Cleaners Vs. Disinfectants: What you need to know


I shudder to think…

We’ve seen the commercials and we know the products.  We feel disgusting; 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 battling food poisoning or the flu 24/7.

Ok, sarcasm aside, I think we’re being a little oversold on the whole notion of ‘disinfecting’.  While parts of your home should absolutely be disinfected, you don’t need to sterilize every little nook and cranny of a home to make it ‘clean’.  In fact, disinfecting should be reserved for areas like kitchen and bathroom surfaces and points of contact, and that’s about all.

But I’m using a disinfectant!

When you do take the time to purchase a disinfectant and clean an area using it, do you know if you are actually, certifiably disinfecting said space?  I can almost guarantee that you are not disinfecting it, despite using the proper product.  Half of cleaning comes down to tool or product and the other half comes down to technique.

Most people have a fantasy about disinfectants: that they work on contact.  Truth is, they don’t.  While they are very effective and certainly have the potential to disinfect, they have to be used properly in order for your home to reap the benefits of their formulation.

Why am I listening to you again?

People assume that because I am a cleaning expert/run a cleaning company, that I am a perfectionist neat freak that lives in a sterile home.  Allow me to clarify; I am not a germophobe, I do not have OCD, and I do not live in the world’s cleanest house (although some would argue).

In fact, here’s a little snapshot of my desk to prove it.

See folks, it’s not pretty.

However, I happen to be a SME, that’s right, a subject matter expert, meaning I spend my 9-5 learning about this stuff and it’s very good information to know.  I’ve figured my way around the marketing terminology, tested these products, spent hours on the websites of cleaning product companies learning the ins and outs of a product and have trained dozens of my staff on how to use them (or not use them) and the list goes on.  What I’ve found is that the correct methods of use are often glossed over or relegated to the fine print on the back of a bottle in exchange for easy, flashy sales copy and imaging.  Quite frankly, it’s up to you, the consumer, to figure out the finer details.  That’s where your SME comes in handy!

So, it is my official duty to teach you the truth about disinfecting and said products.

Tabula Rasa

For starters, did you know that a cleaner does not disinfect and a disinfectant does not clean?  This means that if you whip out your all-purpose cleaner to wipe away those nasty bathroom germs, your efforts are superfluous.  And, if you whip out your disinfectant to clean up that spilled orange juice, yet again, your efforts and meek and wasted.  Usually, that’s what we do – spray it on, wipe it off, move on with life.  We think any old bottle will do, it is a cleaning product after all, right?  Wrong!

The difference is that a traditional all-purpose cleaner is designed to lift dirt off a surface.  While some germs will be removed during this process (and can certainly be adequate for some areas of the home), the all-purpose cleaner won’t get everything.  Now a  disinfectant is designed to destroy bacteria, germs, etc. because of special ingredients they contain.  It is not designed to lift dirt off a surface, make it shiny or leave a scent behind like an all-purpose cleaner would. Most store brand disinfectants are adequate for home use, but wouldn’t cut it in your doctor’s office or your local coffee shop. For public spaces, there are specialty disinfectants which are designed to tackle specific germs and bacteria.

Are you starting to see the difference now?

Two steppin’ it

So here’s the key: if you want to clean and disinfect a surface, you need to begin by cleaning it, like remove the dirt, by using an all-purpose cleaner (step 1) and then applying disinfectant afterward to get rid of the bacteria (step 2).  This is obviously referred to as the ‘two step’ cleaning process.

One step wonder

With the advent of faster, better and stronger products, we’ve seen cleaners with disinfectants and using one of these products is referred to as employing a ‘one step’ cleaning process.  Here’s an example of a one-step product.

OK I’ve got it…or not?

Even still, using the one-step or two-step process does not guarantee you a clean and disinfected surface and here’s why:

Most chemicals that can kill on contact are locked up somewhere deep down in military intelligence and are usually referred to as biological warfare agents.  This tells us a lot, don’t you think?  Even mustard gas takes 24 hours for a victim to feel its fatal effects.  A disinfectant we use at home is going to need some time to work, at least so that we don’t need to wear a HASMAT suit when using it.

The fine print: exposed

Basically, any disinfectant (or cleaner and disinfectant product) needs to sit for at least 5-10 minutes, WET, on a surface before it has enough time for the product to kill any bacteria.  You can usually read on the label exactly how long your product needs to sit, wet on a surface, before you can wipe it away.

So all of this time, you’ve likely been using your disinfectant product in the right places but in the wrong way.  All you need to do is check the label and learn the correct time to let the product sit and your surfaces will be properly cleaned and disinfected.

You have to dig around

See for yourself – here are what some popular products’ websites have to say about 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.

So the lesson of the day is two-fold.

Firstly, disinfectants can work, however they need to work for a period of time before being wiped off a surface and secondly, cleaners and disinfectants are mutually exclusive unless specifically stated on the bottle that the product both cleans and disinfects.

If you found this post helpful, please share it on FB and Twitter, it really helps us out. 

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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