The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies sanitizers and disinfectants as pesticides because they have kill claims. Because they kill, they have an inherent toxicity, but not all are created equal. Facility cleaning managers should always incorporate products that kill the pathogens of concern within their facility, but choose the least toxic product by comparing the active ingredients.

Here are some facts to help clarify the infection control landscape:

  • For a product to be registered by the EPA, it must go through extensive testing at accredited facilities. The tests ensure that the product actually kills the microbial species it says it will kill in the dwell time and at the concentration stated by the manufacturer. This is why using these products as specified on the label is so important.
  • Sanitizers and disinfectants are different in what they kill. Compare the active ingredients in chemicals to determine which product best suits the needs of the facility.
  • Dwell time — which is the time a product needs to be on a surface, in contact with the microbe, in order to kill it sufficiently — is important. If a product says the dwell time is five minutes, the surface has to be wet for five minutes, then rinsed or wiped. Products that do not need a rinse may often be left to air dry with no harm being done to surfaces.
  • Concentration is important. This is the amount of active ingredient needed to kill specific species of microbes in the corresponding dwell time.
  • Cleaning is an essential first step. Do not try to disinfect or sanitize a dirty surface. Cleaning removes many of the microbes form surfaces. It also removes soils that will hide microbes, protecting them from being killed by sanitizers and disinfectants.
  • You can do more harm than good if you don’t sanitize and disinfect correctly. Proper training processes on how to use these chemicals is essential to the success of a program.
  • Sanitizers kill to a log 3 reduction, or 99.9 percent. This is a reduction in microbial species, but not necessarily an elimination of microbes to levels considered safe by public health codes or regulations. Sanitizers are food contact products, meaning they are safe to use on a surface that food will touch after the surface is cleaned, sanitized and dried. They have a shorter dwell time and lower concentration than disinfectants because they are not killing every germ on a surface.
  • Disinfectants kill to a log 5 reduction, or 99.999 percent — a reduction in microbial species to nearly zero. Disinfectants traditionally require longer dwell times to meet kill claims and generally at higher concentrations than sanitizers. Disinfectants also kill more types of microbial species such as norovirus, the flu and cold virus, MRSA, C.diff and more. Again, check the label of the products being considered against the outbreaks your facility sees each year and select a product that will handle your needs efficiently.

In the world of commercial cleaning where budgets are cut, time is short and labor can be transient, understanding the best processes, procedures and products the industry has to offer is key. In the case of cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, great strides have been made in formulations, making the processes faster, more efficient and less toxic then ever.

To combat infections, facility cleaning managers can capitalize on industry advancements by implementing daily cleaning processes that incorporate sanitizing and disinfecting. Being proactive will help mitigate outbreaks and control the spread of infections.

Heidi Wilcox is an applied microbiologist, presenter, educator and trainer in the cleaning industry. She is also the president and founder of Wilcox EVS, a consultancy specializing in cleaning and disinfecting for health. Working in the worlds of science, engineering and commercial cleaning, Heidi examines challenges within facilities and provides solutions to streamline processes and protocols. She advocates for reduced use of synthetic chemicals, which will also decrease hazards and exposures to staff and building occupants. Heidi has been integral in working with facilities to set up proactive infection/mitigation protocols for infection control.

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Five Chemical Considerations And How They Fight Infections