3 Disinfecting Myths That Need to Be Cleared Up ASAP

updated Nov 24, 2020
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A woman in a kitchen pulling a disinfecting wipe out of its container
Credit: Joe Lingeman

If you didn’t spend much time thinking about disinfecting before, 2020 may have been the year that changed that. We’ve talked a lot about cleaning and disinfecting this year (especially in the spring, when we were all trying to wrap our heads around the coronavirus and what we needed to do in order to protect ourselves), but we figure it’s time for a quick refresher. Mostly because we’ve been hearing three big pieces of misinformation come up again and again. These are the three biggest things people seem to get wrong about disinfecting.

Myth 1: Cleaning and disinfecting are the same things.

Cleaning and disinfecting are not the same. It’s easier to accept this fact when we consider that cleaning is not disinfecting. What’s harder to grasp is that disinfecting isn’t cleaning. Rather, it’s a second step — what you do after you clean. According to the CDC, cleaning “refers to the removal of germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces. It does not kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.” 

Disinfecting, on the other hand, “refers to using chemicals, for example, EPA-registered disinfectants, to kill germs on surfaces. 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.”

The super important thing to put into practice with this knowledge is that you should never disinfect a dirty area, thinking that you’re being efficient by cleaning as you’re disinfecting. You must clean and then disinfect. The problem is that dirt and organic materials can make some disinfectants less effective, so it’s imperative to clean first, disinfect second. 

Myth 2: Disinfectants kill germs on contact.

It’s tempting to think that our spray bottles of disinfectant are zapping virus particles instantaneously. But if you’re spraying disinfectant and wiping it down with a paper towel, you’re not giving the disinfectant time to do its job and all your hard, meticulous work isn’t accomplishing what you think it is. In order to ensure their effectiveness, disinfectants need to be given a certain amount of “dwell time” or contact time with the objects or surfaces they’re disinfecting. Bleach, for example, requires at least 10 minutes of contact time to kill germs. Other disinfectants, including disinfecting wipes, have their own specifications. Clorox disinfecting wipes, for instance, need to leave the objects they’re treating wet for four minutes. Be sure to read the label of whatever disinfectant you’re using and follow directions because disinfecting ineffectively isn’t disinfecting at all.

Myth 3: Disinfectants provide lasting protection.

If you follow the directions, you can count on your disinfecting wipe/spray to delivery on that “99.9%” germ-killing promise. But if a sick person comes around right after your surface dries and touches it, those germs are there until you disinfect again. A disinfected surface only stays that way until it’s touched again (by hands or airborne particles).

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Disinfecting Your Kitchen