Effective Cleaning to Prevent Illness and Disease from Bacteria and Viruses

We are surrounded by bacteria, viruses and other microbes. They are all around us. Many of these are harmless and some are even beneficial (for example, gut bacteria which aid digestion). However, many bacteria, viruses and other microbes can cause serious illness and disease in humans, and in other animals and plants.

Thorough and effective cleaning is important to reduce the chance of developing (or transferring) illness due to harmful microbes. This is especially important if someone in the home is unwell with a bacterial or viral illness.

With the current concern about coronavirus (which is believed to be able to survive on surfaces for hours – or possibly up to 3 days) we have put together some information about how you should be cleaning, and which cleaning methods work best to kill coronavirus and other viruses and bacteria.

It may not be realistic to clean everything in and around your home which could possibly harbour bacteria and viruses. It could take all day to clean everything. So try to focus on high-use areas (or areas which you have reason to believe may be contaminated) and make sure you regularly clean your hands throughout the day and after doing any cleaning.

Cleaning a sink - effective cleaning to prevent bacteria and viruses
Cleaning a sink – effective cleaning to prevent bacteria and viruses

What should you be cleaning?

Start with washing your hands

Hand washing is the most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of many viral and bacterial diseases.

Some viruses (particularly enveloped viruses such as coronaviruses and flu viruses) can actually be destroyed by thoroughly washing your hands with soap and warm water.

Other viruses and bacteria cannot be destroyed in this way, but they can be physically removed by washing with soap and warm water. This will significantly reduce their numbers as they are washed away with the water.

Correct hand washing technique

The current advice to prevent coronavirus (COVID-19) is to regularly and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water, rubbing the soap over your hands for at least 20 seconds, then rinsing the soap off with warm water.

Thorough hand washing can help to prevent the spread of many viral and bacterial diseases.

Washing hands with soap and water can kill coronavirus and influenza virus, and can help to remove other viruses and bacteria when the soap is washed away.

Washing hands with soap and water
Washing hands with soap and water

Using alcohol based hand sanitiser gel

Your hands should be free of grease and dirt for the gel to be effective.

  • Use a blob of gel about the size of a penny.
  • Rub the gel all over both hands (and about 2 inches up the wrists) until dry.
  • To be most effective, the gel should be worked into the skin for at least 15 seconds.

Alcohol gels can kill coronavirus and flu virus, other viruses and bacteria.

The alcohol concentration in a hand sanitiser gel needs to be more than 60%, to be effective against viruses and bacteria. Many viruses and bacteria can be destroyed or significantly reduced in numbers if an alcohol based hand sanitiser gel is used correctly.

Cleaning around the home

You can’t see viruses and bacteria, so it is important to regularly clean your hands, along with frequently touched areas such as kitchen surfaces, bathroom taps, door handles and light switches, etc.

Essential cleaning for kitchen, food preparation and eating areas

Bacteria and viruses can be transferred from hands onto surfaces around the home. So as well as thorough hand washing, it is important to clean all food preparation and eating areas regularly.

Regular cleaning of kitchen worktops with soap (or washing up liquid) and water is essential, especially before and after food preparation.

Eating areas such as dining tables or breakfast bars should also be regularly cleaned.

Other items which should be cleaned include: kitchen taps, buttons on the microwave, fridge door handles, cupboard door handles, knobs and switches on cooking appliances.

You may want to occasionally clean food preparation areas with a dilute bleach solution or a suitable disinfectant, especially if you use the worktop to chop raw meat.

Clean out cleaning sponges and cloths in hot soapy water to remove dirt (and maybe use an occasional dilute bleach solution to kill bacteria on your cleaning sponges and cloths). Dry them well, as damp cloths can make an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.

Cleaning your bathroom

Bacteria is a particular problem in bathrooms, but viruses can survive on bathroom surfaces too.

Taps and toilet handles are common places to encounter germs; so washbasins, taps and toilet handles should ideally be cleaned every day. Toilets and other areas – as well as bathroom door handles and light switches – should be cleaned every few days (and more often if someone in the house is ill, particularly if they have vomiting or diarrhoea).

  • Clean bathroom areas (except the toilet) with soap, and wipe away with water.
  • Clean the toilet with a suitable toilet cleaning fluid and toilet brush. Then use a disposable tissue with soap to wipe the toilet seat, etc. (do not use a baby wipe).
  • Use a suitable disinfectant or steam cleaner to kill bacteria and viruses.

Cleaning shared spaces and shared items in the house

High-use areas such as door handles and light switches are important areas to clean and disinfect.

Shared items such as phones, computer keyboards, remote controls, and other electronic devices are often touched on a regular basis by many individuals, so will need extra cleaning.

Also think about tables, chairs, desks, cupboard and drawer handles.

Clean with soap and water, and use a suitable disinfectant spray or wipes to disinfect light switches and door handles, as well as phones and remote controls, etc.

