When it comes to germs, chances are you're cleaning all wrong
The funny thing about germ experts? Most worry a lot less about “sanitizing” their homes or “killing bacteria” than the average American. That’s because they know better.
“I probably clean less than most people do,” says Elaine Larson, Ph.D., an infectious disease expert at Columbia University.
If you work in a hospital or some place where you’re exposed to dangerous bacteria or viruses, then you need to take proper precautions, Larson explains. “But at home, away from all that, America is a very clean nation and most people really don’t have much to worry about.”
Of course, there are still some threats lurking in your home (like these 7 Things You’re Probably Not Washing)—albeit not the ones you’d probably guess. Here, Larson and other experts tell you the best way to rid your home of the real-world germs and contaminants that could do you harm. And while you're in the process of ridding yourself of the germs lurking around your house, check out these 5 Ways to Boost Your Immune System Without Medicine.
They’re ineffective, for starters. “We gave different families cleaning products with and without antimicrobials,” Larson says, “and we didn’t see any difference in infection rates, even after a year.” In fact, some germ experts are concerned antibacterial soaps may be wiping out your body’s natural immunity to bacteria that have lived on and around people for millennia. “You don’t want to reduce the number of bacteria on your skin, because they’re helpful,” Larson adds. She recommends basic, no-frills bar soap for washing your hands and body.
A lot of people think if they wipe or spray on the right product, their dish or countertop or doorknob is clean. Not so, Larson says. “You need mechanical friction to get something clean, and that requires force.” Consider your dirty pots and pans: You need hot water to loosen food particles and grime, and forceful, soapy scrubbing to clear that gunk away, Larson says. “You can’t just wipe on dish soap, rinse it off, and think the job’s done,” she adds.
Ironically, the stuff you buy to sanitize your home may be the most dangerous health threat in your house. Why? Many commercial cleaners contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs)—compounds that have been shown to mess with your hormones, says Heather Patisaul, Ph.D., who researches EDCs at North Carolina State University. While experts are only just beginning to figure out the dangers of EDCs, some—like BPA—have already been linked to cancer, infertility, and obesity, Patisaul says. (Find out The Scary Truth About BPA-Free Plastics.)
Most EDCs aren’t listed by name on a product’s label. But Patisaul says “triclosan” is one cleaning ingredient you should avoid. She also recommends fragrance-free cleaners (scented products are a huge source of EDCs) and those bearing the “Green Seal” or “Eco Logo,” both of which certify safer, environmentally friendly products like these 12 Brilliant Eco-Friendly Eating Supplies.
If you really want to play it safe, Patisaul says your best option is to concoct your own household cleaner. She suggests mixing liquid castile soap with white vinegar or baking soda. It won’t look or smell as pretty as the commercial cleaners, but it’ll clean your countertops and floors just as well without putting your health at risk. Patisaul also recommends swapping out your non-stick cookware for ceramic “green” pans, which aren’t coated with EDCs. Forgoing plastic containers and bags in favor of glass or steel is another smart way to sidestep the hormone risks, she says.
While infections are rare, Larson says your laundry—especially your underwear—requires thorough cleaning to remove any remnants of fecal matter. (Gross-out warning: Research from Charles Gerba at the University of Arizona found the average person has about one-tenth of a gram of poop in her underwear at any given time. Speaking of underwear, these 7 Underwear Facts Might Surprise You.) To make sure your intimates are fresh and fecal-free, use warm or hot water to clean them, and mix in a little oxygenated bleach (OxiClean) with your usual detergent, Larson advises. Keep your other clothes separate if you’re worried about the bleach.
“The biggest danger in the kitchen is a sponge,” Larson says. Why? “Anything that’s damp and sits around at room temperature creates a great environment for bacteria.” While she says you can wash sponges in your dishwasher, she recommends ditching them all together. Better options: Brushes, which don’t hold as much water and can also be washed in the dishwasher; and rags or towels, provided you use each for no more than a day before washing (again, in hot water and OxiClean).