Walk into any grocery store or discount retailer these days and you're bound to find a pop-up dispenser with sanitizing wipes next to the row of shopping carts. What was once the mainstay of diaper bags and packed lunches has become a popular help-yourself tool to sanitize cart handles and seats.

Wipes pick up where hand sanitizers leave off in preventing the spread of disease among consumers. But are wipes catching on as a housekeeping tool? The answer increasingly is yes.

Premoistened wipes are an obvious choice when a water supply is not readily available. Gary McCain, sales manager at Five Star Janitorial Supply in Leesville, La., sells a large number of wipes to his local library for use in their bookmobile.

"The librarian works all over the building and is often not able to get to running water," he says. "She uses the wipes to keep her hands and touch points — including the books — clean."

McCain has also seen first hand how useful sanitizing wipes can be in an emergency situation. When his town was hit by hurricanes and the water supply was compromised, wipes in pop-up tubs were invaluable for residents at local shelters.

Advantages To Wipes

Down the road in New Orleans, Snee Chemical Company makes the chemicals for a number of private label wipes. Hernaldo Vanegas, Snee's sales and marketing manager, has seen sales of wipes take off in recent years, especially since the outbreak of H1N1 last year.

"It's a new mainstream product that's taking off right now," he says. "Everyone is getting their hands on it."

Vanegas predicts that sales of wipes will get stronger over time, as the economy improves.

"We might get to the point where every product comes in a wipe," he says. "They're a little pricier — about 10 to 15 percent more than a sprayer — but you're paying for more convenience."

That convenience is substantial, say proponents of wipes. The advantages of premoistened wipes include:

Easy dispensing and use. Most wipes are easy to access with one hand from a center-pull or pop-out dispenser. They're faster to grab and wipe when fast clean-up is important.

Michael Perison, senior director of housekeeping for the Cleveland Cavaliers, says that while his staff doesn't clean the building exclusively with them, tubs of wipes are passed out to those who work in the office for their own desktop areas.

"Anything you can think of, our team will use wipes for it," he says. "Wipes serve so many purposes, I don't even know where to begin." He also noted that use of wipes increases during the cold and flu season.

Minimize cross-contamination. When cleaners move from one office or area to the next, they dispose of the wipe. With a microfiber cloth and spray, the cleaner may be tempted to keep using the cloth until there's visible dirt or the cloth is too saturated to absorb moisture.

"Because wipes are disposable, you're not contaminating an area with someone else's germs," says Ryan Myers, vice president of Myers Supply & Chemical in Little Rock, Ark.

Superior cleaning properties. Many wipes have a built-in abrasiveness so they are better at breaking through a biomass barrier than traditional cleaning cloths, points out Myers. When using a traditional alcohol or chlorine cleaner and a cloth, the surface has to be cleaned before disinfecting.

"With disinfectant wipes, you can clean and disinfect in one step," says Myers.

Fast sanitizing capability. Wipes with a fast kill time, such as alcohol wipes, can be a huge time and money saver for businesses that require fast turnover of equipment. Myers sees alcohol wipes being used frequently in tanning bed establishments and workout gyms for faster and more reliable sanitizing than a spray bottle and towel.

Eliminates overspraying. In food service or other sensitive environments, such as around electronics, using a wipe means no risk of spraying chemicals where they don't belong — including the accidental spraying of the cleaner's eyes or face.

No mixing, measuring or diluting required. The cleaning staff isn't exposed to dangerous chemicals that may require special handling or personal safety equipment.

Greener disposal. With wipes, there are no excess chemicals to be washed down the sink or flushed into the sanitary sewers. Many wipes are using chemicals that decompose into harmless compounds. Finally, dispensing tubs are recyclable or users can return them to their distributors to be refilled and reused.

Flexible sizing. Myers reports that 95 percent of his customers purchase wipes in tubs containing anywhere from 65 to 250 premoistened sheets. He also sells personal-size packs that can go on a housekeeping cart or in a pocket for smaller jobs.

Right Wipe, Right Job

These days there are tubs of pre-moistened wipes for nearly any application imaginable, from dispensing insect repellent to cleaning a cow's udder before milking. For more traditional housekeeping applications, there are wipes for all-purpose cleaning, glass, furniture, stainless steel, vinyl, carpeting, sanitizing and disinfecting.

While wipes are convenient, it's critical to choose the right wipe for each application to avoid damaging surfaces. Wood, paneling, chrome and wax surfaces might be sensitive, depending upon the active ingredients in the wipe.

"Most of your alcohol, ammonia or citric acid wipes can be used anywhere water can be used. They're not going to hurt a surface that's not affected by water," says Myers. When in doubt, however, only use a wipe that's specifically formulated for that surface.

For general cleaning to remove soil, use a multi-purpose cleaning wipe. When it comes to using wipes for infection control, it's important to understand whether you need to sanitize or disinfect. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but have quite a different meaning.

"A sanitizer is a chemical that reduces the number of microorganisms to a safe level," says Steve Hanson, owner of TheJanitorialStore.com in Rogers, Minn. Disinfectants, on the other hand, are required by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines to reduce the level of bacteria by 99.999 percent within a specified time frame.

Hanson says that cleaners need to think twice about whether they need to sanitize or disinfect.

"The biggest question I get from customers is, 'How safe are the wipes for the cleaner?'" he explains. "All disinfectants have a rating from one to four, based on harshness. I recommend that they use the safest disinfectant they can to get the job done."

The chemicals in disinfecting wipes are actually considered to be "antimicrobial pesticides" by the government, and precautions need to be taken to avoid overexposure.

"We always recommend that cleaners wear safety glasses and gloves with any chemical, whether it's a wipe or spray," says Hanson.

Disinfecting Benefits

When disinfecting is necessary, such as in healthcare environments, presaturated, disposable wipes are helping to eliminate cross-contamination by offering superior cleaning and faster kill times of life-threatening illnesses than traditional spray or bucket cleaning systems.

Several brands of disinfecting wipes have been approved for use against Staph bacteria and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which can develop into life-threatening blood and bone infections. Without adequate disinfection, these types of microbes can live for years on various surfaces.

Safety And Efficiency Training

As wipes become an increasingly popular cleaning tool, proper training on their use is important. As with any chemical, the user should read the label carefully for his/her own safety and the safety of the building occupant. While most wipes don't require rinsing, when there's a risk that harsh disinfecting chemicals could be ingested, such as in a day care, rinsing may be required.

In addition to precautions, the label will outline the required dwell time for effective sanitizing or disinfecting.

"Not all wipes are the same in relation to dwell time," warns Myers. How wet the wipes remain is critical to their effectiveness. "If the cap is left open, the wipes will tend to dry out toward the end of the cartridge, so you're not getting the adequate dwell time and disinfectant effect."

Training staff to change out wipes frequently is also essential, says Myers.

"When the wipes are embedded with soil and the amount of liquid left behind is low, you're just spreading germs," he says.

Fortunately, the beauty of wipes is they can be tossed in the trash and a new one is ready to go anytime the cleaner changes areas or feels the wipe is no longer dispensing adequate chemicals.

Maureen Connors Badding is a freelancer based in Milwaukee, Wis.