3 (Important) Things You Didn’t Know About Using Disinfectants

updated Apr 13, 2020
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Woman Cleans Doorknob with disinfectant wipe
Credit: Grace Cary/Getty Images

One of the most important things to know about cleaning your home: The appearance of cleanliness can sometimes be misleading. Just because something looks clean, doesn’t mean it’s actually sanitary (after all, you can’t see germs without a microscope). For peace of mind that potentially-harmful pathogens aren’t hanging out on surfaces in your household, it’s important to disinfect. 

“Cleaning is making something look clean,” says Dr. Elizabeth Scott, professor of microbiology at Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons University in Boston. “Disinfecting is making sure you are reducing the risk of any pathogens on a surface.” 

But there’s another caveat here. Using disinfectant products isn’t an automatic free pass to a germ-free life. You have to use disinfectants correctly to reap the benefits, including staying healthy.

Here are three things to keep in mind next time you reach for that bottle of bleach or canister of Clorox wipes, according to a microbiologist. 

1. You need to allow for “dwell time” or “contact time.”

To be effective, disinfecting solutions need to remain in contact with the surface for a specified length of time, which varies by product, before being allowed to air-dry. For instance, the instructions on a container of Clorox Wipes direct you to wipe the surface “using enough wipes for the treated surface to remain visibly wet for four minutes.” Every disinfectant, even non-commercial ones like bleach, have their own dwell times.

So instead of wiping away your disinfecting spray, Scott says your best bet is to precisely follow the instructions on the package, or doing your research (based on what germs you’re actively fighting) if you’re using a non-commercial cleaner. For example, bleach often needs at least ten minutes of contact time to be effective in killing some germs.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

2. Most disinfectants don’t provide lasting protection.

When you wipe your counters with a disinfecting wipe (and follow instructions!), you can count on that product delivering on its “99.9%” promise. But if a sick person comes along even a second after your surface air-dries, any fresh germs they leave behind are there to stay until they’re wiped down again. A recently-disinfected surface only stays germ-free until the moment it’s touched again (by hands or fluids or airborne particles).

If you want a long-lasting defense against germs at home, it’s important to limit contact and disinfect your frequently-touched surfaces on a routine basis when someone at home is sick. If all that cleaning sounds overwhelming, you could also try Microban 24, a new line of products from Procter & Gamble designed to continuously introduce sanitization against bacteria to a treated surface for up to 24 hours: When you apply it and allow it to air dry according to directions, your surface will form a layered shield that activates small amounts of antibacterial ingredients over time, says Morgan Brashear, the Scientific Communications Manager for Procter & Gamble.

“The reality is that bacteria are complex organisms, and the vast majority of people don’t understand the intricate mechanisms that power them, which leads to them underestimating just how easily they can be reintroduced and quickly multiply on an unprotected surface,” Brashear says.

3. There *is* such a thing as over-disinfecting.

Disinfectants can be a trusty weapon against pathogens, but using them too often can cause germs to become resistant. According to an EPA fact sheet, studies have found that the use of some disinfectant products is creating microbes that can mutate into forms that are resistant to particular disinfectants or that become superbugs.

Instead of a disinfecting free-for-all, Scott recommends a more intuitive approach called targeted hygiene. Basically, instead of bleaching every area of your house all the time, focus on the high-contact areas (places people touch often), especially when someone is sick and touching things.

“Only use disinfectants when you need them, and only on the surfaces that have the highest risk for transmitting,” Scott says. “Targeted hygiene, which focuses on the high-contact areas, resolves the issue of using disinfectants too much.”

This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there: 3 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Disinfectants