Sanitizing Surfaces: Why clean, then disinfect?

During these trying times, we are all looking for better ways to keep our homes and workplaces safe. Until recently, sanitation was an afterthought for many of us, second to more basic, superficial cleaning needs. The current crisis, however, has brought more attention to the cleaning and disinfection of surfaces. Now it’s not just about appearance; our health is at stake.

Health and safety experts agree that thorough cleaning and disinfection of living and workspaces, including public areas such as lobbies, transit areas, stores, churches, and medical facilities, are critical to fighting the spread of pathogens. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide extensive guidelines for cleaning and disinfection, with a current focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19. Consider this a timely reminder for all of us that cleaning is a fundamental first step in preparing surfaces for the effective use of a disinfectant.

Why is cleaning so critical? Why not just spray everything with disinfectant? Can’t I just clean the surface—like washing my hands? The facts show, and the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO), and medical professionals agree, that cleaning surfaces and then disinfecting them is more effective at fighting disease than either method alone.

Cleaning removes the soils, grease, and grime (even when not visible to the naked eye) that harbor and, in some cases, feed bacteria, mold, and viruses, and can serve as a physical barrier, preventing disinfectant from penetrating and killing the pathogens. Some pathogens create a protective biofilm barrier around themselves. So even clean-looking surfaces can harbor a biofilm filled with pathogens. Effective cleaning can physically remove these barriers from surfaces, leaving behind a much lower loading of pathogens that are now easier to kill since their protective environment has been scrubbed away.

Another benefit to cleaning beyond just the physical removal of pathogens is seen in the way that soaps and detergents can react with some pathogens. Soaps and detergents are both surfactants (chemical-speak for “surface-active agents”). Surfactants can chemically disrupt the cell walls of some pathogens and kill them. This is a side benefit of the cleaning step in that it physically washes away much of the danger and kills many of the weak germs that remain prior to the application of a disinfectant.

But cleaning alone is only part of the solution. Some of those remaining pathogens (COVID-19, for instance) are very resistant to the effect of surfactants. Any virus that remains on the surface following cleaning is still active. A disinfection step is necessary to kill these remaining viruses and any other pathogens not mechanically removed by the prior cleaning step. Not only can effective cleaning as a first step remove much of the problem, but it also makes disinfection more effective because the protection offered by dirt, grease, and grime has been removed.  This is why cleaning and then disinfecting, in that order, are so critical.

Used together, cleaning followed by the effective application of disinfection is an effective weapon against the transmission of disease and is a critical part of the disease prevention protocols recommended by the CDC and WHO.

Written by Larry G. Beaver, PhD., Clean Safely VP of Research & Development

Related Products:

  • Biosesque Botanical Disinfectant Solution, Learn More
  • EnviroLogic CSR-2000, Learn More
  • GUNK Multi-Surface Cleaner and Degreaser, Learn More
  • GUNK Multi-Purpose Wipes, Learn More

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