Keeping germs under control is a key part of steering clear of colds, the flu, and other illnesses. But cleaning alone isn’t always enough to protect you and your family. You have to remember that cleaning and disinfecting aren’t the same thing, and know how, what — and when — to do both.
“Cleaning removes dirt and impurities from surfaces,” says Khanya Brann, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Disinfecting kills germs.”
Cleaning is done with water, soap, or detergent and scrubbing action. To disinfect something, you’ll need to apply a special substance to a surface and let it remain wet for a certain amount of time — anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.
Something else to bear in mind is that it’s important to clean before you disinfect. “Disinfectants have no effect if dirt, soil, dust, or food debris are present,” says Nancy Simcox, an assistant teaching professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington.
If you’re surprised to hear that, you’re not alone.
“Disinfectants are widely misused and overused,” Simcox says. They’re often wiped off too soon to work well or used with a cleaning product, which can lead to a harmful chemical reaction.
“More is not necessarily better,” Simcox says. “It’s important to ask, ‘Do I need a disinfectant?’ Often, cleaning is all that is needed.”
Here’s when and how to do each.
Hard surfaces like doorknobs, refrigerator handles, bathroom faucets, toilet flushers, and light switches can be breeding grounds for germs. That’s because they’re often touched by more than one person.
“But for any pathogen … there has to be a route of exposure in order for it to cause harm,” says Bill Carroll, PhD, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Indiana University. “The question is, can you breathe it in? Eat it? Rub it on your skin? If not, then it’s probably not worth worrying about disinfecting. Cleaning will be just fine.”
If someone in your household is sick, take an extra step to disinfect. Choose a bleach or hydrogen-based product that’s approved by the EPA and follow the directions on the label.
“You can also look for a product that has the capability to both clean and disinfect,” Carroll says.
You can also make your own disinfectant by adding no more than one-third cup (5 tablespoons) of bleach to 1 gallon of water. Apply to a surface and let sit for 1 minute, then rinse well and allow to air dry.
Clean kitchen counters with hot, soapy water. If any come into contact with food, especially raw meat or eggs, you’ll want to disinfect them, too.
Most of the time, using detergent to clean your laundry is good enough, Carroll says. But if you’re washing the clothes or bedding of someone who’s sick, disinfecting them is a good idea.
Separate the laundry from other loads and wash it as soon as you can. Use a deep-cleaning detergent, the hottest water the fabric can take, and add a laundry disinfectant or bleach. Dry on high heat.
Wash your hands each time you touch the dirty laundry, including when you move it from the washer to the dryer. Once you’re done, use a disinfectant to wipe down hard surfaces like your hamper and washer.
Germs on handheld devices like your cell phone, laptop, and tablet match the germs that are often found on a kitchen sponge. Once a week, unplug your devices and remove all dirt and debris you can see with a dry cloth. Clean each screen with a scratch-free wipe made for electronics, then gently swab the surfaces with a disinfectant wipe. Make sure it’s well wrung-out. Too much moisture can damage your device.
Have a smart watch? Remove the rubber wristband often and wash it in warm, soapy water. (Especially after a sweaty workout.)
Out and About
What about all the surfaces you come into contact with outside your house — door handles, shopping carts, credit card keypads, gas pumps? Yes, these high-touch areas are germy, but you don’t need to disinfect every surface before you touch it.
“You’re not going to get [many germs] on your hand from that short exposure, and if you wash your hands, you break the chain,” Carroll says.
Try to keep your hands away from your mouth, nose, and eyes where germs can make you sick. Wash your hands anytime they get dirty, as well as:
- Before and after you eat
- After you use the bathroom or change a diaper
- When you sneeze or cough
- After handling pets
If soap and water aren’t handy, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Tips for Safe Cleaning and Disinfection
To safely clean or disinfect items in your home:
Don’t mix products. “Many people take the approach that if A is good and B is good, A + B must be wonderful,” Carroll says. That’s not the case. Mixing products can be harmful. For instance, “Never ever, under any circumstances, mix bleach and ammonia,” Carroll says. “They react to create a very dangerous chemical.”
Bleach and vinegar are two other items that should never be mixed. They can create toxic vapors.
Clean your sponges. “In order for something to get clean, something else has to get dirty,” Carroll says. Frequently replace your sponges or disinfect them in the dishwasher. Make sure to use a cycle that ends with a heated drying phase.
Remember: “Germ-free” is not the goal. No matter how often you clean or disinfect, it’s impossible to get rid of all germs. That’s OK. “Living in an absolutely sterile environment is not necessary,” Carroll says. “Some exposure to common pathogens is the way our immune systems get trained.”