from easily becoming wet. By lowering surface tension, a surfactant allows water to spread out, penetrate fabrics more easily and remove many of the water-soluble soils.

The surfactant is perhaps the most important ingredient in a synthetic detergent. Detergents may contain more than one kind of surfactant. These surfactants differ in their ability to remove certain types of soil, in their effectiveness on different fabrics and in their response to water hardness. Surfactants are classified by their ionic (electrical charge) properties in the water.

Q: I live in an area that has hard water and am always trying to remove the buildup that accumulates around bathroom fixtures and other areas. Is there a good way to remove this unattractive crust?

A: Water hardness is caused by the presence of dissolved mineral salts, such as those of calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese. When hard water evaporates, a mineral deposit is left behind and can build up over time. This is what you are seeing around your fixtures.

The most efficient way of combating this problem is to wipe any area where water may sit and evaporate - around faucets, shower areas, etc. - after every use. However, this is not always possible. Using a hard water mineral remover on a regular basis will help prevent mineral buildup. These products will also remove mineral deposits once they have accumulated. For specific instructions, follow label directions on the product package.

Q: I accidentally dropped super glue on a pair of pants. Is there any way of removing it?

A: No. Unfortunately, once super glue dries it is practically impossible to remove it without damaging the fabric.

Q: Some of my garments seem to lose their body after washing. What causes this, and is there anything I can do to prevent it?

A: Most fabrics are treated with a sizing to give them extra body or weight, a smooth hand and/or a lustrous look. If the fabric is treated with a water-soluble sizing, it can be removed after many washings. The longevity of the finish depends on the quality and type of sizing used.

You can't prevent this from happening, but you can restore firmness or crispness to the garment by using a starch, sizing or fabric finish for synthetic fabrics. You will probably have to repeat this process after each laundering in order to maintain the crispness of the original garment.

Q: Many of the cleaning products I use list the word CAUTION on the label. What does this mean, and are the products harmful to me or my family.

A: The products should not be harmful to you or your family if they are used and stored according to the directions on the label. The word CAUTION on a household cleaning product is a signal word required under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act to provide information on human safety. Specifically, the word CAUTION or WARNING is considered a "mild" warning, which means the product is not likely to cause permanent damage if someone accidentally gets it in their eye, on their skin or swallows if - if appropriate first aid is given. That first aid is also listed on the label.

Usually, the warning is given because the product is an eye or skin irritant, or the product would cause dizziness or upset stomach if it were swallowed. As a point of reference, a food such as vinegar would also be required to have a CAUTION label if it were sold as a cleaning product instead of a food product.

Q: Several of my husband's cotton shirts have tears under the arms. What causes this?

A: The tears are probably a result of using an antiperspirant over a long period of time. Antiperspirants are acidic and contain aluminum chlorides that can damage cellulose fibers, such as cotton, linen and rayon or cellulose fiber/synthetic blends. After prolonged contact with the antiperspirant, the fibers are weakened. During laundering, agitation can cause the weakened fabric to tear.

To prevent or reduce this problem, wash garment as soon as possible after wearing to remove the antiperspirant. Using a deodorant rather than an antiperspirant will also help alleviate the problem because deodorants have a neutral pH.

Q: What is the difference between antimicrobial and antibacterial hand soaps?

A: An antimicrobial product kills a broad category of microbes including bacteria, yeasts, molds, viruses and protozoa. Antibacterial is a more specific term used in reference to bacteria. Antibacterial products will kill multiple types and strains of bacteria and also yeast.

Regular soaps remove germs by washing them away. Antimicrobial/antibacterial soaps combine these same removal properties with the ability to kill germs. These products usually remove more germs than regular soaps and inhibit the growth of germs after rinsing.

Soaps that are labeled antimicrobial and/or antibacterial are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, are required to meet stringent regulations and must list all active ingredients.

Q: Can I add water to my liquid hand soap to make it last longer?

A: No. Adding water will contaminate the product. This reduces its effectiveness and promotes bacterial growth. The bacteria can cause discoloration and a bad odor.

Q: To boost the power of cleaning products for heavily soiled areas, I sometimes mix two or three products together. Is this a good idea?

A: It is not a good idea to mix cleaning products for several reasons. First, products containing ammonia or acids should not mix with chlorine bleach because this mixture can create hazardous gases. Cleaning products with ammonia or acids will explain this on the label.

Sometimes mixing products cancels out the effectiveness of one of the products and sometimes unpleasant fumes may be created. Also, some products contain bleach, and mixing could increase bleach levels and odor.

Q: I sometimes have a problem with dark-colored garments bleeding onto white- or light-colored collars and trim. I read that soaking fabrics in salt or vinegar water would set colors. Is this true? If not, is there any way to keep colors from bleeding?

A: Years ago, it was common practice to use a salt or vinegar solution to set dyes. However, these procedures are not effective with today's dyes. We are not aware of any procedure that will set dyes.

There are ways to care for garments that may not be colorfast. The first rule is, of course, read and follow care label instructions. To check for colorfastness, test the garment before laundering, especially when there is white or light-colored trim on a dark-colored garment. Put a small amount of water or laundry detergent on an inconspicuous area of the dark color. If the color runs, it is not colorfast and may bleed onto the trim.

Wash the garment separately the first time. If there is color left in the wash water, continue washing it separately until the color no longer bleeds into the water.

If dye bleeds onto the trim, try rewashing the garment, several times if necessary. Rewashing may eventually remove the transferred dye from the trim and the excess dye from the garment.