A Dirty Little Subject

By Robert Kravitz

When it comes to cleaning and disinfecting, some park and rec administrators and cleaning professionals may be missing a few steps—and doing so can potentially cause serious harm to human health.  We are often advised that the best way to stop the spread of disease is to “disinfect” surfaces. Meanwhile, some solutions manufactured for the professional cleaning industry carry a label that claims the products “clean and disinfect” surfaces. Although cleaning and disinfecting a surface does help stop the spread of disease, what these product labels seem to suggest—or at least the message some park and rec managers and cleaning professionals are receiving—is that cleaning and disinfecting a surface can be done in one step.

For cleaning professionals, this might sound like good news. Any cleaning solution that can clean and disinfect in one step can save a considerable amount of time, and when it comes to cleaning, time is money.

However, saving time by attempting to clean and disinfect in one process—especially on heavily soiled surfaces—may not be a sound strategy. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

“Clean first before you disinfect. Germs can hide underneath dirt and other material on surfaces where they are not affected by the disinfectant. Dirt and organic material can also reduce the germ-killing ability of some disinfectants.” *

And some advisory organizations take this a step further. For instance, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), an independent government department serving the United Kingdom and Scotland, the proper procedure for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces may actually include as many as four steps. The FSA advises the following:

  • Use a cleaning solution to remove visible soil from surfaces.
  • Rinse the surfaces with fresh, clean water (this helps remove chemical residue, which can attract more soils).
  • Disinfect the surfaces using an EPA-registered disinfectant adhering to correct dwell time and dilution.
  • Rinse the surfaces again with fresh, clean water.

Why Clean First?
Similar to the EPA’s recommendations, the reason the FSA recommends that surfaces be cleaned before disinfecting is that “chemical disinfectants only work if surfaces have been thoroughly cleaned first to remove grease and other dirt.” This is also supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which states that cleaning removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects. “Cleaning works by using soap (or detergent) and water to physically remove germs from surfaces. This process does not necessarily kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.”

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Further, the CDC advises that, while disinfecting kills germs on surfaces or objects, “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.”

This is starting to sound confusing. To help clear things up, let’s use handwashing as an example of how this works.

To start, we must note that not all bacteria, germs, and pathogens are the same size. And the smaller the pathogen, the easier it is to become wedged within the cracks and creases of the skin on a human hand. In many cases, a hand sanitizer can kill or minimize the number of surface-level pathogens on the surface of the hands but not necessarily those imbedded in the cracks and creases.

What does remove these imbedded pathogens is proper handwashing. The agitation created in the handwashing process dislodges these pathogens from the cracks and creases of hands, enabling them to be removed when the hands are rinsed. Once these pathogens have been removed, a hand sanitizer can kill any germs and bacteria that may remain.

It’s the same when cleaning surfaces. Many countertops in park and rec restrooms, for instance, are made of tile and grout. These are very porous materials. So, while using a one-step cleaning and disinfecting process may remove some soils and kill some surface-level pathogens, its effectiveness at removing all pathogens, especially those lodged in the pores of the tile and grout, is minimal at best.

We should also mention how a disinfectant actually works. Once applied to a clean surface, the disinfectant dissolves cell walls, killing germs and bacteria that are then wiped away. In some cases, just using more effective cleaning practices will do the same without the use of disinfectants.

Why Cleaning Pros Do Not Clean First and Then Disinfect
Knowing how important it is to clean before attempting to disinfect, we must ask why any cleaning professional would use a one-step process to clean and disinfect surfaces. Among the reasons are the following:

  • As mentioned earlier, it reduces cleaning times and related costs.
  • Cleaning pros, like other workers, have a tendency to not read product labels; some cleaning solutions, even those marketed as a cleaner and disinfectant, will note that heavily soiled surfaces should be cleaned first.
  • Reducing the use of disinfectants is better for the environment.
  • The one-step process helps reduce the number of cleaning solutions needed—another cost savings.

To address these issues, consider the following factors:

  • Education: First, cleaning pros must be educated on the importance of cleaning surfaces first and then disinfecting. This is a must-do process.
  • Alternative cleaning systems: Look into cleaning systems that can address some of the barriers to using a multistep process to clean and disinfect surfaces and still be fast. For instance, while wiping surfaces with cleaning cloths can be slow, an aqueous ozone cleaning system is faster and can eliminate the need for powerful cleaning solutions.
  • Reading labels: Cleaning workers must read and understand product labels. Professional cleaning can be a hazardous profession; reading product labels can make it safer.

As we know, the goal of the professional cleaning industry is to protect health. We may think we are accomplishing this but upon closer inspection, we discover we are not. Making sure cleaning solutions are used properly and investigating alternative cleaning processes that have been proven to be effective helps ensure we are meeting the industry’s goal.

Robert Kravitz is a writer for the professional cleaning and building industries. Reach him at robert.kravitz@outlook.com.

* UCSF Institute for Health & Aging, UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health, Informed Green Solutions, and California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Green Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting: A Toolkit for Early Care and Education. San Francisco: University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing, 2013. Published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/ece_curriculumfinal.pdf.