This is the first part of a three-part article about color-coded cleaning products.

Color-coding in the cleaning industry is not a new idea, but it has seen a resurgence in popularity recently, particularly in health- and food-related markets. There are two big reasons for the renewed interest: Illnesses caused by cross-contamination have been making headlines, and the language barrier in the janitorial industry continues to widen.

“Color-coded cleaning is a growing trend because it allows for companies to easily distinguish and identify which products should be used in which areas of a facility,” says Alan Neufeld, vice president of sales for Hill & Markes Inc. in Amsterdam, New York.

Facilities should switch to a color-coded system if they operate in an environment where cross-contamination poses a safety risk to the public, or if their cleaning staffs includes nonnative English speakers, says Neufeld. By that measure, the system is clearly a good fit for healthcare, foodservice and education facilities. An argument can also be made, however, for commercial properties, hospitality facilities and others.

“There’s really no market you can’t use it in,” says William Hill, regional sales manager for Penn Jersey Paper in Philadelphia.

The concept of a color-coded system is simple — cloths, mops, brushes and other tools are marked with different colors, each representing a specific use. By clearly delineating certain products for certain areas, workers are less likely to spread germs around.

“The whole idea is to assign a color to a specific application, whether it’s cleaning glass and mirrors or wiping down tables,” says Hill. “You can even color-code it to a specific section of your facility.”

Although color-coded products have been around for years, they are still a relatively recent addition to the decades-old janitorial industry. As such, there isn’t yet a standard system for how to use the various colors.

“Color-coding systems can vary by environment and application,” says Neufeld. “It’s my experience that color-coding is instituted and established at the end
users’ discretion.”

Although there aren’t established cleaning-industry standards for where to use each color, there are some commonly accepted norms: Blue is for general purpose cleaning for low-risk areas, such as mirrors; green is used in general food processing, serving and bar areas; red is reserved for high-risk areas, including toilets, urinals and floors; yellow and orange are for back-of-house cleaning and washroom surfaces; and black or gray are for front-of-house cleaning.

In foodservice facilities, sections of the building may be broken in to separate colors. For example, in a grocery store, red is for meat departments, blue for seafood, yellow for bakery and green for produce.

Of all the colors, blue, green, red and yellow are the most common. There is, however, one more color, which doesn’t get regular use but shows signs of becoming a major player: Purple is typically used in food settings to indicate the presence of allergens. It’s available on a number of tools, including kitchen staples like cutting boards and knives.

“It’s fairly new, but in this day and age, when everyone has an allergy, I think it will be popular,” says Hill says. “For food-service operations that want to keep liability down, you can recommend a food allergen kit, which will have purple tools for prep areas to distinguish and keep allergens separate.”

Far more common than kitchen goods are color-coded microfiber cloths. Experts say these cleaning cloths are becoming standard across markets, replacing cotton and other materials.

“Microfiber has the ability to clean and wipe the surface and get even microscopic-size materials off the surface,” says Phil Carrizales, director of the jan/san division for Acme Paper Supply in Savage, Maryland.