Maintenance and Operations

Spring Cleaning with a Twist: Rediscovering Citric-Acid-Based Solutions

If Google Trends is any indication, spring cleaning is on just about everyone’s mind. Back on December 20, 2022, so few people were doing searches using the term “spring cleaning” that Google declared “there was not enough data [searches] to measure the term.” Jump ahead to March 6, 2023, and the number of people searching for “spring cleaning” reached “peak popularity for the term.” And it has remained high ever since.

Now is an excellent time to discuss and prepare for this annual event. Spring cleaning, whether in a commercial or residential location, is an in-depth and thorough cleaning of virtually all surfaces. Facilities managers consider this a good time, for instance, to clean the indoor carpeting. And they do. Many carpet cleaning companies report that spring is the same to them as Christmas is to retailers; it’s their busiest time of the year. The same goes for floor refinishers and window cleaners/washers.

History and Traditions

The term “spring cleaning” dates back thousands of years. In many Arab countries, the first days of spring are known as Nowruz, which translates to “new day,” or Khane Tekani, which literally means “shaking the house.” Both refer to spring cleaning, a time when everything from drapes and carpets to furniture are given a special deep cleaning. Ancient Jewish practices encouraged followers to prepare for the springtime festival of Passover by cleaning their homes and public facilities. And traditionally, the Catholic church performs detailed cleaning of church altars on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, which occurs in the spring.

So, there’s a lot of history and tradition behind the concept of spring cleaning. However, some of that tradition has been upended in recent years. For instance, beginning about 20 years ago, facilities managers changed from using traditional cleaning solutions, often manufactured with potentially harmful ingredients made from nonrenewable petroleum products, to using green cleaning solutions, which are more sustainable, have fewer harmful ingredients, and have less overall impact on the user, building occupants, and the environment.

But now, we are witnessing another break with tradition—the green cleaning solutions adopted over the years are being replaced with even safer and more sustainable ones. The replacements are a new generation of citric-acid-based cleaning solutions. These are cleaning solutions with primary ingredients that come from citrus fruits: oranges, lemons, limes, and others. These citrus fruits are grown worldwide, making them very sustainable. And because these ingredients are often classified as “food additives,” they are considered safer than the green cleaning solutions they are replacing.

Reasons for the Rediscovery

Citric acid has been used for generations in foods as a flavoring agent and preservative. Ancient Greeks and Romans also used citric acid for cleaning. However, it has been rediscovered during the past few years. To explain why citric-acid-based cleaning solutions are getting renewed attention, we must review some difficult but recent history.

In March 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, state after state began issuing stay-at-home orders. Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, and Idaho were among the first to do so. Soon, with just a few exceptions, every state in the union was under full or partial lockdown.

By September 2020, Florida reopened. Facilities were allowed to reopen at full capacity (except bars), and people were not required to wear masks or social distance. During the year, more states followed Florida’s lead and lifted their stay-at-home orders. However, restrictions were still in place, and while some people began returning to their office workspace, it was no more than a trickle. Most commercial facilities still report they are at about 50% occupancy levels.

Once commercial facilities began reopening, building owners and managers made thorough and effective cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting their top priority. They invested in several cleaning technologies, systems, and solutions—some new, some old but repackaged—that were reported to thoroughly clean surfaces. However, many later proved less effective than initially believed and invariably costly. And some, we later learned, could even harm human health, precisely the opposite of why they were selected.

With this awareness, facilities managers began analyzing how their facilities were cleaned. They certainly were not going back to traditional cleaning products, as doing that meant facilities could lose LEED credits, credentials, and even more tenants. But facilities managers wanted cleaning solutions that were proven safe, proven effective, and—one more thing—proven sustainable, meaning they came from readily renewable sources.

“Achieving sustainable development is the overriding challenge of the 21st century,” said former United Nations General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic. Citric-acid-based cleaning solutions address all these challenges, which explains why the spotlight is now on these products.


We’ve mentioned that these products are “effective.” However, in today’s world, particularly because of the problems encountered with cleaning products since the pandemic, facilities managers want to know why citric-acid-based cleaning solutions are effective.

To address this, we find that at least one citric-acid-based disinfectant used in commercial cleaning has been EPA-registered: It has been independently tested, evaluated, and proven to effectively eliminate (kill) the pathogens listed on the product’s label. This product may also be used to eliminate the pathogen that causes COVID-19.

Another citric-acid-based sanitizer has also been independently tested and proven to eliminate more than 99% of all pathogens on a surface: It reduces the surface pathogen load, making it safe in almost all situations.

And recently, the City of San Francisco Department of the Environment searched for safer but still effective sanitizers and disinfectants to be used in city-owned and -operated buildings. Citric-acid-based sanitizers and disinfectants were recommended due to their efficacy—the ability to eliminate pathogens on surfaces when used per the manufacturer’s instructions.

Break with Traditions

Though few of us may be familiar with him today, James Agee was one of the world’s most influential journalists, novelists, and film critics after World War II. When the war ended, he suggested it was time for Hollywood to change—to start making a new type of movie for a new type of audience.

“You must be in tune with the times and prepared to break with tradition,” he said. In many ways, we can apply that to how facilities should be cleaned in the 21st century. We must prepare to break with tradition and turn to safer, more effective, and more sustainable cleaning solutions.

Lee Chen is a professional cleaning industry veteran and president and COO of ProNatural Brands LLC, which manufactures natural, sustainable, high-performing cleaning solutions.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Facilities Management Advisor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *