How to Safely Disinfect Your Home

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.
  • According to a 2010 study published in the journal PLOS One, vinegar with 10% acidity was effective in deactivating the flu virus. Most household vinegars are 5% acidity. And while vinegar is effective at killing the three common bacteria that cause food poisoning (E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella) when heated to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, it is not an EPA-registered disinfectant and cannot kill cold and flu viruses on its own. 
  • A 2006 clinical review of tea tree oil in the journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews found that while plenty of lab studies support the plant derivative's antimicrobial properties and its ability to assist in treating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, there is a dearth of clinical evidence demonstrating efficacy against bacterial, fungal or viral infections. Tea tree oil has not been proven to kill cold and flu viruses in clinical studies. 
  • Oil of oregano has been shown to be an effective antimicrobial additive to soaps and surface cleaners, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology; in addition, the essential oil was found to be effective in killing the influenza virus when taken orally, according to a 2012 study published in the same journal. However, that doesn't prove that oregano oil will disinfect and kill cold and flu germs on surfaces. 
  • Steam cleaners can effectively remove dirt and debris from floors without using detergents; however, even models that boast the ability to disinfect cannot kill influenza or rhinovirus without an additional disinfecting solution.
  • Read labels on any sanitizers labeled as "natural" or chemical-free. Most still use alcohol, which does sanitize. But to be effective, the product must contain at least 60% alcohol. If you don't see that amount on the label, keep looking.

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:
  • A flu germ can only travel six feet if expelled from the body. Set up a six-foot cleaning radius around the sick person, and you will drastically limit exposure and the spread of germs.
  • Rhinovirus (the major cause of colds) can only survive for three hours on skin and objects such as telephones, remote controls and doorknobs. While healthy adults can infect others a day before showing signs and up to a week after symptoms appear, the flu virus can live just two to eight hours on any surface.
  • Focus your energy on the high-traffic areas, especially bathrooms and the kitchen, along with the sick person's bedroom.
  • Wash soiled linens and towels in the hottest water possible with your usual laundry detergent.  
  • Dispose of items used to clean and disinfect immediately. At the height of an outbreak, it may be better to give up green cleaning habits (like using reusable cloths or sponges) and reach for disposable paper towels to reduce the risk of spreading germs.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good alternative to hand-washing, but it's not necessary to use in tandem with soap and water. Use it between trips to the restroom or when washing your hands is not possible.
  • If you use bleach to disinfect, follow the directions carefully. Clean surfaces first (bleach does not clean and dirt can inactivate the chlorine). Mixing detergents with bleach can quickly degrade chlorine, so use bleach solutions within a week of preparing them.
  • In kitchens and bathrooms, focus on the commonly used, frequently touched areas: sinks, countertops, tubs, toilets, along with all handles, knobs and faucets. Clean and disinfect walls and floors if the sick person has expelled bodily fluids onto them.
  • In bedrooms, stick to cleaning only the objects the person has touched. If, for example, a child hasn't played with his or her toys since becoming ill, don't worry about cleaning them. Keep a wastebasket nearby, along with hand sanitizer for use between bathroom visits.
  • Empty wastebaskets daily, and choose those with lids and hands-free options. Wash hands with soap and water after touching a wastebasket, and disinfect or sterilize the lids and exterior as needed.
  • Don't forget the small stuff. Disinfect the fridge door handle, the remote control, and the toilet handle--anywhere a sick person might touch. For items such as cell phones, keyboards and tablet screens, refer to your owner's manual.
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.
Selvarani Vimalanathan and James Hudson. "Anti-Influenza Virus Activities of Commercial Oregano Oils and their Carriers, Journal of Applied Pharmaceutical Science." Journal of Applied Pharmaceutical Science. 02 (07); 2012: 214-218.
The Ohio State University, "Food Safety Fact Sheet,", accessed on August 22, 2013.
Rhoades J, Gialagkolidou K, Gogou M, Mavridou O, Blatsiotis N, Ritzoulis C, Likotrafiti E. "Oregano essential oil as an antimicrobial additive to detergent for hand washing and food contact surface cleaning." Journal of Applied Microbiology. 2013 Jul 12.