Cleaners Vs. Disinfectants: What You Need to Know

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You’ve seen the commercials. You know the products. We’re told our homes are a veritable hotbed for all germs, spores, bacteria, mold, and mildew. It’s quite miraculous that we aren’t all battling plague 24/7.

Ok, sarcasm aside, I think we’re being a little oversold on the whole notion of “disinfecting”. While there are occasions when you might want to disinfect, you don’t need to sterilize every little nook and cranny of your home to make it “clean”. And besides that, chances are very good you’re using your disinfectant improperly, which achieves nothing at all.

The Truth About Disinfectants

The first vital piece of information is that a cleaner does not disinfect, nor does a disinfectant clean. This means that if you whip out your all-purpose cleaner to kill those nasty bathroom germs, you haven’t actually done anything. And, if you whip out your disinfectant to clean up that spilled orange juice, don’t be surprised if the spot remains smelly and sticky.

A traditional all-purpose cleaner is designed to lift dirt off a surface. While many germs will be physically removed during this process (and ending your cleaning here is certainly adequate for much of the home), the all-purpose cleaner won’t get everything. A disinfectant, on the other hand, is designed to kill bacteria, germs, etc. due to the special ingredients it contains. It is not designed to lift dirt off a surface or make it shiny like an all-purpose cleaner would.

So here’s the key: if you want to clean and disinfect a surface, you need to begin by cleaning it—removing the dirt, using an all-purpose cleaner—and then apply disinfectant afterward to get rid of the bacteria.  This is referred to as the “two-step” cleaning process.

One-step Wonders

With the advent of faster, better, and stronger products, we’ve seen cleaners with disinfectants—”one step” cleaning products.  Here’s an example of a one-step product.

Even still, using the one-step or two-step process does not guarantee you a clean and disinfected surface, and here’s why: We have been trained (by those commercials, I might add) to think that disinfectants work on contact—that you can spray them on, which, Boom! kills bacteria, and then wipe them away. Not so. Read the fine print on that product and you’ll see that they need time to work.

Basically, any disinfectant (or cleaner and disinfectant product) needs to sit for at least 5 to 10 minutes, WET, to kill any bacteria. Again, check the label on your product of choice to get the correct timeframe.

See for yourself: Here is what some popular products’ websites have to say on this topic.

Clorox Wipes

Lysol provides a great website about the cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting

Green Works – did you know this product does not disinfect?

Mr. Clean Disinfecting Wipes

You’ll notice that they all refer you to the product label for proper disinfecting instructions. In fact, the “kills 99.9% of all bacteria” claim always comes with a little asterisk referring you to that very point. In other words, the product won’t disinfect unless you use it properly, ergo this blog post.

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Let us know your questions or comments pertaining to this or other cleaning issues!

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Melissa Maker is an entrepreneur, cleaning expert, founder of Toronto’s most popular boutique cleaning service, and star of the Clean My Space channel on YouTube (but she still hates to clean!). Every week, Melissa delivers new videos dishing expert advice on cleaning products, tools, DIY substitutes, and practical, timesaving solutions to everyday problems. Melissa has appeared on the Today Show, and has been featured in InStyle, Real Simple, and Better Homes and Gardens.

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