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You’re cleaning all wrong: A science-based guide for fellow germaphobes

One of my first memories is the pungent smell of rubbing alcohol. Every evening, my mother sprayed the kitchen sink and counters with isopropyl alcohol to disinfect them. And no wonder: she had cared for me for months when I caught a nasty salmonella infection as a toddler. Bacteria were her nemesis. “I became a real nut about it,” she admitted recently. “I really became a germaphobe.”

The pandemic has sparked heightened levels of germ paranoia, but not necessarily a greater awareness of proper cleaning practices. Credit:iStock

It’s no surprise, then, that I grew up to be a germaphobe too. I keep a dizzying array of antimicrobial wipes in the basement; have at least seven bottles of hand sanitiser stashed around my house and car; and keep an emergency bag tucked away in my closet stuffed with bleach wipes and other strong disinfecting paraphernalia should the dreaded stomach bug strike our household. (I should add: There’s a difference between cleaning and tidying. I’m a zealot with the former but lazy with the latter.)

Today, because of the pandemic, I’m not alone in my germ paranoia. In a survey last year of 2000 US adults, 42 per cent of respondents said they identified as germaphobes. But our fears aren’t always well-founded, as I learnt when I interviewed chemists and cleaning experts. It turns out, many popular cleaning practices aren’t effective, and some are just unnecessary.

Focus on the bad bugs

I’m often guilty of thinking that viruses and bacteria are unequivocally bad but many bacteria do good things – like those in our gut that help us digest food and build our immunity. “Microbes are absolutely everywhere,” said Erica Hartmann, an environmental engineer at Northwestern University. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Research suggests that children who grow up on farms, surrounded by microbes, have a lower risk of developing asthma and allergies than other kids.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, let me explain the scientific difference between cleaning and disinfecting. Cleaning removes things – dirt, crumbs, germs, dog hair – from surfaces. Disinfecting kills things – typically viruses and bacteria. Cleaning is something we may want to do regularly, Hartmann said, but we need to worry about killing (disinfecting) only dangerous, disease-causing germs. And we can often predict where they will be.

“Microbes are absolutely everywhere, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

For instance, you probably don’t need to disinfect your kitchen counters every day, unless you have handled raw meat. You also don’t need to obsessively disinfect your bathroom unless someone in your home has an infection that spreads through stools, like salmonella or norovirus.

For standard messes – like when my 11-year-old drips maple syrup all over the kitchen table at breakfast – you don’t need to reach for a disinfectant wipe when soap and water will remove the sticky residue. (Soap is also great for removing germs from your hands, but you need to build a good lather and wash for 20 seconds.)

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