Poke around your house and you’ll find that it’s harboring some dirty little secrets. Well, more like a lot of microscopic germs that, although invisible to the naked eye, reside in plain sight. While you might be diligent about cleaning things like countertops, toilet bowls, and floors, some of the most frequently touched surfaces tend to be the least frequently disinfected.
Cold, flu, and other viruses, including, yes, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, can remain active anywhere from hours to days under the right conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
“Data from surface survival studies indicate that a 99% reduction in infectious SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses can be expected under typical indoor environmental conditions within three days (72 hours) on common nonporous surfaces like stainless steel, plastic, and glass.”
So although you’re more likely to contract illness from being in close contact with someone who is already infected — think inhaling the air around someone who has just coughed or sneezed — you can still get sick from touching contaminated objects. Light switches, doorknobs, handles, and cabinet pulls are examples of some obvious household surfaces that are frequently touched. These areas are best washed with household cleaners that contain soap or detergent which reduce the number of germs on surfaces thereby decreasing the risk of infection from contact.
Think through other items with which you have frequent contact: Your computer keyboard, mouse, tablets, touchscreens, smartphone, and remote control are also some of the worst offenders. A University of Arizona study concluded that a smartphone is 10 times dirtier than a toilet seat. An easy way to clean electronics is with disinfecting wipes or a clean microfiber cloth dampened with a solution that is a minimum of 70% isopropyl alcohol. Another convenient option is putting the phone in a sterilizing box that utilizes ultraviolet light to kill bacteria; there are also handheld UV light-emitting models that can be used to sanitize a variety of surfaces.
Okay, so pay attention to surfaces that get a lot of use … but is there such a thing as too clean? The answer is yes — and no. A popular myth that has circulated since the onset of the pandemic is that the lack of social interaction and extreme measures some take to ward away germs could lead to reduced immunity that has been acquired over time due to everyday exposure. Yet science doesn’t suggest this: Our immune system won’t “forget” the natural protection it’s built up over the course of a lifetime.
On the other hand, the “hygiene hypothesis” is the idea that individuals who are exposed to a variety of microbes in childhood build better immunity. Some evidence suggests that children who are exposed to a greater variety of germs from a young age are less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune
Cleaning vs. Disinfecting vs. Sanitizing
Cleaning removes germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces or objects. Cleaning works by using soap (or detergent) and water to physically remove germs from surfaces. This process does not necessarily kill germs, but by removing them, it lowers their numbers and the risk of spreading infection.
Disinfecting kills germs on surfaces or objects. Disinfecting works by using chemicals that kill germs on contact, a process that does not necessarily clean dirty surfaces or remove germs, but can further lower the risk of spreading infection.
Sanitizing lowers the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level, as judged by public health standards or requirements. This process works by either cleaning or disinfecting surfaces or objects to lower the risk of spreading infection.