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Are You Cleaning Or Disinfecting?

By Jose Rossello

One of the most frequently asked questions is whether cleaning products kill germs, or in what extent micro-organisms can be aniquilated by these products. The misconception comes from the amount of disinformation arriving to us by a variety of media.

Even some cleaning products advertising claim that the products kill bacteria, or germs, or whatever. By doing a quick research on the Internet I have found sentences like:

"Most soap will adequately kill germs ". This concept is clearly WRONG!

The right sentence would be: "Most soap will adequately remove germs". Soap isn't designed to kill bacteria.

Disinfectants contain antimicrobial agents, such as pine oil, sodium hypochlorite, quaternary ammonium compounds or phenols, which kill bacteria and viruses on surfaces. A surface should be free of heavy soil for effective disinfection.

Disinfectant cleaners contain surfactants and builders to remove soil in addition to antimicrobial agents to kill germs. Therefore, they are effective at cleaning surfaces as well as killing germs. Label instructions must be followed to assure disinfectancy.

In order to make disinfectancy claims, disinfectant products must be tested for efficacy and registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Disinfection: treatment to destroy harmful micro-organisms. Disinfectant: An agent, such as heat, radiation, or a chemical, that destroys, neutralizes, or inhibits the growth of disease-carrying micro-organisms. Disinfection reduces the number of harmful bacteria to safe levels.

Cleaning: the act of making something clean. Cleaning means the removal of soil, food residue, dirt, greases and other unwanted materials. In order to clean properly, energy has to be applied in the form of heat energy (hot water or steam), chemical energy (detergents) or physical energy (manual labor). Usually a combination of two or more forms of energy is used.

Disinfectants do not have cleaning properties. It is necessary to clean items or surfaces before using disinfectants, mainly because disinfectants are inhibited and neutralized in the presence of organic substances. Even more, many people go wrong when cleaning as they do not carry out disinfection properly or they re-contaminate disinfected surfaces, for example by using dirty cloths to rinse.

Antibacterial cleaning products abound, from soaps and lotions to kitchen and bathroom cleaners. A recent survey has shown that more than 75% of all liquid hand soaps and nearly 30% of bar soaps for sale nationally contain antibacterial agents. This may seem like good news, but recent research has suggested that some antibacterial agents contained in soaps may facilitate the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Not all products are equal. Some products contain an actual antibiotic, while other products such as household cleaners contain chemicals, most often bleach or quaternary ammonium compounds that kill bacteria but don't necessarily select for multi-resistant germs.

Reading the product label to determine the active ingredient will give you an idea of the directions and of the safety precautions as well. While most people may guess that "active ingredients" are the things that make the product do its job, like killing germs or weeds or disinfecting surfaces, have you ever wondered what "inert" or "other ingredients" are? They aren't just water, and they don't just sit there and do nothing. They may include solvents that dissolve other additives; emulsifiers, which keep other ingredients suspended in a liquid so that they will apply evenly; fragrances and perfumes, to make them smell more attractive; and a host of other things, like surfactants and detergents, designed to make the product stay where you put it and work better when it is applied.

Those "other ingredients" can be part of the reason that a product carries a signal word to encourage you to use it with care, and some of the first aid or precautionary language may be there to help prevent those ingredients from contributing to risk of injury or damage.

About The Author
Jose Rossello, M.D., Ph.D.,

Specialist in Preventive Medicine and Public Health. Promotes the use of natural and safe cleaning products.


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