Cleaning products can impact human health as much as fine furnishings onboard

Nov 18, 2016 by Alene Keenan

Stews are responsible for safely cleaning a variety of surfaces, including marble, wood, chrome, fabrics and carpet, and everything in between. It’s common to find a selection of cleaners already onboard, and we must decide what to keep and what to toss.

While it is always best to start with the mildest solutions first, the array of cleaning products stews may find on board can be overwhelming. Most yachts have a cleaning protocol for surfaces and finishes onboard, and so stews must understand the products they are instructed to use.

Not all cleaners are safe. Many contain toxic, corrosive materials that affect our health. When cleaning in enclosed spaces we inhale these chemicals, but we also absorb them into our skin and are exposed to residues they leave behind.

Before use, read the entire label to be sure it is the correct product for the intended surface. For instance, a polish made for pots and pans may not be suitable for appliances. The label gives instructions on how much product to use, how to dilute it, and the proper clothes or tools to use. Some need “dwell” time to break down dirt, such as bathroom and toilet cleaners. Disinfectants that kill bacteria, viruses and fungi must be listed.

Hazardous chemicals must carry a warning, along with a list of potential risks, guidelines for safe use, and first-aid instructions. Products may be toxic, meaning they can cause illness. Flammable products may cause a fire. Corrosive materials can eat through materials, including skin. Reactive products can ignite or create poisonous gases when mixed with certain other products.

Terms on the label that indicate a hazardous material include “warning”, “caution”, “poison” and “danger”. The last two warn of the highest risk, and stews should decide whether they need any product that strong.

General cleaning products and their ingredients can be categorized this way:

Abrasives contain small particles. Rated per hardness, many are too harsh to use onboard. Soft Scrub is an example of an abrasive cleaner that has caused damage on many boats.

Bleaches have whitening, brightening and stain-lifting properties. Two common kinds are chlorine (sodium hypochlorite; also a disinfectant) and oxygen (hydrogen peroxide, sodium perborate, sodium percarbonate). The use of chlorine bleach is restricted on many boats due to damage to surfaces and fabrics.

Surfactants make water spread out rather than bead up and suspend soil in water. Many are petroleum derived. Detergents have surfactants, but soaps do not.

Fragrances mask odors and leave scent behind.

Builders soften water by binding to minerals. Most yachts have a water softening system that takes care of hard water issues.

Enzymes are added to laundry and dishwashing detergents. They break down dirt, oil and proteins.

Solvents are harsh chemicals that dissolve other substances. These should be used with extreme care. Examples include: acetone, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, mineral spirits, naphtha, and turpentine. Waxes, furniture polishes, rug cleaners, spot cleaners, glass cleaners and degreasers usually contain organic solvents. Most are toxic. Wear rubber gloves and work in a well-ventilated area. Many yachts use alcohol for cleaning. It should be diluted at least 1:1.

The pH level of a product determines what kind of dirt and stains it is best at removing. The scale ranges from 0 to 14, and 7 is pH neutral.

A pH neutral product is effective without damaging surfaces. A mild-soap-and-water solution is safe to use on most surfaces, including marble. Levels below 7 are acidic. Lemon juice is level 2, vinegar is level 3, tomatoes are a 4, and coffee is at pH 5.

Levels above 7 are alkaline. Household cleaners, laundry detergents, automatic dishwasher detergents that cut through grease are around level 8. Baking soda is 9, ammonia is 11, and oven cleaner is pH 13.

Material Safety Data Sheets can be found online for every chemical used onboard. They are a requirement on many vessels, and everyone should know how to read and use them. Cleaning is a big part of the job as a stew, so we must take the time to protect ourselves.

Next month we will learn more about the chemicals in our products and about safer alternatives for cleaning.

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale. She shares her experience from more than 20 years as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht”, available at Comments are welcome at


About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

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