Water-Based vs. Solvent-Based Cleaners: How to Choose the Best Industrial Cleaner for You

Are you overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options when it comes to choosing the best industrial cleaner? Are you struggling to choose between water-based and solvent-based cleaners?

When it comes to choosing the most effective cleaner for your application, understanding the differences between water-based and solvent-based options is critical. In this guide, we’ll explore the key characteristics of water and solvent-based cleaners. We’ll also identify what you need to consider when choosing the right cleaner for your application.

And, when you’re done reading, you’ll be able to identify the right cleaner for your unique requirements.

Understanding the Difference Between Water-Based and Solvent-Based Cleaners

Water-based cleaners are formulated with water as the primary solvent, making them a popular choice for various applications. They are often non-toxic, non-flammable, and more environmentally friendly. These cleaners excel at removing water-soluble soils and light oils. However, depending on their formulation, they are limited when dealing with certain contaminants including stubborn greases and heavy or thick oil deposits. Red Ryder, Fasteam, and Ultrex are examples of water-based cleaners from Guardian Chemicals.

Powdered cleaners fall into the water-based classification since they are most often diluted with water for use. When diluted they become water-based cleaners. Examples in this category include our products Bulldog and Power Powder.

Solvent-based cleaners commonly use natural or petroleum-based solvents as their primary cleaning agents. These solvents effectively dissolve oils, greases, and other hydrocarbon deposits. Solvent-based cleaners offer excellent cleaning power, making them ideal for heavy-duty industrial applications. These cleaners often come with higher flammability risk and can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Depending on the solvent used, flashpoint, and odour, additional ventilation and safety requirements may be required. Examples of solvent-based cleaners from Guardian Chemicals include D-Rex, Hydrosol, and Pentrax.

A Third Option: Hybrid or Solvent Emulsion Cleaners and Degreasers

A common misconception is that cleaners are either water or solvent-based. There is a third option, we call them hybrid degreasers or solvent-emulsion cleaners. This class of degreasers and cleaners combine water and solvent to remove difficult combinations of organic and inorganic soils. For example, oil is an organic soil and mud is inorganic—hybrids remove both.

Hybrid degreasers are often used for heavy-duty degreasing where a straight solvent-based cleaner is not sufficient to do the job. Oil sand is an example of a soil requiring a hybrid degreaser as it contains dirt, sand, and heavy oil. Water-based cleaners can only remove dirt or sand. Solvent-based cleaners can only remove heavy oil. Hybrid or solvent-emulsion cleaners remove dirt, sand, and heavy oil. With their dual capability, in certain applications hybrid degreasers are the best option. Guardian Chemicals offer several hybrid degreasers including Breakaway, Crossover, and Terrasol.

Choosing the Right Cleaner: Your Application and Factors to Consider

When selecting a cleaner, several factors must be considered including your specific application, soil, and surface to clean.

Application Method and Work Environment: Will you be using a low-pressure sprayer, pressure washer, or foamer? Will it be applied in an enclosed space? Is the area well ventilated? Water-based cleaners with strong odours and solvents may require additional ventilation and safety measures—especially in enclosed spaces. Some common considerations are toxicity, odour, flashpoint, flammability, and application method.

Contaminant Type: Identify the type of contaminant or soil that needs to be cleaned. Water-based cleaners are effective for soils, light oils and grease, and other water-soluble or dispersible contaminants.  Solvent-based cleaners excel at grease, heavy and light oils, bitumen, asphalt and other hydrocarbon-based contaminants.

Surface Being Cleaned: What is the surface you are cleaning made of? Is it painted or unpainted? Is it porous like fabrics and concrete or non-porous like metal? Knowing the answers to these questions can help you select the best cleaner and prevent damage to the surface being cleaned. For example, aluminum and chrome can be damaged by high pH water-based cleaners. When cleaning these metals, you may want to consider a product specially formulated to prevent damage such as SafeGuard AL. When assessing solvent cleaners, you’ll need to consider whether it will harm paints, coatings, plastics, gaskets and seals, etc.

