Everything You Need to Know About Disinfecting Your Kitchen

updated Apr 1, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

During this global pandemic, cleaning and disinfecting are more important than ever, according to the CDC: “Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.” But what exactly does this mean: What’s the difference between cleaning and disinfecting? What’s the right way to disinfect? and How often should you be disinfecting? Here are all your questions about cleaning and disinfecting, answered.

What’s the difference between cleaning and disinfecting?

This is a great question, because they really are different. Cleaning removes smudges, stains, dirt, and debris; a good cleaning session will make your kitchen sparkle, but it won’t kill bacteria, viruses, or germs. The opposite is true of disinfecting: “Disinfecting 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,” the CDC explains.

Read more: The Difference Between Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting — Once and For All

Note that they say “after cleaning,” which is a critical point. You must clean before you can disinfect because disinfectants don’t work if the surface isn’t clean. Germs can hide inside or under the dirt and organic material on your home’s surfaces, making any disinfectant less effective. The CDC’s official recommendation is to use a cleaner or soap and water prior to disinfection “if surfaces are dirty.” 

Also take this note from our friends at Apartment Therapy: If you have an ‘antibacterial cleaner’ at home, this one-two punch advice still stands: Your preferred solution might contain a detergent and a disinfectant, but it can’t do both at once, so treat visibly dirty surfaces twice.”

Is disinfecting only really important during a pandemic?

While you’re hearing a lot about disinfecting now, it’s not something that only needs to be done during a pandemic. It’s key all the time — especially during flu season, if someone in your household is sick, or if, say, a package of chicken leaked juice all over your kitchen counter (more on food-borne illnesses below).

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What should I use to disinfect my kitchen?

Not all store-bought chemicals are created equally. And certain favorites (like Clorox wipes) are nearly impossible to find these days. Luckily, the EPA has a fact sheet listing every disinfectant that it expects to be effective against COVID-19, based on what we know about other similar viruses. You can also look for the EPA registration number on the label of a product in question; it consists of a company number and a product number (like 123-45) See the photo below for an example.

Credit: Taryn Williford

Besides EPA-registered disinfectants, the CDC also recommends bleach solutions or alcohol with at least 70 percent alcohol.

Related: 3 Disinfectants You Can Use If You Can’t Find Clorox Wipes at Apartment Therapy

How often should I disinfect my kitchen?

The CDC says the coronavirus can remain active on a surface for “hours to days” on “a variety of materials,” and the experts there advise a targeted hygiene approach that involves daily/routine cleaning of high-touch areas at home. Dr. Elizabeth Scott, professor of microbiology at Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons University in Boston, also recommends this approach: If someone in your home is sick, and they touch surfaces in your kitchen, disinfect those surfaces. Same goes for if you went out in public and then touched the faucet handle, disinfect it. Basically, anytime there could be a pathogen hanging out on the surface, it’s time to disinfect. 

Generally speaking, though — i.e., when we’re not facing a global pandemic — cleaning pro Melissa Maker, founder of Clean My Space, says high-contact areas can be disinfected one or two times a week, depending on how many people are living in the home. As a rule, the more people touching surfaces in your kitchen, the more frequently you should disinfect these areas. And some spills, like leaked meat juice, should be handled with a targeted hygiene approach, i.e. cleaning up that meat juice right away and not using a cutting board for raw chicken and then also slicing veggies.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What, exactly, should I be disinfecting?

The first step is to think about which surfaces and spaces are frequently being touched, which Scott says are called “high-contact” or “high-touch” surfaces. In your kitchen, that would include things like doorknobs, handles, drawer pulls, light switches, faucet handles, tables, and counters.

“It’s really important to clean points of contact — switches, faucet handles, tables, and counters — because it helps reduce the transmission of bacteria and viruses,” Maker agrees.

A few things to disinfect in the kitchen

  • Doorknobs
  • Appliance handles
  • Drawer pulls
  • Light switches
  • Faucet handles
  • Tabletops
  • Chair rungs
  • Counters

A note on cleaning dishes and kitchen gadgets: If someone in your home is sick, the CDC says “Non-disposable food service items used should be handled with gloves and washed with hot water or in a dishwasher.”

Disinfecting when cross-contamination is a concern: When we’re talking about food-borne illnesses, the most important thing here is prevention. Beyond that, keep separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables, and of course wash your knives and all other tools and surfaces thoroughly after each cooking session.

Related: The Best Ways to Clean and Disinfect Plastic Cutting Boards (Without Bleach)

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

How do I properly disinfect my kitchen?

This depends on what you’re using, but there are a few general rules. First: If surfaces are dirty, they should be cleaned using a detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection. Again, because cleaning and disinfecting are not the same (see above). Second: Wear gloves.

“Wear disposable gloves when cleaning and disinfecting surfaces,” the CDC website points out. “Gloves should be discarded after each cleaning. If reusable gloves are used, those gloves should be dedicated for cleaning and disinfection of surfaces for COVID-19 and should not be used for other purposes. Clean hands immediately after gloves are removed.”

If you’re using an EPA-registered disinfectant, read the labels. “Labels contain instructions for safe and effective use of the cleaning product including precautions you should take when applying the product, such as wearing gloves and making sure you have good ventilation during use of the product,” the CDC says. Seriously, read the labels. Did you know that, when using Clorox wipes, the surface you’re wiping needs to remain visibly wet for four minutes?

If you’re using bleach, dilute it. Bleach is more cost effective and easier to find these days, compared to isopropyl alcohol and other cleaning solutions. The CDC recommends using one of these two ratios for diluting bleach for disinfecting: Mix 5 tablespoons (⅓ cup) bleach per gallon of water, or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. (And no, mixing with hot water doesn’t “deactivate” bleach.)

If you’re using isopropyl alcohol, make sure your disinfecting solution contains at least 70 percent alcohol (like rubbing alcohol, not vodka). Keep in mind that rubbing alcohol or isopropyl alcohol you buy off the shelf is already diluted with water in a ratio indicated on the label (usually 70 or 90-91 percent alcohol).

If you’re disinfecting areas with leaked meat juice, use something that’s disposal: paper towels (with the same solutions or cleaners mentioned above) or disinfecting wipes. If you wipe up a spill with reusable sponges or cloths, you then have to worry about cleaning those too, or you risk swishing the bacteria right back onto your kitchen surfaces the next time you use that cloth, Nancy Bock of the American Cleaning Institute once warned us.

Any other questions about cleaning or disinfecting your kitchen? Leave them in the comments below and we’ll try to get answers!