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15 Ways You’re Using Disinfectants Wrong

From using the wrong products to not leaving the right ones on long enough to work its magic, these are the mistakes you need to avoid to stay safe.

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Housekeeping, House CleaningAlexander Medvedev/Getty Images

You’re cleaning…but are you disinfecting?

It’s more important than ever to disinfect your home properly, but there’s a good chance that you might not know how to do that—not really. For starters, you need to know that there’s a big difference between cleaning and disinfecting. “While cleaning removes viruses, disinfection neutralizes them with chemicals, so you will need to both clean and disinfect,” says Elena Ledoux, founder of the Las Vegas-based Superb Maids. “The most effective cleaning method is soap and hot water. For bacteria, soap will force the microbes to release from surfaces and break water tension, moving the germs to a rag or down the sink.” Need more help? We’ve got you covered—here’s the difference between disinfecting, cleaning, and sanitizing.

Viruses such as COVID-19, SARS, and MERS have a lipid (fatty) layer, meaning it’s a lot more stubborn and difficult to kill. “According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), soap destroys this lipid layer, stopping the virus from being able to infect you,” Ledoux explains. “Disinfectants that work [on surfaces] are bleach, alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide. Vinegar, ammonia, witch hazel, and tea tree oil do not work as disinfectants.” By the way, this is why Clorox is so good at killing germs.

To help you stay safe (now and always), we asked cleaning experts to weigh in on the disinfecting missteps you need to avoid.

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Chinese woman cleaning the kitchenyongyuan/Getty Images

You reach for the bleach for a quick cleanup

Bleach will do the trick but only if you use it correctly. “Bleach generally takes four-plus minutes of contact time to kill viruses,” says Ledoux. “If you use bleach, I [actually] recommend a 10- to 15-minute dwell time.” Alcohol concentrations of 60 to 95 percent, on the other hand, take only 30 seconds of contact time to neutralize COVID-19. Aside from disinfecting, here are 10 different ways you’re not using bleach—but should.

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Cleaning on the tile floor.wattanaphob/Getty Images

You use a disinfectant with a low alcohol concentration

Eco-friendly products are great, but these cleaning options might not always have a high enough alcohol or bleach concentration to kill COVID-19. That’s why reading labels is so important, especially now. In terms of alcohol-based products, you should be looking for products that have at least a 70 percent alcohol concentration. If you can’t find your normal go-to products? “Opt for cleaning alcohol itself, which is normally sold in pharmacies,” advises Ledoux. “The content is important because the higher concentration kills the coronavirus in less than one minute. Plus, it’s effective, doesn’t leave a residue, and evaporates.” Check out these other household products that kill coronavirus, according to Consumer Reports.

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Mid adult woman reading label of disinfectantzoranm/Getty Images

You don’t read the fine print

Not reading a product’s label on how to use it is a common mistake made by most consumers, says Ledoux. “[Professional cleaners] follow the label. The manufacturers perform extensive testing and make their instructions based on that,” she notes. “Many consumers don’t read those labels, and, as a result, don’t allow sufficient dwell time for the product to be effective. If we use a disinfecting spray that’s labeled for two to three minutes but wiped it after 10 seconds, there will be very minimal, if any, cleaning and sanitizing effect.” For example, here are the directions on a can of Lysol: “Pre-clean surface. Spray surface until thoroughly wet. Leave for 2 minutes before wiping.”

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wiping a door lock with disinfectant liquidFreer Law/Getty Images

You ignore your home’s biggest problem areas

“While floors get dirty, we typically aren’t going to get sick from dirty floors,” says Trisha Lake, owner of TLC Cleaning in North Dakota and Minnesota. “Light switches and doorknobs are way more likely to get us sick. Break out those toothbrushes and start scrubbing those light switches two-plus times per week.”

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white antibacterial wet wipe on wooden tableMaksims Grigorjevs/Getty Images

You use disinfecting wipes instead of a spray

“Wipes are convenient to keep in your purse, briefcase, or backpack for use when you are away from home and need to touch surfaces like shopping carts, door handles, and so forth,” explains Jim Epstein, CEO of Intercon Chemical & Clearly Better, which makes PURE Hard Surface Disinfectant. “When at home, though, it is best to use a spray disinfectant. Wipes become dirty quickly, and you can overload a wipe, so its disinfectant material loses effectiveness.”

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Hand Washing - Rotational Rubbing of Fingers into Palmslostinbids/Getty Images

You don’t wash your hands before cleaning

Guess what—you don’t just need to wash your hands when you come in from outside. You need to wash them before you start cleaning. Otherwise, you’re introducing germs into what should be a clean environment. So, before you get started, Lake recommends washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water. Then put on a pair of disposable gloves—it’s not just to protect your delicate hands from harsh chemicals. “When cleaning, you’re going to come in to contact with many different germ-ridden surfaces,” says Lake, so this gives you some extra protection. Lake recommends Nitrile Exam & Safety Gloves: “They’re my personal favorite disposable gloves because they tend to cause less allergic reactions and hold up better than latex or vinyl.”

One more quick reminder regarding this simple hygiene practice: Simply washing your hands can help prevent coronavirus and a long list of other diseases.

