Beyond the Products

How Disinfectants Work: Killing germs for a safe and healthy environment

As the world works to battle COVID-19, disinfectants have suddenly earned a place in the spotlight. The truth is, disinfectants were an important part of maintaining health and safety before COVID-19, and they will continue to be essential long after we’ve beaten the pandemic. But what exactly are disinfectants, and how are they best used? This article will explain how disinfectants work and best practices for using them, both in unprecedented COVID-19 times and after life goes back to normal.

How disinfectants destroy microbes

Disinfectants are effective because they get rid of germs—but how and why? When creating a disinfecting and sanitizing routine for your establishment, it’s helpful to understand the basic science of how disinfectants work.

How do disinfectants kill viruses?

Disinfectants work in a wide variety of ways, and scientists have not yet been able to demonstrate why some of these methods are effective. What we do know is that disinfectants destroy at least one of a virus’s three main functions: to attach to a host cell, infiltrate the host cell, and replicate itself.

For example, chlorine is commonly added to swimming pools and drinking water to kill viruses and other pathogens. Chlorine is an effective disinfectant because it destroys the chemical bonds keeping the molecules of the virus intact. By doing this, chlorine prevents the virus from being able to inject its material into the host cell or replicate to infect other cells.

What chemicals are used to kill microbes?

A wide variety of chemicals can kill microbes, but disinfectants must be composed only of chemicals that are easy to use, cost-effective, and safe for surfaces as well as humans, animals, and the environment. For example, mercury used to be a common disinfectant, but due to its toxicity to both humans and animals, it is now rarely used.

Chemicals commonly used in modern disinfecting products include the following:

  • Peroxygens: Peroxygens are strong oxidizing chemicals that produce free radicals to kill microbes. Hydrogen peroxide is the most common peroxygen used in cleaning.
  • Alkylating agents: Within a microbe, alkylating agents replace a hydrogen atom with an alkyl group, inactivating the pathogen. These chemicals are strong disinfectants and are often used to disinfect medical equipment.
  • Alcohols: Alcohols denature cell proteins and disrupt cell membranes, breaking down the cell. Hand sanitizers typically contain alcohols; rubbing alcohol is another common disinfectant and antiseptic.
  • Halogens: Halogens include the chemical compounds iodine, chlorine, and fluorine, which break down microorganisms in various ways. Regular household bleach is an example of a halogen.
  • Phenolics: Phenolics are disinfectants that contain the chemical phenol. Triclosan is the most common phenolic compound, and you can find it in many soaps, as well as antimicrobial products like shower curtains and cutting boards.

How quickly does a disinfectant product kill a specific pathogen?

Every disinfectant has its own kill time. Typical kill times are relatively short—perhaps 30 seconds to five minutes. For disinfectant and cleaning products that must sit on a surface in order to kill microbes growing on the surface, such as those applied with a disinfectant wipe, the product will only be effective if it’s wet for the duration of the kill time.

Substances that are considered disinfectants

Not every substance used for cleaning is a disinfectant. For example, many people are surprised to learn that soap is not a disinfectant. The term “disinfectant” only applies to substances that meet the right criteria, so it’s important to understand what defines a disinfectant.

What substances are considered disinfectants?

Any chemical or chemical compound that actively kills germs is considered a disinfectant. All the chemical compounds discussed above (peroxygens,alkylating agents, alcohols, halogens, and phenolics) are various types of disinfectants. The most common disinfectant products and ingredients include bleach, isopropyl or ethanol alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide.

Why are soaps not considered disinfectants?

Soap is an essential component of most cleaning routines, but it is not considered a disinfectant. That’s because soap doesn’t actively target microorganisms and destroy them, as disinfectants do. Instead, soap is an emulsifier, meaning that it allows oil and water to mix so that oils and dirt that contain harmful microbes can wash away. Disinfectants, on the other hand, are defined as chemicals that kill or inactivate the pathogens themselves.

What’s the difference between products that clean, sanitize, and disinfect surfaces?

Although many people use the terms “clean,” “sanitize,” and “disinfect” somewhat interchangeably, these words actually refer to very different functions in the cleaning process.

  • Clean: “Cleaning” means removing germs, rather than destroying them. When you clean a surface, you use soap and water to remove both visible and invisible dirt, dust, and residue. Along with any grime, you also remove some pathogens as you clean. Cleaning is effective because it leaves fewer germs behind, lessening your chances of coming into contact with them.
  • Sanitize: Sanitizing can include both cleaning and disinfection. It simply means lowering the number of germs on a surface to a level deemed safe by relevant health standards.

Many establishments and industries routinely use a mix of cleaning and disinfecting in order to properly sanitize surfaces. For example, when you wipe down a surface with soap and water, and then go over the same surface with a chemical disinfection product, you’re using both cleaning and disinfection processes to sanitize the surface.

  • Disinfect: “Disinfecting” means using disinfection chemicals that directly target microbes in order to kill them. Unlike cleaning, the purpose of disinfecting is not to remove dirt and germs from surfaces; rather, its purpose is to destroy germs that are living on a surface.

Why can’t disinfectants be considered “green”?

All disinfectants are classified as pesticides by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since disinfectants are designed to kill, no disinfectant is able to meet the EPA’s standards for “green” products. However, it’s advisable to compare the health and environmental effects of each disinfectant in order to choose the least toxic disinfection option with the most positive impact on the environment.

Most effective ways to use disinfectants

In some contexts, merely cleaning surfaces is enough; in others, disinfecting surfaces is a necessity. However, many disinfectants are powerful chemicals that have the potential to damage surfaces or even harm human health if used improperly, so it’s essential to understand how and when to use them in order to maintain a safe and healthy environment.

