How to clean the house properly? See expert tips


One of my first memories in life is the strong smell of alcohol. Every night, my mom would spray the kitchen sink and counters with isopropyl alcohol to disinfect them. And no wonder: she took care of me for months when I got a nasty salmonella infection as a kid. Bacteria were her biggest enemies.

“I became crazy because of it,” she recently admitted. “I really became a germophobe.”

It’s no surprise, then, that I too became a germophobe growing up. I have a dizzying array of anti-microbial wipes in my closet, at least seven bottles of hand sanitizer stashed around the house and in the car, and I keep an emergency bag tucked away in my closet full of bleach wipes and other strong disinfectants just in case. the dreaded stomach bug attacks our family.

(I might add: there’s a difference between cleaning and tidying. I’m fanatical about the former, but lazy about the latter.)

Today, because of the pandemic, I’m not alone in my paranoia about germs. In a survey last year of 2,000 American adults, 42% of respondents said they identified as germophobes.

But our fears are not always well-founded, which I learned from interviewing chemists and cleaning experts. It turns out that many popular cleaning practices are not effective, and some are simply unnecessary.

Focus on dangerous germs

I’m often guilty of thinking that viruses and bacteria are undeniably bad, but many bacteria do good things — like those in the gut that help us digest food and build immunity.

“Microbes are absolutely everywhere,” said Erica Hartmann, an environmental engineer at Northwestern University. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Research suggests that children who grow up on farms, surrounded by microbes, have a lower risk of developing asthma and allergies than other children.

Before getting to the heart of the matter, let me explain the scientific difference between cleaning and disinfection. Cleaning removes things from surfaces – dirt, crumbs, germs, dog hair. Disinfection kills things – usually viruses and bacteria.

Cleaning is something we can do regularly, Hartmann said, but we need to worry about killing (disinfecting) only dangerous, disease-causing germs. And we can often guess where they are.

For example, you probably don’t need to disinfect kitchen counters every day unless you’ve been handling raw meat. It’s also not necessary to obsessively disinfect the bathroom unless someone in your home has an infection that spreads through the stool, such as salmonella or norovirus.

For common messes — like when my 11-year-old son drips honey on the kitchen table at breakfast — you don’t need to grab a disinfectant cloth, because soap and water will remove the sticky residue. (Soap is also great for removing germs from your hands, but you need to lather up well and wash for 20 seconds.)

“But why not disinfect everything anyway?” you ask yourself.

There are long-term risks associated with overuse of certain disinfectants, such as quaternary ammonium compounds, also called “quats”. They are found in many popular household cleaning products, including sprays and wipes such as those made by Lysol and Clorox.

These products can increase the risk of antibiotic resistance, Hartmann said. Also — although experts I spoke to disagree on how much to worry about — disinfectants like bleach, ammonia and quaternaries release gases that can be harmful, said Pawel Misztal, a chemist who studies disinfectants at the University of Texas at Austin. .

So use disinfectants when you need to disinfect, but not when you just want to clean.

Use disinfectants judiciously

When you have reason to be concerned about bad germs, kill them with a disinfectant. Some chemicals work better than others. Simple soap and water can kill germs when they foam, but they won’t be as foolproof as some stronger options if you want to eliminate microbes from surfaces, said Bill Wuest, a chemist at Emory University.

Much more effective are disinfectants such as bleach, isopropyl alcohol, ethanol, hydrogen peroxide (hydrogen peroxide), and ammonia-based cleaners.

If you’re using a disinfectant that releases fumes, such as bleach or ammonia, ventilate the area first by opening doors or windows, or use a disposable face mask and throw it away later, Misztal suggested.

And I hate to say it, but you’re probably disinfecting everything wrong. Many people spray or spread disinfectant on a surface and then wipe it off with a paper towel or sponge, Wuest said. But this removes the chemical before it has a chance to disinfect.

If you are using a store-bought product, the disinfection time should be on the label. A disinfectant spray needs to stay on a surface for three minutes. Recommendations for bleach solutions range from one to 10 minutes.

Alcohol-based solutions don’t need to be wiped off, because after a while they evaporate, said Cassandra Quave, an ethnobotany at Emory University. And some botanical disinfectants need to be left on for up to 15 or 30 minutes, Hartmann said.

Bottom line: we germophobes can still delight in killing germs, but maybe not all of them. When I need to clean up a spilled liquid, I use soap and water or a mild cleaning spray, not a disinfectant. But after handling raw meat, or when a family member is sick, I take the strongest material to clean contaminated surfaces and make sure to let it sit long enough to work, with the windows open.

And while I wait, maybe I’ll take the opportunity to tidy up my house.

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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