I noticed that distilled water works well to clean away fingerprints on touchscreens or oil stains on a ceramic field after frying an egg.

But water and oil/fat are not supposed to mix, so why does that even work?

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    $\begingroup$ As far as I understand, fingerprints are mostly made from sweat and substances dissolved in sweat, so I can see them being removed with water. Not sure about the oil stains though. Are you sure it's not just a sort of confirmation bias? $\endgroup$ – Nicolau Saker Neto Jan 25 '14 at 14:49

There may be two different factors at play here.

First, it isn't necessarily the water that is doing most of the cleaning. I presume the water is used to wet a cloth and the cloth then wipes the surface. So the cloth may then physically remove surface contaminants. The role of the water may be just to improve the cloth's surface contact hence improving its ability to physically remove the contaminants.

Secondly, distilled water might do a better job than tap water as it has fewer dissolved solids which would leave other stains on the surface when the water evaporates.

However, the only way to be sure is to do a comparative experiment using different cleaning fluids. You might try tap water, distilled water and distilled water with a surfactant (e.g. a liquid soap). You might find that the best result uses the surfactant but that pure distilled water does a less good, but good enough job. Science isn't about single isolated experiments: we usually need to compare alternatives to know what is best.


In fact distilled water can be acid when expose to atmosphere because $CO_2$ dissolve into forming carbonic acid: $$\ce{H_2O(l) + CO2(g) <=> H2CO3}$$ Although the $pH$ usually in not very low (normally it is around 5) this can help to removing the greasy stains.

I think also the diffusion of the salts present in greasy stain in water can improve the water cleaning capabilities.

Finally one important thing is that distilled water don't leave residue in the surface. Normal water or other detergents usually contain salt or other substance that can leave halos in the surface. So the final result could appear better even if is not the best substance for solubilize fats.


The glass is almost certainly hydrophilic. (Does a drop of water on flat, i.e horizontal, screen bead up or spread out?). Thus the oil in the finger print is "lifted" from the surface which is wetted with water, and absorbed onto the cloth used to wipe the liquid away.

A dilute solution of white vinegar would probably work better since the vinegar would help "cut" the grease, yet leave no residue.

If you use a soap solution on glass then you have to rinse to remove the soap so that there isn't any residue.


The increased surface tension in tap water affects the ability to penetrate and lift stains, dirt, and grime easily.

The lack of mineral content in distilled water allows it to be more efficient in a chemical and mechanical fashion....

Minus detergent, I would agree with GM's carbonic acid theory - you are bound to be breathing on what you clean, and I suspect that distilled water would bond with carbon dioxide faster and more effectively than tap water - which would likely contain minerals and organic matter that would normally neutralize the acid as is forms.


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