TSP cleaner, also known as trisodium phosphate cleaner, is a cleaning agent, stain remover and degreaser. It was originally used in a wide range of soaps and detergents because of its incredible cleaning power. The pH level of these cleaning agents (which are 1% solutions) is 12, which is alkaline enough to easily saponify grease and oil. TSP is best known for its versatility, as it is able to clean anything from laundry, to dishes, to driveways. Combined with its very low cost, TSP cleaner was wildly popular in the 1960s before it was discovered that its overuse was causing major ecological problems. The pH level of the product resulted in a shift in the balance of lakes and rivers, causing algae formation and removing oxygen from the water. This caused the United States to implement restrictions on the use of TSP cleaner in the 1970s. Nonetheless, TSP cleaner is still used today, but not nearly as frequently.
Most cleaning products now contain a TSP substitute which consists primarily of sodium carbonate, soda ash and zeolites. Zeolites are added to cleaning products as bulking agents, replacing TSP because they break down in water and become a non-pollutant. These new TSP substitutes possess very little sodium phosphates. Actually, even products marketed as TSP today actually contain less than 50% trisodium phosphate. These substitutes are thought to be less effective than true trisodium phosphate, as they are less alkaline.
Today, true TSP is used to prepare surfaces for painting and when mildew must be removed. TSP cleaners are able to remove grime, smoke, paint and paint remover sludge from walls rather effectively. When combined with bleach, trisodium phosphate is very effective for removing mildew. Despite this, TSP use is not generally recommended because it can corrode metal, damage grout, stain wood and leave a residue on glass.
Trisodium phosphate is also used today as a flux for hard soldering joints in copper plumbing. When added to a concentrated water solution, the flux dissolves copper oxides. Surprisingly, TSP has found its way into food additives as well. It is used as an acidity regulator in a wide range of food products. A final non-traditional use of trisodium phosphate is as an exercise performance enhancement drug. Phosphate is a key component of the Krebs cycle, which is a bodily process that produces energy. For this reason, many people believe TSP can improve many components of exercise performance, although it is generally considered to be a bad idea to ingest phosphate because it can dissolve cell membranes and is very irritating to gastric mucosa.
With all of the unusual uses of TSP, its appearance in traditional cleaning products has become almost non-existent. With safety the top priority when using any TSP solution, it is important to always wear gloves, long-sleeved shirts, pants and eye protection. Trisodium phosphate can be a dangerous chemical, so keep it out of the reach of children. If your TSP gets on any plants, quickly wash the plant to prevent the foliage from dying.