Efficiency is the way of the world these days, but occasionally, "life hack" shortcuts can leave out critical steps in an important process. One such example is not cleaning before disinfecting.
Many people correctly believe that disinfecting and cleaning naturally go hand-in-hand, but assume that disinfectants effectively clean a surface as well as eliminate germs. This is a dangerous misconception, and a shortcut which can expose your household to illness-causing pathogens.
Why Clean First?
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommends that surfaces be cleaned before disinfecting, so illness-causing pathogens don't have a place to hide. "Chemical disinfectants only work if surfaces have been thoroughly cleaned first to remove grease and other dirt," they explain.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees, establishing that "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."
Additionally, CDC clarifies that cleaning and disinfecting go hand-in-hand, and to fully decontaminate a surface, both steps must be implemented. "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," they establish.
For example, if you're baking a cake, there's a good chance your kitchen counter is covered in residue from egg, flour, sugar and other ingredients. This can easily lead to Salmonella contamination, which can cause serious illness. To fully eliminate this risk, it's important to first clean the counter with an all-purpose cleaner such as Simple Green, wiping down the surface to remove the visible dirt. Then you can use a disinfectant to eliminate any lingering germs. But not all disinfectants are equal, so be sure to follow the label directions for proper disinfecting procedures.
The least-hospitable environment on which pathogens to thrive is a clean, dry surface exposed to light and air. When cleaning surfaces, removing soils and agitating cleaner into porous areas or cracks such as tile and grout helps bring those undesirable bacteria out of "hiding," so to speak. They can then be properly removed with a disinfectant, provided proper label directions and dwell times are followed.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cautions against taking a shortcut right to the disinfectant: "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."
Remember, disinfectants don't clean, and cleaners don't disinfect.
There are a fair number of combined cleaner/disinfectant products on the market, offering a one-step solution to the recommended two-step process. While two-in-one cleaners and disinfectants are somewhat effective at lifting dirt and killing surface-level pathogens, these products are not effective at thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting all at once. Frequently, instructions recommend applying these products to "pre-cleaned surfaces".
"C BEFORE D"
As a rule of thumb, just remember to "C" (clean) before "D" (disinfecting) – or "CBD," for short. You should clean the surface with a household cleaner to remove any visible food or waste particles or fluids. Then, once you've fully cleaned the surface, you should apply the disinfectant according to label directions.
As the public becomes more aware of the risks and necessary protective measures for illness prevention in a pandemic-impacted world, information is your greatest weapon against unwanted contamination. Following the "CBD" method of cleaning and disinfecting will help you maintain a cleaner, healthier household.