It’s that time of year again! The birds are chirping, the snow is melting and it’s time to start spring cleaning. When it comes to the cleaners and disinfectants I use around my house I am SUPER picky! And it’s not because I’m a tree hugger overly concerned about the environment, or because I have young children at home who may come into contact with the products that I use, rather I worked in the cleaning and disinfecting industry for a number of years and it’s safe to say that I know TOO much! As a marketer I know the tricks companies use to try to sell you products…and you all make it way too easy! Few people actually do their research when it comes to selecting cleaners and disinfectants for their home and instead take those pretty labels at face value. Well now I’m here to shed some light on what to look for in your cleaning products. In this series of blog posts, I am going to share some industry inside knowledge on selecting green and non-toxic products for your home. But first, we need to get back to the basics.
Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting are NOT the Same
First we need to get our terminology right. Cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting are all terms that are used interchangeably but did you know that they all mean different things? Cleaning does NOT kill germs rather it is the process of physically removing dirt and debris from your surfaces. Germs WILL remain on your surfaces even after cleaning. This is where sanitizing and disinfection come in. Sanitizing and disinfecting DO kill germs. Sanitizing kills low numbers of bacteria that may be lingering on your surfaces whereas disinfecting kills larger numbers of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. If you want a product that actually kills germs you need to look for a product that specifies “kill” on the product label. If it just says “cleaner”, that’s all it is.
What the heck is a contact time?
Have you ever read the back of your disinfectant (e.g. Lysol wipes) and read how long the solution must remain wet on the surface in order to be effective? That is what we call a contact time. Go read your product label, I bet you will be surprised. Most consumer products have contact times between 5 and 10 minutes, but most products won’t stay wet for that long, meaning you must re-apply the product in order to kill the germs you are most concerned with. And yes, having to re-apply multiple times means using more product which means you spend more moolah.
Kills 99.9% of Viruses and Bacteria
Wow, 99.9%! That’s pretty good right? Wrong! When it comes to killing germs, 99.9% is a passing grade. This is the minimum kill required to be considered a sanitizer/disinfectant. Some products can achieve higher kill rates which are much more impressive! Of course no company would ever put this on their product label because you are sooo impressed with 99.9% that they can get away with marketing the passing grade. And when a product claims to kill the flu virus, guess what…that’s not that impressive either. The flu virus is an enveloped virus (just like HIV), meaning it’s very susceptible to chemical disinfectants. In English, this means that the flu virus is extremely easy to kill, and if your disinfectant can’t kill the flu, than it’s pretty much useless.
Bleach Free: Buyer Beware
When you think of cleaning products your mind probably jumps to Bleach, because that’s what our mothers used and they used a whole lot of it. Today we are much more aware of the toxicity of bleach and look for products that are “bleach free”. When it comes to consumer products the most popular substitute for bleach is QUATS (quaternary ammonium compounds). QUATS while known to have a better safety profile than bleach, actually has many downfalls and is the one chemistry I absolutely REFUSE to bring into my house (aka Lysol). Rather than breaking down in the environment, Quats build up which is not only bad for our planet, but it gives germs the opportunity to become resistant to the killing agent of the disinfectant. QUATS have also been associated with eye, skin, and respiratory irritation. Of even more concern, recent studies show that QUATS contribute to mitochondrial toxicity and endocrine disruption…NOT GOOD! If I’ve scared you away from QUATS, you NEED to start reading your product label. Avoid products with active ingredients that end in “Ammonium Chloride”.
How many of you use vinegar and water to clean or disinfect your home as a natural substitute to harsh chemicals? Disinfectants registered with Health Canada or the EPA have undergone RIGOROUS efficacy testing by third party laboratories to PROVE that they can kill germs. Homemade remedies obviously have not undergone this level of validation, meaning that there is NO way to tell if your DIY disinfectant has any kill power. The problem with water and vinegar is that is lacks detergents which are essential for effective cleaning AND disinfection. Why? Soils, dirt, and debris can actually inactivate your disinfectant. So if you’re using plain vinegar and water to clean and kill in 1 step, your likely achieving neither. Additionally, many people try to use natural ingredients that are known to have antimicrobial properties to make their own disinfectants. And while it’s true that there are natural substances that contain properties with the ability to kill germs, in order to activate their killing power they depend on other inert ingredients to achieve the necessary level of potency to kill germs. So unless your a chemist that knows which substances provide these types of chemical reactions, my recommendation…leave it to the scientists.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, my next blog post will focus on selecting safe and non-toxic cleaning products and what to look for on the product label. Until then, go take a peek inside your cleaning closet and let me know what discoveries you’ve made!