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Many disinfectant detergents are often misrepresented as awesome, almost magical, germ killers and effective cleaners that will leave surfaces dirt and film-free all in one step.

In reality, most disinfectant detergents contain just enough detergent to help the active disinfectant component penetrate the surface to improve contact with the microorganism you’re trying to remove. These products do not have enough detergency to fully clean, especially on more heavily soiled surfaces.

The remaining residual soil blocks the active disinfectant component from contacting the microorganism. For a disinfectant detergent to thoroughly clean, multiple cleaning passes will be required.

In addition to needing direct surface contact, all disinfectants require a dwell time to set wet on a clean surface to be effective. You can’t just spray and wipe disinfectants for them to work. When a surface is cleaned correctly, the disinfectant is applied and left to set wet for the required dwell time so it’s effective.

If you’re using disposable disinfectant wipes to clean and disinfect you’ll need to use multiple wipes. Not only do you need to remove all soil from the surface first, you’ll also have to continue to use even more wipes to keep that surface area wet. Disinfectants have a required wet dwell time in order for it to be effective against the specific microorganism you’re targeting. It’s essential to thoroughly clean a surface with a high-quality cleaning solution before applying a disinfectant. This is why disinfectant label instructions state “when used on a pre-cleaned, non-porous surface.”

Green chemical sprayer being used to disinfect doorway handles.

The surface will not remain disinfected forever. Once that surface is contacted, whether directly or through a build-up of airborne particulate, the surface will be contaminated and no longer be infection-free. This entire cleaning and the disinfection process will need to be repeated.

Something to keep in mind is that, in the United States, the EPA registers and certifies disinfectants under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). To the EPA, disinfectants are considered “antimicrobial pesticides” that destroy or suppress the growth of harmful microorganisms. These are mostly poisons and in larger quantities can become dangerous and unhealthy to people working and living in treated areas.

Disinfectant wipes directions for use.

That is why the EPA also requires all food contact surfaces to be thoroughly rinsed with water after proper cleaning and disinfection. This rinsing is to ensure that the residual disinfectant film is fully removed before any food contact. All EPA registered pesticides must have an EPA registration number and be shown on each product label.

Green chemical sprayer being used to disinfect table tops.

Disinfectants do serve an essential purpose but they’re not as magical as they’re advertised to be. Thoroughly cleaning hard surfaces with a high-quality cleaner is the most important step you can do to ensure a safe and sanitary surface. Then, when needed, you can choose the best EPA certified disinfectant for the microorganism you want to remove, follow label instructions, and rest assured it will deliver the highest disinfectant efficacy.