- Natural disinfectants claim to be effective at sanitizing, but only alcohol at 70 percent concentration and hydrogen peroxide are actually effective when used properly.
- Experts recommend following the Environmental Protection Agency list of approved products and ingredients.
- Surfaces still need to be cleaned with soap and water before sanitizing.
There are a lot of cleaning tips and natural disinfectant claims floating around lately. Unfortunately, many are just plain untrue, according to doctors and experts. There are some effective, natural alternatives to cleaning products if your pantry is running low, but many are not nearly as effective as you’d like at killing all the germs you don’t want lingering in your home RN.
So what does work? Well, you can review lists of products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and peruse the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. “Only disinfectants or sanitizers registered with the Environmental Protection Agency can legally make sanitizing or disinfecting claims,” says Samara Geller, a senior research and database analyst for the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “Those products will bear an EPA registration number on the label.”
But here’s the problem: Many of the EPA-approved disinfectants and sanitizers are commercial-grade and may be unavailable to regular consumers like you or out of stock due to higher demand. “If you find these products to be inaccessible, then we recommend seeking out the best active ingredients utilized by some of the products on this list, which are hydrogen peroxide and ethyl alcohol (or ethanol),” says Geller. “They have limited toxicity compared to other active ingredients.”
So, why are ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and hydrogen peroxide effective? “Ethanol damages cell membranes and proteins,” says Geller. “Oxidizing agents, like hydrogen peroxide, damage membranes and lipids.” Translation: They’re strong enough to kill germs.
Hydrogen peroxide can be used at the common store-bought concentration of 3% or diluted to 0.5% concentration, per Rutgers University. It should be left on surfaces for one minute before wiping. (Warning: It might stain so be careful about those white countertops.)
Only some alcohol is effective for disinfecting.
You can’t just use any kind of alcohol. That bottle of vodka in your freezer isn’t concentrated enough to kill germs, but other types of alcohol (like ethyl alcohol, isopropyl rubbing alcohol, and ethanol) can disinfect at concentrations of around 70 percent. “Most of us are going to have isopropyl rubbing alcohol in the back of our medicine cabinets,” says Siobain Duffy, PhD, associate professor of ecology at Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and with expertise in emerging viruses and microbial evolution. “If you dilute it a little bit with water—two thirds alcohol one third water—that should be an effective disinfectant solution.”
Tbh, you really only want to use this for items that can be submerged, though. “While commonly used to disinfect smaller objects such as stethoscopes, rubber stoppers of medication vials, and thermometers, alcohol solutions are extremely evaporative and therefore not an effective means of decontaminating household surfaces,” Dr. Andrew Alexis, MD, chair of Mount Sinai West’s department of dermatology previously told Women’s Health. However, an alcohol solution is not ideal for disinfecting surfaces in your home because the high alcohol concentration means it evaporates too darn fast.
Can essential oils kill germs?
You’ve probably heard claims that one essential oil or another has impressive disinfecting powers. “There is evidence that some essential oils have antimicrobial properties, but there’s not a lot of evidence that one essential oil has so much of a broad antimicrobial killing range that it would be recommended to be used as a disinfectant,” says Duffy. “So, I wouldn’t recommend essential oils for people’s general housecleaning.”
What about vinegar or lemon juice, they have disinfectant properties right?
Both vinegar and lemon have disinfectant properties, according to Geller. But, these solutions are are not approved disinfectants. Their active components, acetic acid in vinegar and citric acid in lemons, however, are EPA-registered active ingredients. The difference is the concentration and pH, which you won’t find squeezing a fresh lemon from your produce aisle. Why are acids effective? “Acid-based disinfectants change the pH of the microorganism’s environment, break the bonds of nucleic acids, and also impact proteins.”
Steam is an effective natural disinfectant.
In fact, it is used by hospitals for disinfecting and sterilizing, according to Geller. You can rely on the sanitize setting on your dishwasher, which uses moist heat, for germ killing. “Steam destroys microorganisms’ enzymes and proteins,” she adds. However, she doesn’t recommend other steaming devices in the home, because they can cause burns and may not be practical or safe on certain surfaces or objects.
How you sanitize matters as much as the ingredients.
How you use these registered ingredients also matters, so read the instructions on the cleaning product carefully and follow them. “Generally speaking, hard surfaces need to be cleaned with regular soap and water before you apply a disinfectant,” says Geller. “You should also observe recommended saturation and contact times before wiping dry or rinsing.” The CDC also recommends cleaning surfaces with detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
Some surfaces must stay visibly wet for a minimum number of minutes. “But people often misuse disinfectants and don’t achieve the same level of microbe reduction claimed on the bottle,” says Geller. Misuse also includes mixing chemicals. Duffy advises against using different cleaning agents at the same time. Certain combinations can create dangerous and poisonous gases. For example, don’t mix bleach and ammonia or bleach and vinegar, according to Duffy.
Geller adds, “If you’re not starting with a clean surface, using enough of the product, or leaving it on the surface long enough, then you may not be achieving the intended results.”
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