As a cleaning expert, I am pleased to be able to share crucial information about cleaning and disinfecting at home when illness is a concern. I’m going to explain the what, how, when, where, and why, when it comes to disinfecting. I will also share some other important (and often not talked about) information that you need to know about keeping your family and your home healthy. The information I am sharing comes from trusted sources, and from 13+ years of experience as a cleaning professional.
I strongly encourage you to check with the authorities on this topic—the CDC, the WHO, and your government’s national health agency are the places to start. I am using information that is most up-to-date based on what we know about COVID-19, and am using that as a benchmark for this article. Also, this is a long article, but, this isn’t the time to skimp on information. I think the more I can share, the more details you know, hence the better equipped we’ll all be.
Cleaning, Sanitizing & Disinfecting
These words get used interchangeably—they shouldn’t be! In order for you to understand the information you are reading, and to speak correctly about what is being done, I’m going to define them for you here in layman’s terms. Let’s think about these things like a traffic light system.
This would be green. It is essentially caring for surfaces with the appropriate product and tool. When we clean, we want to remove dust, dirt, and debris from a surface to make it look presentable. Generally, when I clean I like to use an all-purpose cleaner—I use my DIY version most often because it’s easy to make and costs pennies. Soap and water kills a certain amount of bacteria on a surface and is fine for everyday use. The focus of cleaning isn’t necessarily to kill bacteria (although it will happen to some extent), but rather to maintain a surface.
This would be yellow. It reduces—but doesn’t necessarily eliminate—microorganisms from a surface to levels considered safe as determined by public health codes and regulations. When we sanitize, we are getting rid of the bad stuff without obliterating every organism on a surface. It’s more intense than a regular cleaning you’d perform at home since public safety is often at stake. At home, I don’t think about sanitizing. For me, I’m either cleaning or disinfecting (although, if my dishwasher or washing machine has a sanitize cycle, I’ll use it when needed).
This would be red. It’s the type of cleaning performed to destroy and/or prevent the growth of disease-causing microorganisms. A disinfectant is an agent such as heat or chemicals that disinfects by destroying, neutralizing, and/or inhibiting the growth of disease-carrying microorganisms. There are 2 types of disinfectants: hospital-grade and general disinfectants.
When Should I Disinfect?
A lot of us think we have to disinfect all the time—we don’t! Too much disinfecting can actually be detrimental to maintaining a strong immune system. I suggest you disinfect when you know there are microorganisms you need to get rid of, such as:
- Meat cooking prep: raw meat carries a number of harmful bacteria that can end up on various surfaces in the kitchen.
- Areas where there’s a high concentration of bacteria: the bathroom comes to mind. It all comes out in the bathroom, so it’s a smart place to stay on top of.
- If someone is suspected of being (or is) sick: of course, you’ll want to ensure areas that person uses are disinfected to avoid the spread of germs.
- If someone has a chronic health issue or is immunocompromised: with a weakened immune system there’s a lower tolerance to everyday bacteria and more intense microorganisms.
At a time of illness, you’ll have to frequently disinfect areas while someone is contagious. The CDC recommends wearing disposable gloves when cleaning and to avoid vigorously shaking clothing and linens, placing anything into a basket or bin that could carry the bacteria, and keeping a sick person separate from the rest of the home with their own set of supplies (e.g. toiletries, medications, etc.).
How Do I Disinfect?
It’s important to know that a general-purpose cleaner does not disinfect, and likewise, a disinfectant does not clean. When you need to disinfect, it’s critical to use the right products and tools to get the job done.
A disinfectant has one job—search and kill. It might sound gruesome, but it has to find the bacteria, infiltrate it, and rip it apart. Only then can it be wiped away. By this, I mean that a disinfectant needs time to work. With that, I’d like to introduce you to the two-step disinfecting method that professional cleaners use.
Step 1: Cleaning
A surface can’t be disinfected until all grease, grime, and dirt are removed from it. It has to look and feel clean. So, get out your all-purpose cleaner, and clean. If there’s a spill (e.g. meat juice) or any debris, remove that entirely first before cleaning.
Step 2: Disinfecting
Here’s the thing, you don’t just spray a disinfectant on and wipe it right off. If you spray disinfectant on, the product then requires what’s called dwell time—it needs to sit, wet—to do its job. It can’t do its job if you simply spray and wipe. So be generous when you spray, and allow a product to sit on a surface for 3-5 minutes (or whatever the product you are using suggests) before taking action. If you notice it starting to dry… re-up! Then, wipe away with a clean cloth. If it’s something that will be going into a pet or child’s mouth, rinse it with water after this step. You can also rinse with a clean cloth and water if you see streaks left behind.
Remember I talked about ‘general disinfectants’ that we can use at home? If you’re wondering what that might be, according to the CDC, you can use:
- a store-bought disinfectant that’s registered with the EPA
- rubbing alcohol that’s at least 70% alcohol by volume (sorry, vodka, you’re just for drinking right now)
- a bleach solution of 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water on a surface (assuming it’s safe to use on that surface).
As a quick aside, never mix bleach with ammonia, or vinegar, or any other cleaning product—it’s fine (READ: Safe) mixed with just plain old water.
How To Use Disinfecting Wipes
Disinfecting wipes will work if they’re used properly. Like disinfectants, they have a specific protocol that must be followed to ensure results. Most people don’t use them properly and don’t use them on the right surfaces. Note: all wipes are not created equal—make sure your wipes state they are a disinfectant on the label.
