When you’ve got a busy household full of kids and pets, it can feel like things will never be clean enough. But not all surfaces in your home require disinfecting, too. Studies have shown that children raised in overly clean environments may be more prone to allergies and asthma because of a lack of exposure to beneficial bacteria. Plus, overuse of disinfectants can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” posing a serious threat to public health. So, it is crucial to understand how disinfection differs from cleaning. In this article, I cover which surfaces require disinfection, how to do it properly, and what to use.
The Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfecting
To properly disinfect a surface, you must first understand that it’s not the same thing as cleaning and, in fact, is an entirely different step. Doing the steps in the wrong order wastes your time and cleaning supplies, and also creates health risks.
Definition of cleaning
Cleaning is the process of removing dirt, dust, and debris from a surface using soap, water, or other cleaning products. The purpose of cleaning is to help things look and feel tidy, and to protect them from damage caused by stains or abrasive dirt. Cleaning reduces the number of microscopic organisms but does not eliminate them.
Definition of disinfecting
Disinfecting is the act of using chemical agents to kill germs, viruses, and other microorganisms. This is a crucial step to preventing the spread of infection and protect against harmful pathogens that can cause illnesses. Disinfecting eliminates microscopic organisms like bacteria and viruses, but does not remove dirt or debris.
Household Surfaces that Require Both Cleaning and Disinfection
Routine cleaning is enough in most areas of your home unless there are unusual circumstances such as a flood or pet accident, or you’ve just moved into a new home. But there are a few surfaces which require disinfection to protect your health.
To prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and germs in your kitchen that cause food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella and E. coli, clean and disinfect the following areas at least once daily. For countertops, repeat both before and after use.
- Cutting boards
- Sink areas
- Stove knobs and handles
- Refrigerator handles
- Cabinet handles and knobs
Disinfecting the kitchen floor is usually unnecessary unless you have crawling infants or someone in the house is ill or immune-compromised. This is because the kitchen floor is not a high-touch surface and rarely comes into direct contact with food. In most cases, mopping with hot water and a little dish soap is enough, then spot treat areas with disinfectant following food spills or contamination.
Ideally, high-touch bathroom surfaces would get daily disinfection, but that is not always practical. If no one in your home is sick or the bathroom rarely used, every few days may be enough. It ultimately depends on your home’s occupants and their health. Bathroom surfaces that require disinfection include:
- Sinks and faucets
- Showers and tubs
- Toothbrush holders
- Soap dishes
The bathroom floor rarely requires disinfecting unless it’s contaminated with harmful pathogens, like after a sewage backup or flood, or if you are potty-training young males. Instead, cleaning the floor with soap and water regularly can remove dirt and grime while reducing the number of germs present. If you want to use something stronger, sweep or vacuum the floor, then mop it with a homemade germ-killing floor cleaner.
To prevent the spread of germs and bacteria, it’s important to regularly clean and disinfect high-touch areas in your home, especially when someone is sick or has a weakened immune system. These areas can harbor harmful microorganisms that can survive on surfaces for days and easily transfer from person to person. Examples of high-touch areas include:
- Light switches
- Cabinet and appliance handles
- Microwave touchpads
- Faucets and knobs
- Toilet flush handles and seats
Electronic devices can be a breeding ground for germs and bacteria. Go over them with a microfiber cloth or soft-bristled brush to dislodge dirt, then use a disinfectant wipe or cloth dampened with rubbing alcohol to eliminate germs. Items to treat include:
- Phones and tablets
- Computer keyboards
- Security system keypads
- Car key fobs
- Television remote controls
- Game controllers
Steps to Clean and Disinfect Surfaces
Step 1: Clear off the surface. Remove any items and wipe away loose dirt and debris with a dry cloth or paper towel.
Step 2: Clean the surface. Wipe the area with warm, soapy water using a sponge or cloth to scrub away grime. Pay special attention to food preparation spots.
Step 3: Rinse and dry. Rinse the surface well with clean water to remove soap residue, then let it air dry or use a towel.
Step 4: Apply disinfectant. Go over the area with a disinfecting wipe or spray and let it sit for the recommended time, then wipe it off.
What to Use?
There are many disinfecting products suitable for household use. Here are some common ones:
- Bleach: Chlorine bleach is a strong disinfectant that is effective against a wide range of germs and viruses. It’s useful on hard surfaces such as countertops, floors, and walls, as well as in laundry.
- Alcohol-based products: These disinfectants contain a high concentration of alcohol and work well on countertops, doorknobs, and electronics. Common brand names include Zep, Sprayway, and Microban.
- Hydrogen peroxide: Affordable 3% hydrogen peroxide is a mild disinfectant that is safe to use on most countertops, floors, and bathrooms. Hydrogen peroxide is the key ingredient in homemade oxygen bleach.
- Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs): QACs are a group of disinfectants that are effective against a wide range of germs and viruses on hard surfaces. Common brand names include Fabuloso, Lysol, and Mr. Clean.
- Disinfectant wipes: These pre-moistened wipes are convenient for use on countertops, doorknobs, light switches, knobs, handles, and electronic devices. You can also make homemade disinfecting wipes.
To make a simple homemade disinfectant, fill a spray bottle with 1 cup rubbing alcohol (70% isopropyl) and 1 cup distilled water plus 10 drops of lavender, frankincense, or cedarwood essential oils which are safe to use around pets and have mild antimicrobial properties. Shake and apply.
- Use the right product: Ensure the cleaning product you choose is safe for the surface you’re cleaning. Different surfaces may require different products, and some may cause permanent damage.
- Read the label: Always follow the instructions on the label of your chosen product and ensure that it is effective against the specific germs you’re targeting.
- Wear gloves: Cleaning gloves not only protect you from harsh chemicals but also help to keep your skin safe from contact with dangerous bacteria and germs.
- Use proper ventilation: Use bathroom exhaust fans or open windows while cleaning to dilute any fumes or mold spores stirred up during the cleaning process and protect your respiratory health.
- Clean your cleaning equipment: To avoid cross-contamination, don’t reuse dirty gloves or rags. Launder rags in a long, hot wash cycle with bleach, then line or tumble dry. Clean rubber gloves in cool, soapy water, shake off excess moisture, then spray them until saturated with hydrogen peroxide and let them fully air dry.