While the emergence of COVID-19 has forced us to revise our hand hygiene and cough and sneeze etiquette, the cleaning habits of everyone from homemakers to restaurant owners have also been brought under very close scrutiny. Given that COVID-19 can spread through contact with contaminated surfaces, the need to clean and disinfect high touch surfaces more has become crucial, and sanitizing has become a frequent daily ritual. With this increased focus on eliminating germs, the terms ‘cleaning’ and ‘disinfecting’ and ‘sanitizing’ seem to have become interchangeable, but is there a difference between them?
Most of us just clean
We apply one of the many widely available detergent based products to our countertops and other hard surfaces and begin scrubbing or wiping. This is fine as detergents are formulated for the removal of dust, dirt and debris. And while cleaning doesn’t kill germs, it does significantly reduce them, which helps to prevent them from spreading.
Sanitizing goes a bit deeper
A sanitizer will reduce whatever bacteria is identified on the label of the product being used. In Canada, sanitizers are also used for pest control – just not the pests that usually come to mind, like insects. Bacteria are classified as pests, but before you reach for your bottle of hand sanitizer, you should know that only sanitizers designated for use on hard surfaces are indicated for pest control; hand sanitizers and products meant to be used on skin, are not.
Kill germs; don’t just remove them
When used properly, disinfectants kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi on hard, nonporous surfaces which makes them one of the most effective methods for reducing the spread of germs via high touch surfaces. For best results, surfaces should be cleaned before being disinfected. For a disinfectant to work properly, four elements must be in place: chemistry, concentration, contact time and coverage. First, you need a chemical capable of deactivating pathogens. This chemical must be used at a concentration strong enough to maintain its efficacy; and once applied, it must have sufficient contact time. Depending on the product, this can be as little as 30 seconds up to 20 minutes, so it is important to read the label. And lastly, you need adequate coverage of the area to be disinfected, which is ideally 100 per cent.
Are “natural” products effective?
While some studies have shown household products such as baking soda, lemon juice, salt and acetic acid (vinegar) to have some antibacterial properties, they are not at all effective against COVID-19. At best, these products can be used for light domestic cleaning.
And when it comes to disinfecting, put away products like vinegar, tea tree oil, baking soda, electrolyzed cloths, ozone and silver compounds, etc. as they are not cleared by Health Canada.
A positive takeaway
COVID-19 may have people stockpiling hand sanitizer and cleaning products but this increased focus on cleaning methods is actually a positive outcome of the current pandemic. It has shown us areas in which cleaning and hygiene practices may have been lacking, from our homes and offices, to public spaces such as restaurants. It’s important to remember that frequent cleaning and hygiene measures helps to reduce the spread of other contagious illnesses like influenza. Hopefully, the hygiene practices acquired as a result of COVID-19 will outlast the pandemic.