What Are Enzyme-Based Cleaners?

Several stain- and odor-removing cleaning products are available today that are advertised as “enzyme-based”. They are considered some of the most effective products for the removal of stains and odors caused by organic material, such as urine, grass, blood, or the like. However, many consumers are skeptical of such claims. How can a single solution remove so many different kinds of stains? The answer lies in the nature of enzymes. Most people are only vaguely familiar with the concept of an enzyme. Here is a short explanation of what an enzyme is, and how they work to remove stains and odors.

An enzyme is simply a protein molecule that, in the presence of other chemicals, “catalyzes” (speeds up) chemical reactions. By lowering the “activation energy” required for a reaction to take place, in many cases to millions of times lower than normal, chemical processes that would normally happen too slowly to be of value are able to take place very quickly. A useful way to think about this idea is to compare it to how water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes. At sea level, you have to heat water to 100 degrees Celsius to make it boil- but in Denver, Colorado, the lower air pressure decreases the boiling point of water to 95 degrees. There is less “resistance” to the reaction- the change from liquid to gas- because of the lower air pressure. Enzymes work similarly, changing the conditions around the chemicals to reduce the amount of energy needed for a reaction to take place.

This is important for living things, including humans. Most of the chemical processes that our bodies need to survive would normally take much too long to be useful to us. It’s only because of enzymes that we are able to digest our food in a matter of hours, rather than months or years. In fact, people who are lactose intolerance are actually suffering from a shortage of lactase- the enzyme that breaks down the lactose protein found in milk. Enzymes are also necessary for the chemical reaction that turns stored energy in our bodies into the muscle contractions that let us move around. Our bodies contain thousands of different kinds of enzymes, each of which influences a different chemical reaction.

“This is all fascinating”, you say, “but what does this have to do with getting wine stains out of my carpet?” The answer is that breaking up a stain is a chemical process, just like digesting milk. Regular cleaning products such as dish soap are “surfactants”, meaning that they allow water and oils to mix. This allows grease to dissolve into water, and wash away. Unfortunately, this is useless for removing many types of unwanted material- especially uric acid crystals. These tiny crystals, found in urine, are the reason pet urine stains carpets and retain their unpleasant smell. Surfactant cleaners are unable to break the chemical bonds that bind such crystals to the stained surface. Enzymatic cleaners, on the other hand, jumpstart the breaking down process of the chemical bonds in the stain. It’s as if time were sped up many thousands or millions of times over for the stain, causing it to degrade “naturally” in a matter of minutes or hours.

Enzyme-based cleaners are not suitable for all purposes, however. They are only recommended for use on organic stains. For our purposes, that simply means a stain caused by some natural, biological material- if it came out of an animal or plant, it’s organic. This would include feces, urine, blood, vomit, chocolate, coffee, even cigarette smoke. Stains from engine oil, though, would benefit more from the use of a surfactant- like laundry detergent- than from an enzyme-based cleaner.

Apart from concerns of effectiveness, many consumers prefer enzyme-based cleaners because they have a much lower environmental impact as compared to typical cleaning products. Conventional cleaners contain bleach, ammonia, hydrochloric acid, and other extremely toxic, corrosive chemicals. These artificially-created chemicals tend not to break down on their own, and hang around in our environment- or your home- long after you use them. Although they are widely sold and used, there is growing evidence that the high amounts of these chemicals have serious impacts on our health, and the quality of our water and air. The enzymes found in cleaners, on the other hand, have no notable impact on living beings and do not accumulate in our air and waterways. There is no need to keep children or pets away from areas that have been treated with enzymatic cleaners, as one would with a corrosive chemical cleaner, making them safer and more convenient for many users.

So, now that you know the science behind enzyme-based cleaners, you may decide to try one out for yourself. Many consumers have had very positive results from such cleaners in removing stains from pets, beverage spills, and other messes. Despite the complex chemistry behind such products, they are actually quite idiot-proof, as they simply need to be poured onto the stain and left to do their work. We encourage you to try out this safe, ecologically sound, and effective stain and odor treatment for yourself.