Disinfectants: A guide to killing germs the right way
When it comes to disinfectants, there's no magic bullet.
Thu, Mar 21 2013 at 3:19 PM
From flu outbreaks to deadly bacterial infections, health scares seem to dominate the news these days. In response, you may go searching for products that claim to eradicate bacteria, viruses and other germs.
However, not all of these disinfectants are effective against every type of bacteria or bug. And although we may think these products are keeping you healthy, the truth is that some of them may actually be harmful to both your health and the environment.
To help you choose the right disinfectant for each situation, we’ve provided some of the pros and cons of a variety of germ-busting agents.
Bleach is a relatively inexpensive and highly effective disinfectant. It not only cleans up dirt and mold, but also kills some of the most dangerous bacteria, including staphylococcus, streptococcus, E. coli and salmonella – as well as viruses like the flu and the common cold.
However, bleach is also one of the most harmful disinfectants to human health and has been linked to respiratory problems and birth defects. Bleach may also be hazardous to wildlife and the environment. There are greener alternatives in disinfecting wipes and cleaning sprays, however, these eco-friendly choices may not be as effective in killing bacteria and viruses. Also note that both bleach and greener bleach alternatives are intended to disinfect surfaces in the home and are should not be used on the skin.
Soap and water
Store shelves are filled with products that boast antimicrobial properties. There is a common misconception that antibacterial soap, in particular, is effective in eradicating all germs. Although antibacterial soap may kill some bacteria, it is no more effective in doing so than regular soap, and does nothing to fight viruses like colds or the flu.
In fact, many health experts advise against using antibacterial products, as most contain a potentially harmful ingredient called triclosan, which some researchers say is an endocrine disrupter. Moreover, overuse of these products has led to antibiotic resistance and the rise of so-called superbugs.
Although it may be a more eco-friendly cleaning solution than chemical-based products, ammonia is not registered as a disinfectant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Although ammonia might kill salmonella and E. coli, it is not an effective defense against dangerous staphylococcus bacteria.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers
Claims that hand sanitizers kill 99.9 percent of germs have recently been addressed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency advises consumers to wash their hands often, especially before handling food, and cautions against buying over-the-counter hand sanitizers that claim to prevent infection from MRSA, salmonella, E. coli, the flu, or other bacteria and viruses, as the claims aren’t supported by the FDA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also warns that these products are largely ineffective against the norovirus. Some hand sanitizers may also contain triclosan.
Vinegar can be used as a safer bleach alternative for some applications, like cleaning. It is also biodegradable. However, vinegar is not a registered disinfectant and does not kill dangerous bacteria like staphylococcus.
Hydrogen peroxide has antimicrobial ingredients and can be an effective household cleaner. It is also highly biodegradable. However, concentrated hydrogen peroxide is extremely dangerous and should only be used as a disinfectant at concentrations lower than 3 percent.
Although baking soda is often used a household cleaner, it is ineffective against most bacteria, including salmonella, E. coli. and staphylococcus. If you suspect there has been a contamination of any of these bacteria, ditch the baking soda in favor of a product registered as a disinfectant by the EPA.
Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is a natural, biodegradable antiseptic that can be useful for treating minor cuts and wounds. However, it may not be strong enough to kill viruses and more powerful bacteria.
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