The difference between cleaning and disinfecting surfaces

(and why you should do both)

Time saver 4 min read

There are a lot of reasons to be focused on cleaning and disinfecting right now. Temperatures are dropping, the holidays are coming up, flu season is swiftly approaching, and the COVID-19 pandemic has turned a lot of our focus toward eliminating germs and opportunity for spreading infections.

But how do you correctly clean to prevent the spread of viruses? It takes a combination of cleaning and disinfecting—which despite popular usage, means two different things.

This distinction is important when defending yourself and your household against sickness.

What is the difference between cleaning and disinfecting?

Whether you’re wiping down a counter or scrubbing a sink, you think you’re getting rid of all of the icky stuff. But that’s not necessarily true. Here’s how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention breaks down cleaning and disinfecting:

  • Cleaning uses soap and water to physically remove germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces.
  • Disinfecting uses chemicals to kill germs on surfaces or objects.

This distinction is important when defending yourself and your household against sickness.

Why do I need to clean and disinfect?

Alone, just cleaning or just disinfecting won’t be as effective as the two together. In order to give our immune systems the best fighting chance, you can’t have one without the other. Cleaning and disinfecting will help you and your household lower your risk of getting the flu this season, or contracting coronavirus. With a few tips and tricks, you can harness the power of both to keep everyone safe.

How to clean and disinfect correctly to prevent COVID-19 and the flu

Step 1: Clean first, then disinfect

For all objects and surfaces, removing dirt and germs first, then following up with a disinfectant will ensure the best protection for yourself and your household.

For hard/non-porous surfaces

This applies to things like countertops, desks, coffee tables, refrigerators, etc. Start by washing the surface with a multipurpose cleaner to remove germs and dirt. Then follow up with an EPA-registered disinfectant,—it will state it on the label!—a diluted bleach solution, or an alcohol solution with at least 70% alcohol to kill the germs that remain.

For soft/porous surfaces

We’re talking about items in your home like carpeting, rugs, drapes, and furniture. Start by removing any visible dirt and debris from the item. Then follow up with an EPA-registered disinfectant approved for porous surfaces, such as Lysol Laundry Sanitizer or Oxiclean, following the manufacturer’s instructions.

For electronics

Think about how often you touch your phone, tablet, keyboard, and mouse! They’re hotbeds for germs. For these items, check the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and disinfecting first. If that information isn’t available, use an alcohol-based wipe or spray, or a disinfecting wipe, ensuring the surface is completely dry.

Oh-So Quick Tip

“Make sure to triple check the instructions on disinfecting wipes especially! Directions may require the use of more than one wipe to ensure the product had enough contact with the surface to fully disinfect.”

–Tami Huberty, CNP for virtuwell

For linens, clothing, and other laundered items

Make sure to wash your laundry at the warmest water setting suitable for the garments you’re washing—such as bedding, clothing, dish towels, etc. Minimize shaking laundry while loading into your washing machine to avoid aerosolizing the virus. Don’t forget to disinfect hampers and laundry baskets frequently as well! Using a washable or disposable liner makes cleaning and disinfecting easier—just toss it in with the last load.

For all cleaning and disinfecting jobs, be sure to read the instructions on the label and follow them carefully. Some products will have different requirements for cleaning versus disinfecting. For instance, many products require the product to remain on the surface for a certain period of time, like 3–5 minutes, before wiping to ensure disinfection.

Step 2: Routinely clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces

We’re talking doorknobs, light switches, faucets, countertops, drawer pulls—even your keyboard and your phone. Anything members of your household are touching multiple times a day should be cleaned and disinfected frequently. If you have kids attending in-person school, or if you are going to work in an office, a daily cleaning and disinfecting routine would be wise. If you’re working out of your home or you have children in a distance learning environment, every couple of days might fit better into your routine. There aren’t any specific guidelines on how often you should disinfect your home, so pick a frequency that best suits your lifestyle.

Step 3: Handle with care

When working with dirty or germy surfaces, make sure you’re protecting yourself from injury from cleaning products—or potential spread of the virus. Disposable gloves and masks are recommended when working with bleach solutions to prevent injury or irritation from fumes or skin contact. Gloves and masks can also help cut down on the risk of coming into contact with the virus while cleaning and disinfecting.

If gloves and masks aren’t available, cut down on your exposure to heavier cleaning and disinfecting solutions, open windows and doors to keep the area well ventilated. And, whether you’re using gloves or not, take care not to touch your eyes, nose, mouth, or face while using the products. When you’re finished cleaning and disinfecting, always wash your hands and as soon as you’re done and store the products in a safe space where children and pets can’t get into them.

The importance of cleaning and disinfecting

So, both cleaning and disinfecting have their own, important place in your household upkeep routine. Harnessing both will keep you and your household members feeling safe and healthy, and prevent spreading in the event sickness strikes again.

A trusted source for understanding how to effectively clean and disinfect your home is the CDC. If you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, Virtuwell can help you get a personalized treatment plan, free follow up care, and assistance booking a drive-up test if you meet testing criteria.

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