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How to Safely Disinfect Your Home

What You Don't Know about Killing Germs
  -- By Stepfanie Romine, Staff Writer
Worried about catching the cold or flu this year—or helping to keep the germs of one sick family member from infecting others in your house?

Beyond hand washing and self-imposed quarantine, some time spent cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing high-traffic areas can ensure your home sweet home stays healthy, too. But what you think you know about killing germs—and what actually works—may surprise you.

Though the terms are used interchangeably, cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing are three completely different things. Some household products can perform double or triple duty. In some cases and on some surfaces, cleaning alone is enough to prevent illness; but disinfecting and sanitizing act like an insurance policy to further rid your home of germs.

Here's what the three terms really mean:

Cleaning Disinfecting Sanitizing

Physically removes germs from surfaces but doesn't kill them

Uses soap or detergent and water plus friction to remove germs

Should be done before disinfecting and/or sanitizing

Kills all germs on surfaces within 10 minutes

Doesn't remove germs or clean dirty surfaces

Should be done after cleaning

In public settings, such as schools and hospitals, it's more important to disinfect than to sanitize

Kills 99.999% of germs on a surface within 30 seconds

Either cleans or disinfects surfaces or objects, depending on the products used

Some products can do all three, depending on the time left on a surface
Cleaning Products Disinfecting Products Sanitizing Products

Baking soda




Chlorine (bleach)

Pine oil* (Pine-sol)

Phenolic (Lysol)

Vinegar (10% acidity)


Chlorine (1 teaspoon diluted in 1 quart water)

Phenolic (Lysol)

Quaternary ammonium (found in many all-purpose cleaners)

Alcohol (at least 60%)

* Pine oil is toxic to cats.
Read the labels on your cleaning products carefully to learn which functions they can perform and how to properly use them. For example, aerosol spray disinfectants can't clean, but some can sanitize. Disinfecting wipes are designed to clean, sanitize and disinfect--but only if you use an adequate amount and allow the product to dry on the surface for a specific amount of time. Follow package instructions to ensure the outcome you intend is actually achieved.

Due to the relative fragility of viruses outside the human body, standard cleaning and disinfecting routines are sufficient; there's no need to scrub every surface from floor to ceiling or aggressively use spray disinfectants to kill these common germs. In fact, overuse of any harsh chemicals--especially those in aerosol cans--can irritate eyes, noses and throats already sensitive from a cold or the flu, and they can aggravate asthma or cause breathing problems. Limit aerosol sprays to tight spaces where other disinfectants wouldn't be a feasible option; always use in a well-ventilated area.

What about Antibacterial Products?
Because antibiotics can't kill the viruses that cause cold and flu, that also means the antibacterial ingredients in soaps, cleansers and wipes will not kill those viruses, either, though the simple act of cleaning does help reduce their numbers. Since 2002, the American Medical Association has discouraged the use of consumer antimicrobial products (including soaps) due to the widespread risk of antibiotic resistance. In 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee ruled that there is a lack of evidence supporting the superiority of antibacterial products over regular cleaning products.

What about Natural Cleaning and Disinfecting Methods?
While natural ingredients, such as peroxide, vinegar, salt, baking soda and lemon juice, can clean surfaces effectively, most have not been proven to kill the germs that cause the flu and colds.
During cold and flu season, it can feel like you're always on the defensive, fighting an invisible but all-encompassing enemy. There's good news: You're stronger and smarter than the germs you're battling. Here are some tips to help you minimize your time spent on housework while still keeping everyone healthy:
These tweaks to your housekeeping routine will help keep your home healthy, and if someone does fall ill, help stop the spread of germs before they infect someone else. Remember: When in doubt, wash your hands and sleep on the couch!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Antibiotic Resistance Questions & Answers,", accessed on August 22, 2013.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Seasonal Influenza,", accessed on August 22, 2013.
C. F. Carson, K. A. Hammer, T. V. Riley. "Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil: a Review of Antimicrobial and Other Medicinal Properties." Clinical Microbiology Reviews. 2006 January; 19(1): 50–62.
 Greatorex JS, Page RF, Curran MD, Digard P, Enstone JE, et al. (2010) "Effectiveness of Common Household Cleaning Agents in Reducing the Viability of Human Influenza A/H1N1." PLoS ONE 5(2): e8987.
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