When is it appropriate to use disinfectants?

In order to understand when it’s appropriate to use disinfectants, it’s important to understand the difference between a disinfectant and an antiseptic.

  • Disinfectant: Disinfectant kills microbes on nonliving surfaces, such as countertops, equipment, and handrails.
  • Antiseptic: Antiseptic kills microorganisms living on human or animal bodies. Hand sanitizer is an example of an antiseptic.

Most disinfectant products are not appropriate for use on living beings, so it’s essential to comprehend the difference between these types of products.

It’s appropriate to use disinfectants on nonliving surfaces that are in high-touch areas or need to be germ-free. Disinfectants are commonly used in medical and culinary settings. They are also important in areas where a group of people or animals could share harmful microbes, such as schools, shopping venues, and workplaces.

Different types of disinfectants are suitable for different surfaces and environments, so it’s important to use each disinfectant according to its specific directions.

What kinds of disinfectants and cleaners are effective against coronavirus?

According to the Australian Government Department of Health, coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) has an outer membrane, meaning it’s relatively easy to damage the membrane and kill the microorganism itself.

The department advises that disinfectants containing about 70 percent alcohol, quaternary ammonium compounds (such as benzalkonium chloride), or diluted household bleach (including products containing sodium hypochlorite) are effective in killing COVID-19 germs.

How can you prepare a bleach solution to clean and disinfect surfaces?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a bleach solution for disinfecting surfaces from coronavirus, as well as other potentially harmful microbes.

In order to create a CDC-approved bleach solution disinfectant, mix one-third cup of bleach with one gallon of room-temperature water. Employees can use this solution to wipe down any surfaces in need of disinfection. According to the CDC, the bleach solution is effective for disinfection for up to twenty-four hours.

When employees use a bleach solution, they must protect their skin by wearing gloves, open windows to avoid harmful fumes, and use caution around cloth or other sensitive surfaces, since bleach may discolor or damage certain materials.

Employees must also remember never to mix common bleach with ammonia, or with any other disinfecting products, as they may contain ammonia. Mixing bleach with ammonia produces a highly toxic gas.

Should you wear personal protective equipment when using disinfectants?

If in doubt, never allow skin to come into contact with any disinfectant. Disinfectants are often composed of strong chemicals, some of which may be harmful to skin. Always at least wear appropriate gloves when using a disinfectant and follow specific product directions regarding other forms of personal protective equipment. Use of some disinfectants may require gowns or work uniforms, safety goggles, or respirators.

Reasons to clean, then disinfect a space

The right methods of cleaning and disinfecting surfaces—i.e., sanitizing them—can go a long way toward preventing the spread of disease, and simply creating a clean, pleasant environment for those using a space. Maintaining a proper sanitizing routine that includes both cleaning and disinfection will make the space safe and have a positive impact on the people who use it.

Why is it important to clean and then disinfect a space?

Preventing the spread of disease is the chief reason to clean and disinfect spaces. It’s important to clean and disinfect in the correct order; you should always clean first, then disinfect.

Why is the correct order important? Think of cleaning as the first line of defense. Cleaning removes both visible dirt and invisible particles, which include some of the harmful microorganisms sitting on the surface in question.

Once the surface is clean, it’s ready for the second line of defense—disinfection. Disinfecting the surface completes the task that the cleaning phase started by killing any pathogens left on the surface. Once both cleaning and disinfection are complete, the surface will look and feel clean to the human eye and touch, while also being almost completely free of harmful microorganisms on a microscopic level.

How should you clean and disinfect surfaces during the pandemic?

The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is similar to other coronaviruses and relatively easy to kill, so disinfecting surfaces for coronavirus is a fairly straightforward procedure. In addition—as Penn Medicine reports—COVID-19 is spread much more readily through person-to-person contact than transmission through surfaces, so specialized disinfection methods are not needed. Staff can simply clean surfaces with soap and water, and then apply an appropriate disinfectant according to the surface.

According to Penn Medicine, the most effective disinfectants to kill the novel coronavirus include commonly used products such as Clorox or Lysol disinfecting wipes and sprays, isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and bleach. It’s recommended to let the disinfectant sit wet on the surface for a full ten minutes, which will kill 99.9 percent of germs.

The EPA has a full list of disinfectant products that are effective against the novel coronavirus. Check the list to ensure your chosen disinfectant will be effective to combat the coronavirus.

What is the proper way to sanitize a table that’s been used for preparing food?

Sanitizing tables used for preparing food is similar to any other standard sanitizing procedure:

  1. Clean. Remove dirt and particles; wash with hot water (at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit) and detergent.
  2. Disinfect. Use a food-safe disinfectant to treat the surface. Alternatively, it’s acceptable to use very hot water (at least 170 degrees Fahrenheit) to kill the germs on the surface. The kill time is at least two minutes.

If you are part of a restaurant association or other organization that adheres to particular sanitizing standards, make sure you follow its guidelines in order to sanitize a table that’s been used for preparing food.

How to create a top-notch disinfecting routine

In this day and age, it’s more important than ever to understand disinfectants and how they can make life better for people in workplaces, educational settings, and any other shared public or private space. With the right disinfecting routine, you’ll be well on your way to making your space safe for the people who inhabit it.

At Spruce Industries, we know disinfectants inside and out! We’re passionate about sharing our knowledge and products with your organization to make sure you and your people can have peace of mind about the health and safety of your environment. If you’re in need of top-notch disinfecting or sanitizing solutions, don’t wait—contact us today!

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