To Use Properly
Clean the surface first and then use a fresh wipe to disinfect the surface, ensuring the surface stays wet for 3-5. This means you’ll have to watch it and continually wipe it to ensure it stays wet; after all, it’s got that search and kill mission to do. It may mean you go back 5 or 6 times, or just constantly wipe it until time is up. Ridiculous, yes—but that’s how it works! Maybe you’re rethinking how you use wipes now?! Once dry, wipe the area to remove any residue (wipes are usually wet and leave streaky residue behind) with a clean, damp microfiber cloth.
Wipes can be a good way to clean points of contact such as light switch plates, electronic items, or keypads that you don’t want to spray, or when you’re on the go (car, travel, shopping etc.). I’m generally not a fan of disposable wipes because I think they’re wasteful, but, there is a time and place for them.
DIY Disinfecting Wipes
If you can’t find any proper disinfecting wipes, here’s a quick hack: Take your makeup-removal or baby wipes and pour rubbing alcohol (at least 70% alcohol) into the package to saturate the wipes to use for cleaning.
What Should I Disinfect?
It can be challenging to know exactly what to disinfect. Do you go in and blast every square foot and object under your roof? Not exactly. Let’s cover the areas you want to ensure you are disinfecting.
Points of Contact
That means anything we touch frequently. Our hands are transporters, so anything we’re touching is either picking up or putting down microorganisms. The issue is, we touch our faces a lot. I recently read a stat that said we unknowingly touch our face an average of 90 times per day—wow! So, points of contact can be a real concern when sickness abounds. Door knobs, light switch plates, remote controls, faucets, toilet handles, keypads, etc., are all points of contact. If you want to have an easy way to figure out if something is a point of contact, ask yourself this: would I eat a sandwich with my bare, unwashed hands after touching that? If the answer is no, you’ve got a point of contact to clean.
This covers off things like phones, laptops, tablets, keyboards, watches, keyboards, mouse, remotes, etc. Very recently, Apple updated its care page, and they say you can now use straight rubbing alcohol wipes on hard, nonporous surfaces. When done, use a flat-weave microfiber cloth to remove residue. This technique works well for most electronic items, just keep in mind you don’t want the product getting into any components or ports, so stick to hard, nonporous surfaces only. Don’t’ do this on monitors or TV screens, just use a microfiber cloth sprayed with water, a product can ruin screens depending on what they’re comprised of (and what the product is).
Bathrooms involve multiple points of contact that need disinfecting when an illness is present. Clean and then disinfect using the two-step method I explained above. This takes a lot of time to do properly. When someone is ill, it’s worth the time. Include things like toothbrush holders, toilet and the surrounding area, countertops, sinks, light switch plates, and all soft surfaces such as rugs and towels.
Clothing, bedding, towels all get pretty germy themselves. Think about how often we’re sneezing and coughing into our elbows, sweating in our sheets, and using our hand towels. These can be washed on the hottest cycle allowable by the fabric to help kill off harmful bugs. Many newer machines often have a sanitize cycle, this would be the time to use it. Regular detergent is said to be effective at getting rid of many germs along with heat. If you want a little extra punch, you can purchase a laundry disinfectant, add the appropriate amount of chlorine bleach to your wash, add a cup of hydrogen peroxide, or a scoop of oxygen bleach powder to your wash. While the last two aren’t EPA registered disinfectants, they will help to further reduce bacteria.
If you are doing laundry for a sick person, pick up items carefully so as to not shake them too much and spread germs, use disposable gloves and/or thoroughly wash your hands after touching, and take all laundry directly to the washing machine instead of leaving in a hamper (where there’s a risk of cross-contamination). Laundry can be mixed with a healthy person’s laundry. As they say, it all comes out in the wash.
Alternative: Steam Cleaning
If you want to try something different, or frankly, can’t get your hands on a disinfectant, consider a steam cleaner (I like this portable one from Reliable). These cleaning tools are designed to slay microorganisms on contact (and de-wrinkle your clothing!). They will disinfect both hard and soft surfaces and eliminate the need for two-step cleaning since they get rid of dirt AND bacteria at the same time. When I use it on a hard surface, I blast with steam for a few seconds and then do a follow-up wipe with a clean microfiber cloth to reveal a streak-free, and germ-free, shine. On soft surfaces, like upholstery, pillows, and blankets, I run the steamer over the area for a few seconds and move on, it’ll dry quickly.
While steamers are an upfront investment, keep in mind that they run on water alone and can be used for years. The most important thing to look for is that the temperature at the tip of the steamer gets up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which is what’s needed to disinfect. Another benefit: they’re also kind of fun to use!
Changing Out Tools Often
At times like this, make sure your cleaning tools are being changed out and cleaned more often. Microfiber cloths can be laundered as usual, and at this point, I am not worried about a cloth that’s been machine washed carrying germs after a completed wash. I may learn otherwise at which point I’ll update this article. We don’t love using hot water on microfiber since it can melt the fibers and make them less effective, but other microfiber producers claim heat is OK. If you’re using one of my microfiber cloths, know I’m not a fan of using hot water. Warm is OK if you must.
Sponges, brushes, and mops should be cleaned after each use and porous materials like sponges should be changed out at a higher frequency than normal if you suspect or know someone is sick.
In the cleaning world, a concern we always have is that of cross-contamination. As a general rule, a cleaning tool should not be used anywhere else after it has been used in a room or area to avoid ‘re-infecting’ a surface after it’s been disinfected. A good practice is to have a separate sponge for kitchen and bathroom, the same goes for cleaning toothbrushes, and microfiber cloths. If you are doing a cleaning of an area prior to disinfecting it, consider using a paper towel so that you can be certain about avoiding cross-contamination.
That was a lot, I know. You’ve made it to the end. My hope is that you can now approach cleaning and disinfecting with confidence and skill. Most importantly, take good care of yourself and your family. I wish you well.