At Moms Against Cooties, we all agree that a clean indoor environment is a must. It helps keep our families in the best of health. But what exactly is “clean”?

That depends on the living space. When we ask – or bribe, or beg, or bargain with – our kids to clean their rooms, we’re really only expecting them to straighten up and organize stray objects.

There may be some dusting and vacuuming involved, but this is very different from cleaning a bathroom or kitchen where germs present a more obvious risk.

Cleaning vs. Disinfecting

Cleaning uses soap (or perhaps detergent) and water to physically remove grime. Unfortunately, cleaning tools such as sponges and towels are not always clean themselves, and may simply move germs from one surface to another.

Disinfecting, on the other hand, by definition kills most of the germs on a surface or stops them from reproducing. Sanitizing is another relevant term – defined by as lowering the number of germs on surfaces so that they meet public health standards – and may involve cleaning or disinfection, or both. Lastly, sterilizing destroys all forms of microbial life and is most often needed in healthcare and laboratory settings.

C (cleaning) Before D (disinfection)

If disinfecting a surface is the task at hand – for example, you might be tackling a countertop that has just been in contact with raw meat or fish – the order of operations is important. Just remember that “C” (cleaning) comes before “D” (disinfection).

First, clean the surface with detergent or general household cleaner to remove any visible food particles. Second, rinse the surface with water and then apply disinfectant.

Looking for a quick, low-cost, home-made disinfectant?  Simply add one-half tablespoon of ordinary household bleach to one-half gallon of plain water. Apply the solution to the cleaned surface and let it air dry. That’s it! No rinsing is required at that bleach concentration.

Which Disinfectants Are Most Effective?

Chlorine bleach is an inexpensive, effective surface disinfectant at very low dilutions. A 2011 Water Quality & Health Council survey of 1,000 American adults found that nearly half of those who responded (47 percent) overestimated the amount of bleach needed in a gallon of water to kill common foodborne germs.

In a 2009 study [1], five household cleaning products were tested for their ability to destroy three common kitchen germs (E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella and Listeria). The five products were chlorine bleach solution, hydrogen peroxide, white vinegar, lemon/lime juice and baking soda.

The only product that successfully destroyed all three types of foodborne bacteria was chlorine bleach – a product that is also effective against viruses, and is widely recommended for disinfecting surfaces against the extremely contagious norovirus (check out these great norovirus posters).

Safety First

Of course, it’s essential always to keep chlorine bleach out of the reach of children. Make chlorine bleach solutions fresh each day, as they break down over time; use the chart below to calculate how much you expect to need for the day. And remember never to combine chlorine bleach with ammonia-containing products.

Household Disinfection

Household Task

Regular Strength Bleach in 1 Gallon of Water

High Strength Bleach in 1 Gallon of Water

Cleanup/disinfection following vomiting or diarrhea on a porous surface (e.g., wood)

1 2/3 cup

1 cup

Wall and floor disinfection following flooding

¾ cup

½ cup

Laundry disinfection and whitening (for a full load of laundry in a washing machine)

½ cup

1/3 cup

Disinfecting nonporous surfaces (e.g., vinyl, ceramic tile, porcelain) against norovirus (“the stomach bug”)

1/3 cup

¼ cup

Disinfecting the diaper changing area; disinfecting hard surfaces against flu transmission

¼ cup

2 ½ tablespoons

Disinfecting kitchen cloths

3 tablespoons

2 tablespoons

Routine disinfection of food-contact surfaces

1 tablespoon

2 teaspoons


Happy Spring cleaning from our families to yours! Remember to let us know your favorite cleaning tips.

1 Yang, H., Kendall, P.A., Medeiros, L. and Sofos, J.N. (2009). Inactivation of Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Salmonella Typhimurium with Compounds Available in Households. Journal of Food Protection, v. 72, No. 6, pp. 1201-120ne8.

2 When disinfecting against flu virus, leave disinfecting solution on surface for 10 minutes, then rinse.

3 When disinfecting against norovirus, air dry after applying disinfecting solution. If object is intended for food or mouth contact, rinse with plain water before using.