Health, Safety, and Environmental Considerations in Cleaner Selection

When selecting a cleaner you should always consider health, safety, and environmental requirements for your application.

User Health and Safety: Evaluate potential risks associated with the cleaner’s use, such as toxicity, flammability, flashpoint and personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements. One often overlooked area when comparing water-based and solvent-based cleaners is odour and ventilation requirements. Where possible, choose cleaners with low toxicity levels and reduced health hazards to ensure user safety. And, no matter which cleaner you choose—always make sure the right PPE is sourced, available and effectively used.

Environmental Impact: Assess the cleaner’s environmental footprint, including biodegradability, impact on aquatic life, and volatile organic compound (VOC) content. Where possible, choose cleaners with reduced environmental impact and improved sustainability. While water-based cleaners are often more environmentally friendly than solvents, this is not always the case. When considering environmental impact, remember to assess use application and follow disposal instructions for used cleaning solutions.

Regulatory Compliance: Ensure your chosen cleaner meets all relevant health, safety, and environmental regulations. Consider all local, provincial or state, and federal regulations. In Canada, you should avoid cleaners that contain ingredients listed on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) Toxics list.

Certifications: When choosing water-based cleaners, there are two main independent certifying bodies in North America: Green Seal and Ecologo.  Green Seal certified products meet the highest standards for protecting health and the environment. Their certifications also include rigorous performance criteria. All cleaners that meet these standards are tested by third-party labs to ensure compliance. Guardian Chemicals E-Series of products including E-5 (E5) and E-6 (E6) meet the GS-37 “Cleaning Products for Industrial and Institutional Use” Standard from Green Seal.

When assessing health, safety, and environment considerations always remember to apply them to your application. Whether it’s water or solvent-based, you should conduct a hazard assessment before introducing a new cleaner into your facility. Unless the product is ready-to-use (RTU), when assessing water-based cleaners, consider the dilution rate in your assessment. Select the best cleaner for your application and take proper control measures to reduce potential risk.

Assessing Performance When Choosing Water-based vs Solvent-based Cleaners

Performance testing is a key parameter when choosing between water-based and solvent-based cleaners. While this choice may seem straight-forward based on the soil and surface you’re cleaning, sometimes the results can surprise you.

So, how do you know which cleaner is right for you? The best way to choose a cleaner is to conduct laboratory testing prior to scaling up in the field. This is especially important for applications involving large volumes of cleaning chemicals.

You could order several pails of different cleaners and test on your soils and surfaces—or you could trust our team of experts to help you make an informed decision.

At Guardian Chemicals, we understand the challenges and the importance of selecting the right cleaner for your unique application. We offer comprehensive and complimentary laboratory testing to evaluate the effectiveness of our water-based and solvent-based cleaners for your cleaning application.

Through rigorous testing, we can determine the best cleaner for your application. Our test protocols take into account cleaning efficacy, material compatibility, environmental impact, and cost-effectiveness. And, when we’re done, we’ll provide you with a report outlining the tests performed and results achieved. Best of all, we’ll identify the best cleaners for your application.


In the world of industrial cleaners, understanding the differences between water-based and solvent-based options will help you make an informed choice. Each has its own unique advantages and considerations. While it can be overwhelming—understanding surface compatibility, contaminant type, application environment, health, safety, environment, and regulatory compliance will help you select the right cleaner for your needs.

When making your choice, it’s important to avoid common industrial cleaning myths that can undermine the efficiency and safety of your operation.

When you’re ready, take the next step and contact us to achieve exceptional cleaning results. We can help evaluate your application and all factors involved to find the right cleaner for you. One that meets your needs and delivers outstanding cleaning performance.

See how Chemistry Done Better can help you Create a Better Future.

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