There's nothing quite like a pandemic to force you to question everything you thought you knew about cleaning. Chances are, you may now find yourself diving into the world of household cleaners — and wondering the real difference between cleaning, disinfecting, sanitizing, and sterilizing. (Even typing that is enough to make our heads spin.)
To save you the late-night Googling, we asked experts to explain the ins and outs of cleaning in the time of COVID — and share their suggestions for the best products to keep you safe from coronavirus and other germs.
What Is the Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfecting?
VIDEO: Jessica Alba and Honest Company Chemist Break Down the Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfecting
“When you clean, you physically remove dirt and germs from surfaces or objects, such as your countertops,” says Vandana A. Patel, M.D., a clinical advisor for online pharmacy Cabinet. “Disinfecting means you actually kill the germs.”
“Cleaning a surface and physically removing germs is helpful, but disinfecting is a better option to ensure you kill germs to prevent the spread of viruses” — including coronavirus, Dr. Patel says.
When it comes to removing dirt, typical household products, such as glass cleaner, soap and water, and countertop cleaners, will all do the trick, she says, but to actually disinfect, you'll want to rely on products designed to kill germs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends common household disinfectants (e.g., Lysol) and diluted bleach solutions as effective methods. You can also refer to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) complete list of household disinfectants.
For disinfecting your house, Dr. Patel says you should focus on what the CDC has labeled high-touch surfaces, including tables, doorknobs, light switches, remote controls, bathroom sink areas, and toilets. And don't forget about your tech, including your computer keyboard, phone, and any other touchscreen devices.
According to Apple, you can safely clean your iPhone with disinfectant wipes, like Clorox. (They recommend against bleach or submerging your iPhone in any cleaning agents.) Samsung recommends powering down your device, removing any cases, unplugging any accessories, and then wiping down your phone with a soft, microfiber cloth that is dampened with a small amount of disinfectant.
And if a surface is visibly dirty, you’ll have to do double the work, Dr. Patel says: “I recommend cleaning it and then disinfecting it.” (You can try a double-duty product like Honest Disinfecting Spray, which when left on a surface for 10 minutes can disinfect as well as clean your surfaces.)
When Is Sterilization Necessary?
When it comes to sterilization, Dr. Patel says the method, which destroys all microorganisms on the surface of an item, is not typically required for the average household environment. Instead, sterilization is most often reserved for healthcare facilities (or in nail salons) and is performed using an autoclave to sterilize medical instruments and other equipment.
“Sterilization is a specific process with guidance on temperature, time, equipment, and other quality controls to do it effectively,” Dr. Patel explains.
What About Sanitizing?
Whereas the CDC defines disinfecting as a means for destroying "disease-causing pathogens or other harmful microorganisms," sanitizing is a way to reduce germs "to safe levels as judged by public health requirements."
"Sanitizing is better than cleaning alone, but the reduction of pathogen populations on environmental surfaces is exponentially better when you disinfect," according to CleanLink.
Consider, for instance, hand sanitizer. While it's a solid stand-in for hand-washing when you don't have access to soap and water, it's a temporary fix until you have access to the real thing.
How to Use Bleach to Disinfect and Sanitize
This might not surprise you, but bleach actually packs a one-two punch, serving as both a disinfectant and sanitizer. It all comes down to how much water you use to dilute the bleach, explains Dr. Patel.
For instance, if you want to mix a bleach solution that works as a disinfectant (which is necessary, for instance, when cleaning your bathroom), you would combine one gallon of water with three tablespoons of 5.25 to 6.25 percent strength bleach. On the other hand, sanitization would require one gallon of water and two teaspoons of bleach. You might opt for this combination when cleaning contact surfaces, like a kitchen counter or dining table. (For your reference, Dr. Patel recommends this chart from the Washington State Department of Health.)
Chlorine bleach or color-safe bleach can also be used to sanitize your laundry, especially if you or another household member has been exposed to or contracted COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.
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