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Woman hand holding a cleaning sponge isolated on a gray backgroundbusra İspir/Getty Images

You waltz right past Magic Erasers

Meet your new BFF: Mr. Clean Magic Erasers. Not only do they remove errant marks on your walls when nothing else can, but they also can also aid your disinfecting efforts. “While they do not disinfect, they make it easier to get [the] dirt off of surfaces so a disinfectant can do the work,” says Lake. “I absolutely love Magic Erasers and use them every single day.” You can use them on high-contact areas that need a good cleaning, including countertops, toilets, and door handles, before applying your disinfectant of choice.

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CleaningNikolayShubin/Getty Images

You roll your eyes at DIYs

Today, many disinfectants are sold out as we try to keep our homes safe and clean. But don’t give up. There are some DIY recipes out there that can help you. “If you’re in a pinch or short on product, rubbing alcohol, diluted with water, will work,” says Lake. “Use a 50/50 dilution ration of 50 percent water and 50 percent rubbing alcohol.”

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Young woman cleaning table at homeserezniy/Getty Images

You use the same rag to clean multiple surfaces

This is a bad habit that many of us have. But when you use the same rag on multiple surfaces, you’re cross-contaminating—and basically giving germs a free ride throughout your house. Instead, use a new rag for each surface. At her company, Lake uses color-coded microfiber cloths so that employees know what should be used where and how much cleaning the cloths need afterward. “For example, we use brown microfiber to clean toilets and the floor right by the toilet. Those then get double sanitized in the wash,” she explains.

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Close up view of man hand using antibacterial wet wipe for disinfecting home TV remote control.Helin Loik-Tomson/Getty Images

You forget about your remote control

Don’t forget to clean your remote control! There’s a very specific way to do it, according to Consumer Reports. First, remove the batteries. Then turn the device upside down so that the buttons are facing downward, and “shake it or tap it against your palm to dislodge any debris that might have fallen between the keys.” Grab a compressed air canister and give the remote a blast to shake free any additional matter.

“When applying the disinfectant, don’t spray any solution directly onto—or into—the device. Use a wipe instead, or a paper towel or disposable cloth moistened with solution, to gently clean the outer shell.” After all, you want your remote to be clean and disinfected but you still want it to work once you’re done.

Don’t miss these other tips on how to clean the 16 dirtiest items in your home.

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Young woman washing windowurbazon/Getty Images

You use Windex everywhere

Glass cleaner is good for windows, mirrors, and some other glass surfaces, but glass cleaners are not disinfectants, according to Epstein. It’s not intended to kill germs. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding aside, it’s just a glass cleaner and not a disinfectant,” he says. “When you need to disinfect, especially for ‘high-touch surfaces,’ use a low-toxicity, people-friendly, hospital-grade disinfectant that can be used to both clean and disinfect those hard surfaces: door handles, light switches, bathroom fixtures and handles, kitchen surfaces, and more.”

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Washing machine door with rotating garments insideiso_petrov/Getty Images

You don’t wash your clothes in hot water

When it comes to your laundry, every load needs to be washed on hot right now, says environmental-toxin expert Tonya Harris, founder of Slightly Greener. In fact, studies show that water needs to be over 140 degrees Fahrenheit to kill viruses and pathogenic bacteria. To save your clothes from shrinking, Harris recommends drying clothes on normal settings or hanging to dry. Also, she adds, make sure that clothes are 100 percent dry before putting them away “so more germs and bacteria don’t grow on your damp fabric.”

Check out these other clever hacks from professional house cleaners.

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Woman hands taking wet wipe from package.Ekaterina79/Getty Images

You use baby wipes on everything, not just babies

If you’re guilty of using baby wipes to clean surfaces in your home, you’re not alone. It’s an oft-cited parenting and cleaning hack, but know this: Those wipes are not disinfecting anything. “They contain gentle ingredients because they are used on skin and moisturizing ingredients meant to soothe,” says Harris. “While they may be good for general quick cleaning, they are not meant for killing germs and viruses.” The same goes for general cleansing wipes, she adds. These wipes are regulated by the cosmetics industry, while wipes that disinfect on “inanimate” surfaces, such as a mobile phone, are regulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And just FYI, baby wipes can strip or damage the “oleophobic” coating on phones, so there’s some extra incentive not to try this in a pinch.

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Hands with glove wiping mobile phone.martinedoucet/Getty Images

You forget to disinfect your phone

You’ve probably heard by now that your phone is dirty. But how do you clean it? “Apple has recently changed its support page to say that it’s OK to use a wipe on your cell phone that contains 70 percent alcohol,” says Harris. “However, don’t use straight alcohol! It can damage a screen’s protective coating.” For phones and other small devices, she also recommends Phone Soap and Homemedics’ Phone Sanitizer, which use UV-C lights to kill germs.

For other tech gadgets and office equipment, Harris suggests using a combination of distilled water and alcohol. “Seventy percent is best,” she says. “Either spray or use a cloth to wipe down surfaces such as phones, printers, and keyboards—but use a very light amount when doing keyboards.”

For more on staying safe, check out our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Rachel Sokol
Rachel Sokol is a longtime contributor to Reader's Digest, tackling mostly cleaning and health round-ups. A journalism graduate of Emerson College, she's a former education writer, beauty editor, and entertainment columnist.