I have read conflicting advice on various sites about the appropriate methods for cleaning plastic and rubber items and would like to ask people who actually know what's going on what they would recommend.

I realize some of my assumptions may be false:

  • I am (perhaps wrongly) assuming that most plastics would have similar properties as it relates to cleaning with alcohol or soaps/detergents and that you don't need me to give you the actual chemical structure of a specific polymer.
  • I am (perhaps wrongly) assuming that most soaps and detergents would act similarly on either a plastic or a rubber item. If this is false please give your understanding of what an "average" soap or detergent would do.

I am not assuming that plastics and rubber will respond the same to either alcohol or soaps and detergents. If they are different, please note which will have what effect. I am not assuming that synthetic and real rubber will act the same. If they are different and you know the answer for both, please mention the difference.

I am hoping that it's okay to ask "applied" questions here. This seems like the best of all stackexchange.com sites, not just because none of the less theoretical sites are deal with this sort of question, but also because it really boils down to a matter of chemical reactions.

Update: by "alcohol" I mean rubbing alcohol, or isopropanol.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you perhaps reference the conflicting advice you have already found? It may help your research efforts to start with a specific case. What item do you have in mind that needs cleaning, are you trying to use soap to clean hand grease off a plastic fridge door handle for example? $\endgroup$
    – Leonardo
    Sep 5 '12 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ Asking about the mechanisms through which this might occur would make this a stronger question, I think. We're happy to have the "applied" questions, but they do should be grounded in some type of theory or else we would be unfaithful to the scope. See if you can make some minor changes to it in that regard. $\endgroup$
    – jonsca
    Sep 5 '12 at 23:15

Will soap damage plastic or rubber?

Probably not. Most plastics and rubbers are resistant to aqueous solutions and ionic compounds (including most surfactants and soaps).

Will alcohol damage plastic or rubber?

Maybe. There are two problems, in that neither alcohol nor plastic refer to specific compounds, but are rather generic terms encompassing hundreds of compounds each. The number of possible combinations is endless. As Leonardo suggests, the best approach is either to look in the manual or experiment in a small inconspicuous part of the product.

However, assuming that by alcohol you either mean ethanol, which is the drinking kind of alcohol, or isopropanol, which is the alcohol in many cleaning products, then I can give you some advice based on common plastic types. Both are similar enough in their solvent properties that we can generalize.

Alcohol will damage some plastics, but not all. I will list my answers by the resin code, or "recycling symbol", found on most plastic items:

  1. Poly(ethylene terephthalate), PET or PETE - PET is not very soluble in ethanol or isopropanol, but prolonged exposure may cause crazing or stiffening due to the dissolution of plasticizers.

  2. High-Density polyethylene, HDPE - HDPE is resistant to most things.

  3. Poly(vinyl chloride), PVC - PVC is not very soluble in ethanol or isopropanol, but prolonged exposure may cause crazing or stiffening.

  4. Low-Density polyethylene, LDPE - LDPE is resistant to most things.

  5. Polypropylene, PP - PP is resistant to most things.

  6. Polystyrene PS - PS is not very soluble in ethanol or isopropanol, but prolonged exposure may cause crazing or stiffening.

  7. This stands for "other", but the most common is polycarbonate, which is not very soluble in ethanol or isopropanol, but prolonged exposure may cause crazing or stiffening.

Rubber - most rubbers are probably resistant to alcohols, but prolonged exposure will cause loss of elasticity

  • $\begingroup$ Wow. That's an awesome answer. My main concern is a whole load of cables, mostly USB cables. Some of the cables and cords (notably on any Apple products) have a sort of rubbery feel, but I have no idea how to tell just what they are made out of. $\endgroup$
    – iconoclast
    Sep 6 '12 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ Rubber is made constituted of Buta-1,3-diene polymer $\endgroup$
    – BigSack
    Sep 9 '12 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ @BigGenius Rubber is also a generic term for partially crosslinked thermoplastic elastomers with certain properties in common "natural" or latex rubber is polyisoprene and some rubber is poly(1-3-butadiene). Most dienes can be polymerized into a "rubber" material, with the properties deriving from the mixture of linear, branched, and crosslinked polymers in the material. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Norris
    Sep 9 '12 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ What about TPU? $\endgroup$ Nov 29 '16 at 8:01

My advice: Look up manuals where applicable, or experiment with methods if you cannot find good answers, hopefully, you can figure out what exact material it is you are cleaning.

What I can tell you for sure is that I have a small 'plastic' refrigerator which, by quickly looking up the model No. and finding this order website, and the manual, it is made of Polyurethane. And the manual indicates under "cleaning and maintenance" that I should "wash the inside (polyurethane) material with a solution of warm water and two tablespoons baking soda per quart water." And, specifically, do not use "soaps, detergents, scouring powder, spray cleaners, or the like because it may cause odors."

Perhaps about.com has answers you wish, but I prefer the good old owners manual for the cold hard truth. By the way, I went ahead and used dish soap and cold water from my hose (I am a very lazy person). It smells slightly.. goofy, and that was a couple days ago. So I think they know what they are talking about. Note that the manual says nothing about Polyurethane!

I hope that helps clarify something or another.


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