What does ‘clean’ really mean? How to be thorough and stay safe

The COVID-19 pandemic inspired a cleaning frenzy in many American homes, but how many people are cleaning thoroughly to prevent the spread of germs?

Some don’t know what “clean” really means in the context of infection prevention, said Tricia Holderman,  author of “Germinator: The Germ Girl’s Guide To Simple Solutions In A Germ-Filled World.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic got a lot of people thinking about germs,” said Holderman, owner and CEO of Elite Facility Systems, a consulting company that handles facility cleanliness and infection prevention for hospitals, NFL and NBA teams and other businesses. “Suddenly, every other person you meet is a clean freak. People who never knew infection prevention was a thing were suddenly spraying their groceries with disinfectant and walking around in homemade hazmat suits.”

But everybody has a different idea of clean, she said. Some people, for example, insist on having floors so sparkly and shiny you could eat off them. Clean tends to be a matter of opinion, but when it comes to infection prevention, Holderman said, cleaning is all about facts.

“Just because something looks clean doesn’t mean it’s germ-free,” she said. “There are specific things that cleaning needs to accomplish to create a safe, healthy environment.”

Holderman explains the four categories of cleaning and how to keep your house not just clean but sanitary:

Surface cleaning
This involves vacuuming, sweeping, dusting or wiping. The right way to clean, Holderman said, is to get the dirt off of a surface, but many people instead only move the dirt around because they wipe in circles or mop back and forth over the same areas.

“Use leading-edge cleaning,” she said. “After first clearing everything off the surface, you always lead with the same edge of your mop, rag, or whatever you’re using and always move forward, pushing the dirt away from the surface you’ve already cleaned. But remember, in regard to removing germs from the environment, cleaning alone isn’t enough to make a place safe.”

Disinfecting is the chemical process of killing germs, usually by applying a spray or liquid solution to them.

“Some people tend to combine surface cleaning with disinfecting by spraying a disinfecting cleaner and then wiping it off,” Holderman said. “When done properly, this process makes whatever surface you clean as clean as it looks.”

But it’s important, she notes, that when you spray disinfectant, you wait before you wipe.

“Most chemicals need at least 60 seconds to three or four minutes – dwell time – in order to kill everything you want to kill,” Holderman said.

This is the reduction of the number of germs to a safe level. It’s mostly used in food preparation areas and refers to eliminating or reducing bacteria.

“What you do to sanitize will vary, depending on your needs,” Holderman said. “For example, you sanitize your hands, but you should never use disinfectant on your skin, only sanitizer designed specifically for that purpose.”

Sterilizing takes disinfecting to the next level by adding heat, Holderman said.

“Most germs will die if heated to a certain temperature,” she said. “For example, most viruses will die at 160 degrees. Sterilization is done mainly in professional settings, like hospitals and dental offices. Chemicals can also be combined to be used for sanitization when heat is not the best option.”

At home, Holderman said, a regular combination of cleaning and disinfecting should be more than enough to keep you and your loved ones safe.

“Your dishwasher probably gets hot enough to sterilize your dishes,” she said, “and a hired carpet or upholstery cleaner may also sterilize your furniture or rugs.”

“Germs linger and spread,” Holderman said, “and it’s important to know the most effective ways to get rid of them before they get to you or your loved ones.”

About Tricia Holderman
Tricia Holderman (www.triciaholderman.com) is the owner, president and CEO of Elite Facility Systems and the author of “Germinator: The Germ Girl’s Guide To Simple Solutions In A Germ-Filled World.” With more than four decades of experience as a national authority on infection prevention, she has been recognized as the ISSA 2022 Advocate of the Year. A nationally-recognized speaker and consultant, Tricia is on a mission to create safer offices, hospitals, homes, restaurants and arenas.