Soap bubbles and cleaning
Soap bubbles and cleaning

How should you be cleaning?

Soap or washing up liquid with warm water is effective for general cleaning and removing dirt from surfaces and hands.

Soap and water alone does not kill most viruses and bacteria; however, it will physically remove the bacteria and viruses when the soap is washed away and will therefore reduce the numbers and reduce the chance of them causing a problem.

Warm water should be used for cleaning rather than cold water, as cold water is not as good at rinsing the soap away.

If you are not sure how much you need to clean, try splashing some tomato juice around the kitchen hob and worktop and then pay attention to how difficult it is to completely remove all traces of it.
It smears, it stains, it colours the sponge red, and it is easy to miss small splashes in the corners.

Then imagine that this actually contained a potentially harmful (and invisible) bacteria or virus which needed to be cleaned away. Consider how much soap you need to use, how many passes of cleaning you need to do to fully clean the area, and how many times you need to clean the sponge out during the process.

What kills bacteria and viruses?

Certain viruses, including coronavirus and flu virus can be killed by soap, and soap and water is the recommended method for cleaning your hands to remove coronavirus (see hand washing above). Unfortunately many other viruses and bacteria are not so easy to eliminate.

(*Viruses can’t technically be “killed”, as a virus is not actually alive, but they can be destroyed and broken apart.)

As discussed above, cleaning with soap and water will help to dislodge and remove bacteria and viruses, but will not completely destroy them. So, after general cleaning to remove any dirt and grease, you may want to disinfect or sterilise any high risk or high use areas to kill bacteria and viruses.

For cleaning around the home, products which contain bleach, alcohol or hydrogen peroxide are the most effective for killing bacteria and viruses.
Always read the product label for correct usage instructions.

Steam cleaning is effective for killing bacteria and viruses. A temperature of over 70 degrees centigrade will destroy most bacteria and most viruses. Steam cleaners are especially useful for sterilising fabrics and soft furnishings.

Wash your hands with soap and water or use a suitable alcohol hand sanitiser gel to destroy bacteria and viruses on your hands.
Some viruses (particularly enveloped viruses such as coronaviruses and flu viruses) can actually be destroyed by thoroughly washing your hands with soap and warm water.

What can kill coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2)

It is thought that coronavirus may be able to survive on surfaces for somewhere between a few hours and up to 3 days, depending on the type of surface. It survives for longest on hard surfaces such as glass and metal.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Clean your home with soap and water, then sanitise the area.

Coronaviruses can be destroyed by soap and water, but the virus does need to be in contact with the soap for more than a few seconds to be destroyed.

If you want to be absolutely certain, you could follow your normal cleaning with steam cleaning or wiping/spraying surfaces with a disinfectant which is designed to destroy viruses.

  • Soap can destroy coronavirus.
  • Alcohol, bleach and many disinfectants can destroy coronavirus.
  • Steam cleaning can destroy coronavirus.

Soap or alcohol can actually destroy the outer lipid layer of a coronavirus, and the virus then falls apart.

The science of soap ? here?s how it kills the coronavirus
(The Guardian – 21/03/2020)

What can kill flu virus

It is estimated that influenza viruses can survive from a few minutes up to 24 hours, depending on the type of surface. It survives for longest on hard surfaces such as glass and metal.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Clean your home with soap and water, then sanitise the area.

Flu viruses can be destroyed by soap and water, but the virus does need to be in contact with the soap for more than a few seconds to be destroyed. You may want to follow your normal cleaning with steam cleaning or wiping/spraying surfaces with a disinfectant which is designed to destroy viruses.

  • Soap can destroy influenza viruses.
  • Alcohol, bleach and many disinfectants can destroy flu virus.
  • Steam cleaning can destroy flu virus.

Like the coronaviruses, influenza virus can be destroyed by soap or alcohol.

What can kill bacteria

Many of the bacteria around us don’t cause us any harm; however, there are a number of bacteria which can make you seriously ill and in some cases can cause life-threatening illnesses.

Bacteria such as E.coli, Salmonella, Listeria and Campylobacter can cause food poisoning. Foodborne bacteria often originate from the gut of farm animals, which can be transfered to foods such as meat, eggs, poultry and milk during slaughter and processing.
Cross contamination can occur in the kitchen: to hands, utensils, food preparation areas, and uncooked fruit and veg.

For example, campylobacter is a bacteria common on raw chicken which can make you very ill. It can be acquired through direct contact with contaminated chicken and by contamination of surfaces, hands and utensils during washing or handling of the uncooked chicken.
Careful handling and storage, not washing the chicken and cooking it correctly are important to reduce the chance of contamination.

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water.
  • Clean any areas which may have been in contact with food such as raw meat with soap and water, then sterilise or disinfect the area.
  • Use dilute bleach or disinfectant to sterilise surfaces
  • Use a steam cleaner to sterilise surfaces

Clean all equipment and utensils, food preparation surfaces and your hands with soap and warm water. Soap does not actually kill the bacteria but the soap will help to dislodge the bacteria from the surface and will then be removed when the soap is washed away with water.

