Everything from hand sanitizer to rubber gloves to cleaning sprays has been flying off the shelves lately. Another cleaning product in crazy-high demand? Disinfectant wipes.
But now more than ever, there are also lots of claims and conflicting info being thrown around about what products are most effective when it comes to ridding your home of germs and viruses. So if you’re reaching for any ol’ wet wipes to clean, there’s some info you should know. It’s surprisingly *not* as simple as brushing just any wipe over a surface and calling it a day.
First off, it’s important to know the difference between cleaning and disinfecting. You can clean objects or surfaces with soap and water to physically remove some germs from them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While this won’t necessarily kill germs, it does reduce them, numbers-wise, and lowers the risk of spreading infection. When you disinfect something, on the other hand, that means you’re using an actual chemical agent to kill germs—which is where cleaning products such as disposable disinfectant wipes come in.
What exactly are disinfectant wipes—and how do they work?
Hard surface disinfecting wipes work to destroy bacteria, fungi, and viruses in 10 minutes or less after application, and they prevent new bacteria from forming, says Rodney Rohde, PhD, associate dean of research and professor of virology at the College of Health Professions at Texas State University. Brands that fall into this category include Clorox, Lysol, Seventh Generation, Dispatch, Micro-Scientific, Performacide, among many others.
Disinfectants can act on microorganisms and kill germs in two different ways, says Rohde: growth inhibition or lethal action, both of which involve a chemical acting on bacteria, viruses, and fungi to break up its components. Breaking up the pathogens either outright destroys them (yep, lethal action!) or breaks the cell membranes and proteins down enough that they can’t multiply (growth inhibition). Disinfectant wipes contain active ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol, or ethanol, as well as quaternary ammonium compounds, to do this dirty work.
Disinfectant products (wipes, sprays, etc.) take several minutes to work to kill germs (more on that below), unlike simply cleansing something with a sponge and soap and water, which will reduce germs right away (but won’t necessarily kill them!). Disinfectant products are the only way to guarantee that *all* types of germs are eliminated, which is why they’re what’s preferred for use in health-care settings. Disinfectants also prevent cross-contamination, which often contributes to mass outbreaks in many industries.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require that sanitizers and disinfectants be properly labeled with their ingredients and intended uses, says Rohde. Disinfectant wipes should have an EPA number on the label, indicating that they’re not intended to be used as a personal care item on the skin and body, and that your skin and hands should be rinsed thoroughly after use.
Rohde also notes that it’s important to know the difference between disinfectant wipes and sanitizing wipes, as the latter cannot kill fungi, mold, mildew, and viruses, and are often ineffective if your surface isn’t pre-cleaned with soap and water before using them. “Sanitizing a surface simply means you’re reducing microorganisms to levels that are considered safe, rather than eliminating or killing them,” he explains.
Is there a difference between antibacterial wipes and disinfectant wipes?
Tbh, this usually depends on what’s detailed on the product label and what the product is intended for. So, read labels carefully, and you should have a sense of what the product can and cannot do. But in general, wipes that are labeled “antibacterial” (such as Wet Ones) are intended to cleanse your hands and skin. Similar to antibacterial wet wipes, baby wipes also don’t contain the same ingredients as disinfectant wipes because they can irritate the skin. Thus, these wipes aren’t as effective for cleaning objects and surfaces.
Disinfectant wipes, meanwhile, are usually more effective against a broad group of microbes, as mentioned. That’s because they contain more potent chemicals (or higher amounts of the same chemicals).
How should I use a disinfectant wipe to make sure I *really* destroy all the bad stuff?
It’s always important to follow product label instructions to ensure you’re using a disinfectant wipe effectively, and for the correct amount of time needed for it to work, says Rohde.
The recommended practice is to clean a surface first (e.g., with soap and water) and then use a disinfectant wipe. Why? Visible debris (such as dirt, food, or bodily fluids like blood and mucus) can physically block some of the surface, and in turn, reduce the effectiveness of a disinfectant. A disinfectant wipe will still do a solid job without this step, but you’re better off being as thorough as possible.
For disinfectant wipes to work properly, the product usually needs to remain on the surface you’re cleaning for a certain amount of time. Lysol and Clorox disinfectant wipes, for example, state that the surface must remain wet for four minutes after application, while Seventh Generation disinfecting wipes require 10 minutes of wet application for them to be effective. This means it may take more than one wipe to get the job done if your surface is drying before the recommended cleaning time is up.
Cleaning tip: Let an object or surface you’ve just disinfected air dry—wiping it with a dry cloth or paper towel afterward removes the chemical substance and defeats the purpose.
“To kill all the germs on a surface effectively, you should also let the surface you just cleaned air dry, and not wipe it with a dry cloth or anything else,” adds Maria Vila, DO, a board-certified family medicine physician in Morristown, New Jersey. “Additionally, to ensure you don’t miss any area of the surface you are cleaning, it’s best to start in one corner and work your way across the surface systematically.” When you just wipe in circles, you are more likely to miss areas, she points out.
Be sure to also always wash your hands after using disinfectant wipes, as some can cause skin and eye irritation if you go touch your body or eyeballs. If you have dry or sensitive skin, you may find it helpful to wear gloves when using disinfectant wipes or other cleaning products.
Finally, are so-called natural cleaning wipes effective?
Unfortunately, the answer here is generally no, as natural wipes or cleaners are often only effective at removing dirt and food from a surface. Totally get it if you prefer to avoid using harsh chemicals on your body, but if you’re looking to kill germs in your home, a chemical disinfectant is your best bet to help you stay healthy. You can always wear gloves while you scrub.
If you’re ever unsure about whether the cleaning product is up to standards, check out this list of approved products from the EPA, as well as the org’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
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