Beyond the Products

Disinfectants: What They Are and How to Use Them Safely

In 2020, businesses around the world became shockingly aware of the importance of disinfectants. The necessity of disinfecting surfaces during the COVID-19 pandemic are obvious—but disinfecting was important before the pandemic, and it will be no less important in a post-COVID-19 world.

Spruce Industries is dedicated to informing business owners how disinfectants can help reduce the transmission of disease among their employees and customers. And we’re proud to provide the disinfectants to help our customers do just that.

Before exploring the specifics of disinfectants, it’s important to understand broadly what they are. Disinfectants like chlorine bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and alcohol solutions go well beyond simply tidying or cleaning a surface; these chemical agents actually kill the harmful bacteria or viruses that linger on a surface after an initial cleaning.

While disinfectants go a long way toward ensuring health and safety, it’s important to note that they can also be dangerous if used incorrectly or if improperly stored. To maximize the benefit of disinfectants and minimize the risks, it helps to learn as much as you can about disinfectants and how your business can use them safely.

Importance of using disinfectants

Many business owners rely on custodial staff to come in after hours to clean up their spaces. If this describes your business, it’s worth ensuring your crew also goes to the trouble of disinfecting. If you run a small business with a limited staff, you might consider training staff members to disinfect on a regular basis.

Regularly disinfecting surfaces throughout your business or facility can go a long way toward keeping your employees and members of the general public healthy and safe. Though increasing your usage of disinfectants may increase your cleaning costs initially, there are many benefits to keeping your spaces free of microorganisms—for example, reducing illness can reduce the number of sick days and lost productivity.

Why disinfect surfaces

Simply cleaning a surface is not enough to make it free of disease. Cleaning is more about appearance than anything. Though a “clean” space may appear free of clutter, dirt, or grime, invisible and potentially harmful microorganisms will remain unless the surface is properly disinfected.

That’s not to say that cleaning is unimportant—in fact, it’s an important part of the disinfecting process. Disinfecting an already-clean space is easier and more effective than trying to disinfect a space that’s still dusty or dirty.

Effectiveness of disinfectants

Disinfectants are specially formulated to kill viruses and bacteria by destroying the cell walls of microbes or interfering with their metabolism in such a way that kills them. Hydrogen peroxide and various other disinfectants have different “kill claims,” on their packaging—it’s not uncommon to see disinfectants that claim to kill 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria.

This is mostly just a marketing claim, as different disinfectants are effective against different types of microorganisms. Note that disinfectants are required by law to list the microorganisms they have been tested to be effective against on the label—be sure to read the label to ensure the disinfectant you choose does the job you need it to.

Another factor to consider is “dwell time,” or the amount of time a disinfectant needs to remain on a wet surface to disinfect. This information should also be listed on the labeling of the disinfectant. It’s common for disinfectants to have a dwell time of ten minutes.

When to use disinfectants

How often you disinfect a surface depends on how often a particular surface gets used and by how many people. Many businesses have cleaning crews come in after hours and disinfect surfaces on a weekly or daily basis.

If a surface is used by several different people over the course of the day, it may be prudent to disinfect it multiple times. Ideally you would disinfect a surface after each person uses it to minimize exposure.

Types of disinfectants

Not all disinfectants are the same. When deciding whether to disinfect a surface or material, it’s important that you do your homework to determine which product is best suited for the job.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies three classes of disinfectants:

  1. Hospital disinfectants must prove effective against two types of bacteria frequently found in hospitals: Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus.
  2. Broad-spectrum disinfectants make public health claims for killing three types of microorganisms: bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
  3. Limited disinfectants are disinfectants found to be effective against either Salmonella choleraesuis or Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

Across these classes are five commonly used disinfectants:

  • Alcohols are effective against a wide range of bacteria, though alcohol solutions are known to evaporate too quickly—sometimes before they get a chance to thoroughly disinfect.
  • Chlorine compounds work by oxidizing the cell membranes of microorganisms, causing their death. These disinfectants are fairly inexpensive, though they can also cause corrosion of discoloration on certain surfaces.
  • Hydrogen peroxide is broadly considered to be one of the best disinfectants for the environment. Also, this disinfectant causes fewer allergic reactions than other disinfectants.
  • Phenolic compounds use an aromatic organic compound called phenol and are very effective against viruses, bacteria, and fungi. However, they can cause harm to humans or damage to surfaces if used incorrectly.
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) are commonly used in the food industry, and they are effective against enveloped viruses, vegetative bacteria, and some fungi.

Disinfecting laundry

There are a lot of products that claim to disinfect, though it’s important to read instructions for use clearly. For laundry, for example, you would use a chlorine bleach on white fabrics or phenolic disinfectants with warm water on white or colored fabrics.

Disinfecting surfaces

Which disinfectant you use will depend on the surface you intend to disinfect. Quats are widely used in hospitals because of their low cost and the speed with which they kill viruses and bacteria. Chlorine compounds are recommended for cleaning bodily fluids, though they can be corrosive if used improperly.

