Limiting how we use disinfecting chemicals can help us balance the need to protect ourselves against viruses with our body’s need for exposure to healthy bacteria.

As images from the front lines of the pandemic beam into our homes, keeping our living areas safe and clean has taken on new urgency. Those of us who once opted for baking soda and vinegar over chemical cleansers now find ourselves reaching for bleach and hand sanitizer–when they’re available.

But could we be overdoing the use of harsh chemicals in our homes in an effort to keep our family safe? Is there a difference between cleaning and disinfecting, and are both always necessary? If not, how can we know which one is required and when?

The first thing to remember is that cleaning and disinfecting have different purposes.

Cleaning vs. disinfecting: what's the difference?


Cleaning uses soap and water to break down grime and grease and wash away dirt and debris. It’s most commonly understood as the removal of visible stains and substances, so that everything looks bright and new. According to the Center for Disease Control, thorough cleaning also removes most germs—including viruses and bacteria—from surfaces. That’s why it’s so important to wash our hands.


Disinfecting has a different aim than simply making things look clean. The best disinfectants will kill any germs remaining on a surface. Disinfectants commonly use strong ingredients like quaternary ammonium chloride, peroxide, or bleach-based substances. These substances work best when used on a surface that has first been cleaned using soap and water.

The harms of too much disinfectant

Disinfecting too widely comes with its own problems. Many of the ingredients in disinfectants could have unintended side effects on the people you’re trying to protect. Quaternary ammonium chloride (or QUATS) are known to trigger asthma in people who suffer from the illness. Triclosan is an antimicrobial chemical present in some disinfectants. It has been associated with a decrease in thyroid hormones. Other chemicals carry the possibility of creating superbugs due to increased bacterial resistance.

Although front-line businesses like grocery stores may need to disinfect regularly, not every home needs to treat all surfaces to the same degree.

Not only that, some people have been unwittingly poisoning themselves while trying to sanitize their homes. At the end of April, the Center for Disease Control released a study showing that calls to U.S. poison centers about cleaning and disinfectant exposures went up by 20 percent. The cases included a preschooler who ingested hand sanitizer and a woman who mixed up a solution of water, bleach, and vinegar to sanitize her groceries (mixing bleach with an acid like vinegar produces chlorine gas, which can be deadly at high levels). Canada has seen a similar increase in harmful exposures.

Although front-line businesses like grocery stores may need to disinfect regularly, not every home needs to treat all surfaces to the same degree. According to the CDC, disinfecting high-use areas like doorknobs, toilets, desks, handles, light switches, and faucets is enough for routine cleaning. Expanding these areas is only necessary if sick people are in your home.

Related: Can Too Much Disinfectant Make Your Child Fat?

How to clean and disinfect the non-toxic way

As noted above, cleaning and disinfecting is a two-step process.

  1. Clean

  2. To start, clean all areas thoroughly using a natural, all-purpose cleaner like castile soap. Recommendations state that cleaning before disinfecting is necessary to make disinfecting products work effectively. Additionally, soap helps break down the fatty membrane in a virus, because it competes with the components that hold the virus together.

    Related: Non-Toxic Home Cleaning Guide

  3. Disinfect

  4. Next, identify the places you want to disinfect following the guidelines above. Treat these areas using either a home-mixed disinfectant or one of the products approved by the EPA for killing the germs that cause COVID-19. Health Canada has a similar list for approved products.

    One of the most non-toxic options for disinfecting is hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is usually sold at drug stores in a brown bottle at 3 to 5 percent concentrations. You can also buy oxygen bleach (a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and sodium carbonate) at 5 percent concentration in larger bottles.

    Use oxygen bleach or hydrogen peroxide at full strength and leave on surfaces for five minutes for complete disinfection. There’s no need to wipe off either of these products, because they break down into oxygen and water. When not in use, store them away from the light to prevent them from degrading.

non-toxic disinfectants

What about disinfecting cleaners?

Dual products with cleaning and disinfecting capabilities are not as effective as two-step products. That’s because removing germs and grime—or cleaning first—enables disinfectant to reach all surfaces and more effectively kill whatever has been left behind. Since disinfecting products must remain on a surface for a set period of time (known as the ‘dwell time’), it’s more effective to remove dirt and grime first, and then disinfect.

Our favorite non-toxic cleaning products

When shopping for cleaning products to help you keep your home safe, remember that not all products with the word ‘natural’ are created equal. Some cleaning products contain chemicals that trigger allergies and asthma. Others contain harmful fragrances, hormone disruptors, skin irritants, and ingredients that are known carcinogens. Our favorite recommendations include the following products.

Liquid castile soap

non-toxic liquid castile soap Castile soap is made with 100% vegetable oils, which makes it safe for use on almost any surface. One of the best things about liquid castile soap is its versatility in the home. Dilute with water for a general cleaner or use at greater concentrations for stain removal and hand washing. It’s gentle enough to wash porous surfaces while still being an effective stain remover. But avoid mixing castile soap with vinegar: the two ingredients combine to form a milky film that requires a lot of rinsing to remove.

Traditional castile soap (so-named because it originated in Castile, Spain) is made from olive oil. Today most castile soaps are made from a blend of oils such as coconut, olive, and sunflower seed, along with other plant-based ingredients.

Skoy cloths

reusable skoy clothSkoy cloths are highly durable and long lasting. Made from natural cotton and wood-based cellulose pulp, they take the place of paper towels, sponges, and cloths. In an average household, one Skoy Cloth is equivalent to 15 rolls of paper towels. They are naturally antimicrobial and don’t smell.

After using, toss in the washing machine to sanitize at temperatures up to 190°F (90°C). You can also disinfect Skoy cloths by wetting them and microwaving them for 3 minutes.

At the end of their lifespan, Skoy cloths are biodegradable and compostable.

Glass and window cleaner

non-toxic window and glass cleanerCitraClear is a streak-free window and glass cleaner naturally derived from real citrus extracts. It contains only four ingredients—no synthetic fragrances or dyes—but still manages to result in a superior shine.

Rated A+ by the Environmental Working Group, CitraClear works on glass, windows, counters, chrome, appliances and more.

Related: 6 Green Spring Cleaning Tips to Refresh Your Home

Homemade DIY cleaners: cleaning recipes that work

Often the cleaners we need can be made with ingredients we have around our home. Over the years we’ve found the following recipes very helpful.

All purpose cleaner

1/2 cup vinegar
1/4 cup baking soda
1/2 gallon of water

Mix together and use as a standalone cleaner or before disinfecting to remove water deposits on shower stall panels, chrome fixtures, windows, bathroom mirrors, and more.

Vinyl and linoleum cleaner

1 cup vinegar
2-3 drops of olive oil
1 gallon warm water

Mix together vinegar and olive oil. Add to warm water and use sparingly on linoleum.

Tile cleaner

1 cup white vinegar
1 gallon water

Mix together and apply to floors and tile walls, rinsing with clear water. Most floorings can be easily cleaned using a solution of vinegar and water.

For more cleaning recipes, see our comprehensive non-toxic cleaning guide.

Cleaning for health

While there are circumstances when thorough disinfecting is necessary for safety, we can still preserve our long-term health by reaching for the best options. Limiting where and how often we use disinfecting chemicals will help us balance out the need to combat the threat of viruses with our body’s need for exposure to healthy bacteria. Ultimately, we all want to stay safe.

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