Published on May 24th, 2019 | by Sarah Dephillips0
Disinfecting Naturally – Goodbye to Harsh Chemicals
Killing germs is a high priority in today’s society, and sometimes it should be – especially in contexts like healthcare, childcare, and food service. And while eliminating every single microbe in your home isn’t necessarily practical (or a good idea), keeping a clean living space is important to your family’s health and happiness. Chlorine bleach has been the go-to surface disinfectant for a very long time (over a century) despite its widely known health and environmental hazards. In fact, it ranks #1 on the list of top 5 household cleaning chemicals to avoid. On the other side of the spectrum, numerous “natural” and “botanical” products are popping up on the market and in DIY blogs with claims to “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial properties.” What does that mean? Is disinfecting naturally even possible without using harmful chemicals? How do you know if you’re actually killing the germs and not just moving them around?
Disinfecting Naturally – Hard Surfaces
One of the biggest categories of things we disinfect in our homes or at work is hard surfaces. This includes the counters, sinks, toilets, door handles… things we touch every day or places where we prepare food. These surfaces are exposed to food-borne illness-causing pathogens or infectious diseases like cold and flu. Since these types of pathogens are living organisms, it makes sense that you’d have to kill them with something poisonous. How do you kill germs without exposing yourself and your family to poisons? And again, how do you know the substance you’re using that claims to kill germs is actually killing them?
This last question unfortunately requires a laboratory and clinical trials to answer with certainty. While many substances are claimed to have antibacterial or antimicrobial properties, that doesn’t tell you which microbes they kill or how quickly they kill them. And while a good surface cleaner will usually do a fine job, there are times – like when you have someone sick in your home or if you’re running a home daycare or school classroom – where you need to know there’s some serious germ-killing going on.
In the United States, disinfectants are actually registered with and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That’s because germs are considered “pests,” and the substances that kill them are pesticides. The EPA has 6 categories of registered disinfectants, which can be seen in this handy comparison chart. The six categories are bleach, phenols, quaternary ammonium compounds, accelerated hydrogen peroxide, botanicals, and silver dihydrogen citrate. All six of these are classified by the CDC as low or intermediate level disinfectants, which is all you need for regular household use (as compared with medical facilities, where high level disinfection is required only for certain items). The other interesting part of this EPA chart is the toxicity ratings of each substance. A #1 is highly toxic (a few drops to a teaspoonful being toxic to an adult) and #4 is relatively nontoxic (taking 1 pint to 1 pound to be toxic to an adult). Bleach and phenols are category 1, while botanicals, silver dihydrogen citrate, and some accelerated hydrogen peroxide products are category 4. The main takeaway here? You do not need highly toxic substances to properly disinfect hard surfaces! Bye bye, bleach!
Meet the Natural Disinfectant Alternatives
So what are these nontoxic EPA registered disinfectants? We’ll offer a quick overview of each one:
Accelerated hydrogen peroxide: Most of us are familiar with hydrogen peroxide and its disinfectant properties. The best part about hydrogen peroxide is that it breaks down into harmless water and oxygen. Accelerated hydrogen peroxide is a patented blend of hydrogen peroxide with surfactants and stabilizers to increase its shelf life and germ-killing capacity. It is most commonly used in medical and veterinary facilities.
Botanical disinfectants are plant-based. The EPA’s registered example is the cleaning brand Benefect, which uses the active ingredient thymol. Thymol, like its name would indicate, is extracted from the oil of thyme and gives thyme its distinctive scent and flavor. This one is commonly used in household cleaning.
Like accelerated hydrogen peroxide, silver dihydrogen citrate is a patented mix of a familiar agent with some boosters added. In this case, silver’s antibacterial properties have been known for some time. Silver dihydrogen citrate combines ionic silver in a citric acid solution. It is most commonly used as a preservative in cosmetics rather than in daily cleaning.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Just because it’s not on the EPA list of registered disinfectants doesn’t mean it can’t kill germs! Nature has far more than these six tools in her belt when it comes to keeping microbes in balance. Many botanical agents (such as essential oils) are showing their worth when it comes to antiviral and antibacterial properties. Clinical trials have shown tea tree oil (melaleuca) to be effective at killing a wide range of microbes, including MRSA. Some studies have shown oregano oil to be effective in killing E. coli bacteria, but not staph bacteria. Oregano and clove essential oils have exhibited strong antiviral properties in studies. The list goes on and on. There’s a lot of research out there, and more is needed to get botanical disinfectants into the spotlight.
- Any time you disinfect a hard surface, you need to clean it first with good old soap, water, and elbow grease. Disinfectants are meant to kill germs on already-clean surfaces. Dirt can create safe spaces to harbor microbes, so you need to scrub it off first.
- Disinfecting hard surfaces is different from disinfecting other types of surfaces, like carpet, upholstery, soft toys, or skin. We’ll save that for another article!
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