Are We Oversanitizing? How Much is Too Much? A Guide to Pandemic Cleaning

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Updated: October 14th, 2020 | Read time: 4 minutes

Hand sanitizing has become ubiquitous in our current pandemic. Sanitizing, along with wearing masks and social distancing, constitutes the basic trifecta at our disposal for combatting Covid. It also offers some semblance of control over what is essentially uncontrollable.

Woman With Mask Following Pandemic Cleaning Protocols Spraying Computer Monitor with Disinfectant |

This is not to say that sanitizing, cleaning and disinfecting don’t play a huge roll in staying safe during the Covid crisis. But for our efforts to be optimally effective, it’s important to understand the facts about how we can use a more rigorous approach with our everyday hygiene to stop the spread.

Below are some of the most common questions that address our current collective cleaning confusion.

Are cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing the same thing?

According to the CDC, there are important distinctions between the three categories:

Cleaning removes dirt, germs, viruses and bacteria, typically using soap and water and a healthy dose of elbow grease. While it doesn’t necessarily kill germs, since it removes them from surfaces and objects, including hands, it lowers the risk of spreading infection.

Disinfecting deploys chemicals to kill germs. Although it doesn’t necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, it does kills germ and thus lowers the risk of spreading infection.

Sanitizing reduces the number of germs on a surface to a safe level, as judged by public health standards. Sanitizers tend to work faster than disinfectants, which often need to be left on a surface for ten minutes to eradicate germs. Sanitizing, although less complete a process than disinfecting, is often just right for most of us, providing the sweet spot of removing the bulk of risk factors without trying to maintain a perfectly sterile environment.

Will oversanitizing weaken my immune system? 

Many of us wonder if all this germ-killing is going to do a number on our immune system.

The answer? Probably not. To date, there’s no scientific evidence of a direct link between frequent handwashing, sterile environments and a loss of adaptive immunity. Our immune system, it turns out, has other challenges to contend with to keep it on its toes. What goes in our mouth, organisms we pick up from surfaces between handwashing episodes and the people and pets we live with all serve up robust immune trials and tribulations.

What’s the difference between soap and water and hand sanitizer?

According to the CDC, there are important differences between washing hands with soap and water and using hand sanitizer. Soap and water removes all types of germs from hands, while sanitizer kills certain germs on the skin. Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers work quickly to reduce the number of germs in many situations, they should not be used indiscriminately for all situations. For example, soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing certain kinds of germs like norovirusCryptosporidium and Clostridioides difficile, as well as chemicals.

The CDC also notes an important caveat: If your hands are visibly dirty or greasy—for example, after gardening, playing outdoors, fishing or camping, soap and water is a much smarter choice. So if running water is available, wash your hands with soap and water instead.

What ingredients should you look for in a sanitizer?

The CDC recommends you use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least

60 percent ethyl alcohol (ethanol) or 70 percent isopropyl alcohol. Research has determined

that’s the percentage of alcohol effective for killing bacteria and viruses on our hands. The alcohol works by denaturing the protective outer proteins of microbes and dissolving their membranes.

How best to keep house to fight coronavirus transmission?

You can reduce potential spread of the coronavirus by cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces, such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets and sinks, especially if you or someone you live with has been exposed to the virus. But for routine household needs, using a disinfectant is most critical for bathrooms and kitchens where raw meat is handled, prepped or cooked.

Look for products with active ingredients such as ethanol, hydrogen peroxide or quaternary ammonium. Bleach is also an effective tool against coronavirus. The CDC suggests making a disinfecting solution by combining 4 teaspoons (about 20 milliliters) of household bleach and 1 quart (slightly less than 1 liter) of water.

Of course, read and follow product instructions, including what precautions to take when using the product. Many disinfectants need to remain on surfaces for some time to be effective, often referred to as the contact time. Check the product label for those specifics too.

How can I keep my electronics clean?

For electronics, the Mayo Clinic recommends cleaning cell phones, computers, laptops, tablets and remote controls with disinfecting wipes that are 70% alcohol. Wipe the face of the phone and along the sides and back where you hold it. Let it air dry. The same goes for all other electronics.

What about bringing home groceries? What’s the safest method for staying safe?

Many people are now availing themselves on curbside or at-home delivery to reduce contact, but for many old school shopping in supermarkets is still the norm. Whichever way you get your groceries, you’ll want to handle them carefully when you get them home.

At the very least, you should wash your hands after unpacking and putting away your groceries. If you want to be extra vigilant, you can wipe or wash cans and boxes of food before storing them to reduce possible virus content. For fruits and vegetables, scrubbing them for at least 20 seconds with soap and water should do the trick.

As a final precaution, wash any tables, countertops, or other surfaces that were touched by your groceries or grocery bags. If you opt for cloth bags, take your hygiene up a notch by laundering and drying them thoroughly before their next use.