Personal hygiene and regular housecleaning are essential to good health. Frequent handwashing is key to preventing the spread of microorganisms (also known as microbes or germs) that cause many common illnesses. And regular cleaning of surfaces in the home removes dirt and food particles on which germs can grow.
In addition, cleaning and disinfecting products that contain an active antibacterial or antimicrobial ingredient can provide extra protection against germs, including those that may cause disease. That's because their active ingredient helps them go beyond simple cleaning to kill or control the growth of microorganisms. (The words antibacterial and antimicrobial are often used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, however, antimicrobial means activity against a wide variety of microorganisms, while antibacterial refers to activity against bacteria.) When killing germs is a priority, these products, together with good cleaning habits and practices, can play an important role in illness prevention.
Why Is It Important to Kill Germs?
- Germs are most often spread by hands through person-to-person contact.
- Germs can enter our bodies through the mouth, nose, eyes and breaks in the skin without our even knowing we've been infected.
- Poor personal hygiene by foodhandlers is the second leading cause of foodborne illness.
- Americans spend about $5 billion each year on their colds - about $3 billion on doctors' visits and $2 billion on treatments.
- An estimated 60 million days of school and 50 million days of work are lost annually because of the common cold.
- Some 5.5 million visits to doctors' offices each year are due to skin infections.
- Germs can be transferred from inanimate surfaces to hands and vice-versa.
- Some germs can live on dry surfaces (such as toys) for several hours and moist surfaces (like bathroom sinks) for up to three days.
- Salmonella can survive freezing and can survive on dry surfaces for at least 24 hours.
- The average kitchen dishcloth can contain 4 billion living germs.
Benefits of Disinfecting Surfaces
- Regular cleaning products do a good job of removing soil, but only disinfectants or disinfectant cleaners (also known as antibacterial cleaners) kill the germs that can cause many illnesses.
- Surfaces like kitchen and bathroom counters, door knobs, toilet seats and children's toys may be contaminated with bacteria even when they're not visibly soiled.
- Germs can be spread to other surfaces on dirty cleaning cloths and sponges.
- Products that claim to kill germs must meet efficacy requirements and guidelines established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and must be registered with EPA and carry an EPA registration number on their label.
- In order for surfaces to be effectively disinfected, the instructions on product labels need to be followed carefully.
FAQs About Cleaning and Disinfecting Household Surfaces
Q. What is the difference between a disinfectant and a disinfectant cleaner or antibacterial cleaner?
A. Disinfectants contain antimicrobial ingredients that kill germs if surfaces are free from heavy soil. Disinfectant or antibacterial cleaners contain ingredients for removing soil, as well as antimicrobial ingredients that kill germs. Household bleach disinfects when used according to label directions.
Q. What antimicrobial ingredients are used in household cleaning products that kill germs?
A. Common antimicrobial ingredients include pine oil, quaternary ammonium compounds, sodium hypochlorite, phenols and ethanol.
Q. What microorganisms do disinfectants or antibacterial cleaners kill on household surfaces?
A. Depending on the active ingredient(s) and the product formulation, they kill bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, which cause intestinal illness, and Staphylococcus which causes skin infections; fungus that causes athlete's foot; and viruses such as Herpes simplex, Rhinovirus, which is the leading cause of the common cold; and Rotavirus, the major cause of diarrhea in young children. Read the label to find out specifically which germs the product is intended to kill.
Q. How can I tell if a household cleaning product kills germs?
A. Look for the words "disinfect," "disinfectant," "antibacterial" or "sanitize" on the label, as well as an EPA registration number, as this ensures that the product has met EPA requirements for killing germs.