How to Clean Your Home, According to a Microbiologist at Harvard

microbiologist
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

In the wake of coronavirus, or COVID-19, there’s been a lot of talk about hygiene practices that help minimize the risk of transmission – frequent hand washing, coughing into your sleeve, not touching your face etc.

And while all those are great ways to not get sick, bacteria and viruses can spread in so many different ways – like by touching something that someone else touched.

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With social distancing and self-isolation measures in place a lot of us are at home for way more time than we’re used to and, as a result, we are touching ALL. THE. THINGS.

And because I’m a hypochondriac I wanted to find out the best way to clean your home to make sure no one catches anything. Also I can’t be the only one who’s just noticed how dirty my home is since having to be stuck inside it 24/7?

So I spoke with microbiologist Francesca Tomasi who’s currently a PhD candidate at Harvard University where she’s studying about the best ways to do this.

And whether you’ve decided out of boredom to clean your entire house or you’re worried your roommate may actually have the ‘VID, you’ll now know how to make sure your home is beyond squeaky clean.

But first things first, cleaning is not the same as disinfecting.

Tomasi explains that cleaning is when you get rid of dirt and impurities, like germs, from surfaces – but cleaning alone doesn’t kill germs.

Disinfecting, however, takes place when you use chemicals to kill germs on the surface.

“So cleaning substantially reduces the risk of spreading infection; disinfection, when done properly, makes this risk pretty much zero,” she says.

(Side note: Not all germs are bad. According to Tomasi, studies show how important it is to be exposed to germs in the environment as we grow up. Being exposed to germs can help strengthen our immune systems.)

So, now that you understand those key difference between cleaning and disinfecting, where can you start?

What to Clean

Tomasi says to clean first, then disinfect. She recommends focusing on “high touch” areas, aka things you touch all the time – like cellphones and computer keyboards.

“Cellphones are sort of like extensions of our hands. We pick them up, put them down on random surfaces, pass them to other people, and press them against our ears. Dare I say we sometimes cough or sneeze on them too? We don’t wash our hands every time we pick up our phone or put it down, and studies have shown – long before this pandemic – that our phones are anything but sterile,” she says.

Other “high touch” surface areas that should be cleaned regularly according to Health Canada are things like keys, door knobs, taps, kids toys, remotes, toilets, light switches and bedside tables.

Also, if you share a bathroom with someone who’s sick, Tomasi recommends disinfecting the bathroom after each use.

But pandemic or not, it’s good to make it a habit of cleaning your home.

“The main reason we clean our homes is to prevent the accumulation of things like dust, mold, and mildew. You are much more likely to get highly unpleasant, and in extreme cases, debilitating allergies from these than you are to get an infection from something you tracked in with your shoes,” she says.

That being said, shoes do see a lot of stuff: dirt, animal feces etc. So Tomasi advises keeping your shoes in a designated area.

What to Clean With

If you’ve ever walked down the cleaning products aisle and felt overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Picking the right product for the task at hand is crucial. So if you’re looking to clean, an all-purpose cleaner is a good place to start.

“They usually have some type of soap or detergent in them that helps wash or wipe away germs. Sometimes, products labeled as “cleaners” include antimicrobial ingredients that can kill some (but not necessarily all) bacteria,” explains Tomasi.

But as Tomasi notes, COVID-19 is caused by a virus so antibacterial chemicals aren’t guaranteed to kill it.

However, if disinfecting is what your after you need to double check that the ingredients have bleach or alcohol. “Usually with at least 70% alcohol,” says Tomasi.

You can find a good list of disinfectants, along with information on how effective they are, on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website.

But even if you choose to ignore all this advice, just make sure at the very least that you’re washing your hands!

“The reason everyone is emphasizing hand-washing is that [coronavirus] is helpless without a way to reach your lungs. The act of touching something contaminated and then touching your face makes this happen,” says Tomasi. “So if you’re thinking about household cleaning (and even if you aren’t), this should be your priority.”

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