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Clean First, Then Disinfect: The Difference Between Cleaning and Disinfecting

Written by  Katherine Pickett


When it comes to cleaning and disinfecting, it appears that some in the facility maintenance and professional cleaning industries may be missing a few steps, and doing so can potentially cause serious harm to human health. Often, cleaning professionals are advised that the best way to stop the spread of disease is to “clean and disinfect” surfaces.

We are also seeing some cleaning solutions manufactured for the professional cleaning industry that carry a label that these products “clean and disinfect” surfaces. While cleaning and disinfecting a surface does help stop the spread of disease, what these product labels seem to suggest - or at least the message some building managers and cleaning professionals are receiving - is that cleaning and disinfecting a surface can be done in a one-step process.

For building managers, cleaning professionals and cleaning contractors, this would appear to be very good news. Any cleaning solution that can clean and disinfect all in one step can save a considerable amount of time in the professional cleaning industry, and time is money.

However, saving time by using cleaning solutions that suggest they can clean and disinfect in one process - especially on heavily soiled surfaces - may not be sound advice for protecting human health. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

“Clean first before you disinfect. Germs can hide underneath dirt and other material on surfaces where they are not affected by the disinfectant. Dirt and organic material can also reduce the germ-killing ability of some disinfectants.”  

And some advisory organizations take this a step further. For instance, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), an independent government department serving the United Kingdom and Scotland, instead of just one step to effectively clean and disinfect a surface, the proper procedure may actually include as many as four steps. The FSA advises the following:

  1. First, use a cleaning solution to remove visible soil from surfaces.
  2. Rinse the surfaces with fresh clean water (this helps remove chemical residue, which can attract more soils).
  3. Disinfect the surfaces using an EPA-registered disinfectant adhering to correct dwell time and dilution
  4. Rinse the surfaces again with fresh clean water.

Why Clean First?

Similar to the EPA, the reason the FSA recommends that surfaces be cleaned first before disinfecting is that “chemical disinfectants only work if surfaces have been thoroughly cleaned first to remove grease and other dirt.”  This is also supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which states that cleaning removes germs, dirt and impurities from surfaces or objects. According to the CDC, “cleaning works by using soap (or detergent) and water to physically remove germs from surfaces. This process does not necessarily kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.”

Further, the CDC advises that, while disinfecting kills germs on surfaces or objects, “this process does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, it can further lower the risk of spreading infection.”

This is starting to sound pretty confusing. To help clear things up, let’s use a discussion of hand washing and germ killing as an example of how this works.

When it comes to our hands (and this applies to surfaces as well), not all bacteria, germs and pathogens are the same size. The smaller the pathogen, the easier it is for it to become wedged within the cracks and creases of the skin on a human hand. In many cases, a hand sanitizer can kill or minimize the number of surface-level pathogens on the hands, but not necessarily those embedded in the cracks and creases of the hands.

What does remove these embedded pathogens is proper hand washing. The agitation created in the hand washing process dislodges these pathogens from the cracks, creases and surfaces of hands, enabling them to be removed when the hands are rinsed. Once these pathogens have been removed, a hand sanitizer can kill any germs and bacteria that may remain on the hands.

It’s the same when cleaning surfaces. Many countertops, for instance in commercial restrooms, are made of tile and grout. These are very porous materials. So while using a one-step cleaning and disinfecting process may remove some soils and kill some surface-level pathogens, its effectiveness at removing all soils, especially those lodged in the pores of the tile and grout, may be minimal at best.

We should also make mention of how a disinfectant actually works.  Once applied to a clean surface, the disinfectant dissolves cell walls, essentially eliminating germs and bacteria, which are then wiped away.  In some cases, just using a more effective cleaning process and practices will do the same without the use of disinfectants.

Why Cleaning Pros Do Not Clean First and Then Disinfect

Knowing this, we must ask why any cleaning professional would use a one-step process to clean and disinfect surfaces. Among the reasons are the following:

 *   As mentioned earlier, it reduces cleaning times and related costs.

 *   Cleaning pros, like other workers, have a tendency to not read product labels. Some cleaning solutions, even those marketed as a cleaner and disinfectant, will note that heavily soiled surfaces should be cleaned first.

  *   Reducing the use of disinfectants is better for the environment.

  *   The one-step process helps reduce the number of cleaning solutions needed to clean surfaces, another cost-saving measure.

Ways to address these issues include the following:

  *   Education: First, cleaning pros must be educated on the importance of cleaning surfaces first and then disinfecting.

  *   Alternative Cleaning Systems: Look into cleaning systems that can address some of the barriers to using a multi-step process to clean and disinfect surfaces and still be fast. For instance, while wiping surfaces with cleaning cloths can be slow, aqueous ozone cleaning systems are faster and can eliminate the need for powerful cleaning solutions.

  *   Reading Labels: Cleaning workers must read and understand product labels. Professional cleaning can be a hazardous profession, reading product labels can make it safer.

As we know, the goal of the professional cleaning industry is to protect health.  Sometimes we may think we are accomplishing this but upon great inspection, we are not.  Making sure cleaning solutions are used properly and investigating alternative cleaning processes that have been proven to be effective helps ensure we our meeting our industry’s goal.

Katherine Pickett is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

* UCSF Institute for Health & Aging, UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, Informed Green Solutions, and California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Toolkit for Early Care and Education, University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing: San Francisco, California, 2013. Published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/ece_curriculumfinal.pdf



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