Many disinfectants are most effective when used on hard, flat surfaces. More porous surfaces generally don’t lend themselves to effective disinfection in the same manner, as the disinfectant can’t reach into the more porous structures below the immediate surface.

The most effective disinfectants

Most disinfectants are effective at killing viruses and bacteria quickly, as long as you read and follow the directions on the label. Remember, different disinfectants are deemed effective at killing different kinds of microorganisms. Thus, it helps to understand which microorganisms are likely to be in your space when selecting a disinfectant.

When shopping for disinfectants, be sure to research which formula is the best for your needs. If you intend to use bleach, for example, keep in mind that the CDC recommends using bleach containing 5.25–8.25 percent sodium hypochlorite. If using alcohol, know that the CDC recommends alcohol solutions with at least 70 percent alcohol.

Safety protocols when using disinfectants

Since disinfectants are formulated to kill viruses and bacteria, they can be harmful to people as well. Different disinfectants have varying levels of corrosiveness or potential harm to skin, so the safety protocols for one type of disinfectant may not be sufficient for another.

Whenever you use any type of disinfectant, it’s critically important to observe proper safety protocols. There should never be any doubt when using disinfectant, but if there is, always err on the side of safety.

Preparing to use disinfectants

Before you disinfect, be sure to clean the surface using detergent or soap. Once a surface is sufficiently clean and dry, you’re clear to use disinfectant.

Always read the label of your disinfectant. Note that most disinfectants require the use of personal protection equipment, including gloves or eye coverings. If using bleach, note that it’s important to dilute it with water. The CDC recommends five tablespoons of 5.25–8.25 percent bleach per gallon of room-temperature water.

Tips when cleaning and disinfecting

  • Don’t mix disinfectants.
  • Bleach can expire; always check the expiration date.
  • Use your bleach solution immediately; it only remains effective for 24 hours.
  • Ensure good ventilation when cleaning and using disinfectant.
  • Be sure to leave the disinfectant wet on the surface for the duration of the disinfectant’s stated “dwell time.”

How to protect yourself

Be sure to wear rubber gloves and eye protection when using disinfectant. Rubber gloves that go up to the elbow can minimize the chances of the disinfectant from coming in contact with your skin. As for eye protection, your best bet is a pair of goggles designed to keep the area around your eyes sealed and protected from fumes.

Speaking of fumes, you may also use a mask or respirator to provide further protection. Ventilation, or keeping the air around the cleaning area moving, is another critical element of safe disinfection.

Storing disinfectants

You must still be mindful of disinfectant safety even when it’s not in use. Again, the best guidance for storage will be found on the label—different disinfectants may have varying requirements in terms of temperature or light exposure.

Note that disinfectants also don’t have an infinite shelf life, which is why it’s important to regularly check the expiration date and safely dispose of expired disinfectant. Regardless of age, all disinfectants must be stored out of reach of pets and children.

Steps to disinfect a room properly

In any given room, the most important parts to disinfect are any high-touch items or surfaces. These may include light switches, doorknobs, desks, keyboards, computer mouses, phones, and faucets.

How to disinfect a room

  1. Wash your hands and start by cleaning the surfaces and items you intend to disinfect. Use soap or detergent with a clean sponge, rag, or mop.
  2. Ensure you have all the proper safety equipment nearby, including gloves, eye protection, and a mask.
  3. Ensure the space is properly ventilated.
  4. Read and follow the directions on the disinfectant label to ensure you understand how to properly dilute the disinfectant (if necessary) and use it.
  5. Proceed to disinfect the appropriate surfaces in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
  6. Leave surfaces wet (as instructed) to ensure proper disinfection.
  7. Put away all items used for disinfection and heed storage instructions for the disinfectant itself.

Disinfecting different items and surfaces

Different items or surfaces may require different approaches to disinfection. Whatever you intend to disinfect, make sure you have the correct product and know the proper procedure.

  • Hard surfaces: Most hard surfaces can be disinfected using a wide variety of disinfectants—however, you should be aware that some disinfectants are more corrosive than others and may not be suitable for certain surfaces.
  • Porous surfaces: Sorter items and surfaces, including carpet and drapes are best laundered in warm water and in accordance with manufacturer instructions.
  • Electronics: Many electronics manufacturers issue instructions on how to clean their products. If none are provided, the CDC recommends using alcohol-based wipes or sprays containing at least 70 percent alcohol. Be sure to dry surfaces thoroughly to avoid potentially harmful pooling.

Disinfectants can make a difference

While the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a compelling reason to disinfect in the short term, there are plenty of reasons to keep up the habit in the years to come. There are many other harmful viruses and bacteria lurking on surfaces all around the world. Keeping your spaces disinfected can not only help keep your employees healthy and at work, but it can also have profound implications for public health by reducing the spread of flu and other serious illnesses.

At Spruce Industries, we believe disinfectants and their proper use can go a long way toward ensuring cleaner places of business and boosting public safety. In addition to the disinfectants themselves, we proudly offer our customers lots of information about how to safely use a variety of products. For help determining which of our disinfectants are best for your needs, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of experts.

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