Sanitise, disinfect or sterilise?

What are the differences between cleaning, sanitising, disinfecting and sterilising?

  • Cleaning
    Removing visible dirt, usually with soap or detergents. This will
    remove material that may harbour bacteria or viruses, but it won?t necessarily kill them.
  • Sanitising
    Quick chemical processes that reduce, but not eliminate, microorganisms. Some sanitiser products contain detergents and can also be used for cleaning.
  • Disinfecting
    Slower chemical processes that almost completely eliminate microorganisms.
  • Sterilising
    Whereas disinfecting can kill nearly all microorganisms, sterilising (usually with boiling water, steam or bleach) removes ALL microbes. (Note that some sources make no distinction between disinfecting and sterilising, and say that disinfecting kills all microbes.)

Sanitisers and disinfectants often use the same active chemicals, but in different concentrations. To sanitise a surface, the product is in contact with the surface for just 30 or 60 seconds, while disinfecting can take up to 10 minutes.

The UK Food Standards Agency has an article “How to clean hands, equipment and surfaces to prevent harmful bacteria from spreading onto food.” which also gives information on cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting.

What are the most effective cleaning products?

The most effective cleaning methods vary for different bacteria and viruses.

Which cleaning products can destroy coronavirus?
Which cleaning products can kill bacteria?

  • Soap can destroy coronavirus and flu virus.
  • Soap and warm water can help to remove bacteria from surfaces, but disinfectant or sterilisation is needed to kill bacteria.

Here is a summary some common cleaning methods and what they work best for.

Many products which can kill viruses and bacteria do need to be used correctly to be most effective (carefully read the product instructions). Often this means remaining wet and on the surface for a certain time (seconds or minutes, depending on the product being used and the required result).

Soap & washing up liquid

Soap and washing up liquid can remove dirt and grease, as well as helping to remove germs.

Soap does not kill most bacteria and viruses but can reduce their numbers. The soap will help to remove the bacteria from the surface and the water will then wash them away with the soap.

Soap can destroy some viruses, including coronavirus and flu virus. However the soap does need to be in contact with the virus for more than a few seconds to be effective.

When washing your hands, you should work the soap over your hands for at least 20 seconds, then rinse with warm water.

Alcohol

Alcohol kills coronaviruses, many other viruses and bacteria.

Alcohol based hand sanitiser gels and alcohol based cleaners can kill most viruses and bacteria. Check the product label to ensure it is suitable for destroying bacteria and viruses.

To be effective in destroying bacteria and viruses, the alcohol concentration of hand sanitiser needs to be greater than 60%, and for cleaning products, greater than 70%.

When applying alcohol sanitiser gel to your hands, you should rub the gel over your hands for at least 15 seconds.

Alcohol based cleaners and disinfectants are an effective way to kill many bacteria and viruses; however you should check that a product does kill the specific bacteria and viruses you need to destroy.

Steam cleaning

Steam can kill coronaviruses, most other viruses and bacteria

A temperature of over 70 degrees centigrade will destroy most bacteria and viruses. To be fully effective this may need to be applied to the treated area for a few minutes.

Steam can be particularly useful for treating fabrics and soft furnishings, and for reaching areas such as corners and crevices.

Steam can be used to sterilise areas such as worktops and sanitary ware in kitchens and bathrooms, on floors, and for children’s toys.

Use a soap based cleaner to remove visible dirt and grease before using steam to sterilise.

Bleach

Bleach can kill coronaviruses, most other viruses and bacteria.

Bleach should be diluted with water to make bleach solution (follow the product instructions).

Many people do not like the strong smell of bleach, and it is not good for the environment. Bleach cannot be used on coloured fabrics as it will remove the colour.

Use a soap based cleaner to remove visible dirt and grease before using bleach to sterilise the area.

Check the product details and instructions, to ensure safe and effective use.

Disinfectants

Most disinfectants are able to kill bacteria; some can kill viruses.

Disinfectants which state that they can kill viruses should be able to kill coronavirus and other viruses. Check the product packaging, and read the product instructions before use.

Use a soap based cleaner to remove visible dirt and grease before disinfecting the area.

Vinegar

White vinegar can help to remove dirt and grease, as well as helping to remove germs.

A dilute vinegar solution is good for cleaning glass windows.

Vinegar mixed with sodium bicarbonate helps to remove limescale from kettles and washing machines.

Vinegar does not kill most viruses or bacteria.

Essential oils

Many essential oils are said to have anti-bacterial effects.

Essential oils such as lavender oil and tea tree oil are useful to apply directly to cuts and injuries to help healing and prevent infection. However, essential oils may only have limited effectiveness to use for cleaning and disinfecting when diluted in water. They are possibly most useful as a fragrance (and may have a limited anti-bacterial effect as well).