EXPLAINED Series: disinfection techniques

Comparing Disinfection Techniques in This Era of Covid-19

Living through a global pandemic, much of our individual attention is on keeping ourselves and our homes clean. Increased attention to disinfection in and of itself is a positive first step. But beyond that first step, there are many different disinfection techniques at your disposal. It can be confusing, and perhaps even intimidating, to pick the “right” technique among the group.

In this article, we want to further explore the benefits and drawbacks of various disinfection techniques against germs and viruses. Whether you are looking for a certain disinfection technique to stop the spread of Covid-19 or normal germs in your day-to-day life, these techniques may be able to help.

Three Broad Categories

Before talking about those distinctions, however, it’s important to explore the three major categories of cleaning. They are sterilization, disinfection, and sanitization. While they may sound the same, there are some differences between all three.

When thinking about sterilization, disinfection, and sanitization, it is helpful to envision a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is the complete eradication of germs and viruses. On the other end of the spectrum are methods or tools that remove unwanted substances, but are less effective in doing so compared to the opposite side of the spectrum.

Sterilization is at the end of the spectrum where all viruses or germs are killed. To put it more formally, sterilization is the scientific or natural process that completely eradicates pathogens from an item. It is often used in the medical context, as doctors and nurses need to ensure that medical tools are completely free from bacteria and viruses. 

Disinfection is in the middle of the spectrum. It is used to reduce the number of organisms to a near-minimal presence so that they do not cause harm to healthy individuals. Compared to sterilization, however, disinfection doesn’t completely eliminate the pathogen or organism. It is 99.9999% effective at destroying microbial life, except for bacterial spores.

Finally, there is sanitization. Like the other methods, its goal is to reduce the number of pathogens. Some of the more common sanitization products include bleaching agents and soap. Having said that, some viruses do not respond to sanitization. It is 99.999% effective at destroying bacterial life (except for bacterial spores). You’ll notice that this difference between sanitization and disinfection is extremely slight, yet it can make a huge difference. For instance, one million pathogens can fit on the head of a pin. If you are disinfecting, only one pathogen will remain on the pin. If you are sanitizing, however, ten will remain, which is a huge difference. 

Comparing Different Disinfection Techniques

With these three broad categories in mind, we can now take a closer look at the pros and cons of different disinfection techniques. Each technique has its place, so understanding these differences can help you choose different techniques in different scenarios.

To start, let’s talk about ultraviolet (“UV”) light. UV light is an extremely powerful way to eradicate germs, fungi, and microbes from a surface. It is invisible to the human eye and has wavelengths between 200 and 300 nanometers, making them germicidal. It is chemical-free, leaves behind no residue, and doesn’t require you to transport or handle toxic materials.

But on the other hand, there are some downsides. UV light isn’t for everyone. UV light can be dangerous. It can not only penetrate human skin and cause injury, but it can damage plastics and rubber materials over time. Along with this, UV light is big, cumbersome, and expensive. Even though it is extremely efficient, it often isn’t an ideal solution in residential and SMB settings.

From UV light, there is thermal fogging. Essentially, thermal heating turns cleaning solutions into heated fog. The fog is then used to clean pathogens found in air and surfaces. Essentially, thermal foggers produce extremely fine particles which can then penetrate hard-to-reach places. But like with UV light, you must be extremely careful when using thermal fogging. It requires additional personal protective equipment (“PPE”) to avoid breathing in the fog and having particles pass through your skin. Along with this, thermal fogging requires a larger time investment than some of the methods below. You’ll likely need to hire a professional to get the job done.

Closely related to thermal fogging is dry fogging. Dry fogging is similar but uses high-pressure air to convert cleaning solutions into tiny particles. Dry fog is less than 20 microns in size and can leave the surface visibly dry when penetrating surfaces. As for downsides, however, dry fogging is harder to control directionally. It may be “invisible” and is a particle that can be influenced and affected by currents. 

Next, let’s talk about electrostatic spraying. Electrostatic spraying essentially applies positive charges to liquid droplets from cleaning solutions. These charges are applied right before the droplets leave a spray nozzle. These charged droplets act like a magnet in that they “seek out” a negative or neutral ground charge. This process creates a “wraparound” effect and essentially coats all surfaces—regardless of the direction of the spray. As for downsides, however, you need specialized equipment and there is always the potential for reckless misuse. High touch areas require more treatment—specifically a combination of electrostatic spraying and daily accessories (like wipes and good hygiene).

There is also surface wiping or cleaning. This is one of the simplest and easiest methods to remove germs from a surface. It can remove visible soil and dirt from a surface. But having said this, surface wiping and cleaning is in the disinfection camp. Compared to the other methods that have been mentioned, it is one of the least effective in completely removing pathogens from a surface. If you are looking for complete eradication of germs, pathogens, viruses, and other substances, you will want to use UV light or other powerful germ removal methods. However, disinfecting wipes can be a quick and easy way to remove many pathogens from a hard surface. You don’t want to use the same disinfecting wipe on multiple surfaces, however, so keep this in mind if you choose to embrace surface wiping or cleaning.

Finally, there are things like washing your hands and using wipes. Washing your hands is known to be one of the best ways to prevent the spread of germs from person to person. Wipes can also be another quick and easy way to remove germs or pathogens from a surface. But as you can guess, these methods aren’t as effective as the others listed above. While they may be quick and easy to do, you aren’t eliminating as many pathogens and germs as you would with the other methods. Along with this, many people do not wash their hands correctly. In fact, one study found that 95% of people are doing it incorrectly. It’s important to wet your hands with clean, running water, lather both hands (including the back of your hands and between your fingers and under your nails), and then scrubbing your hands for 20 seconds before rinsing and drying.

Making Your Choice

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to remove germs or pathogens in your day-to-day life. Nonetheless, these methods have real differences. They each have their weaknesses and strengths, meaning that you have to closely analyze your needs and objectives before settling on one method.

Therefore, we encourage you to take it slow. Closely consider these pros and cons and come to an objective decision. By doing this, you can greatly increase the chances that you select the method that accomplishes all of your cleaning goals.

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