Cleaning your home decreases the chances of transmitting diseases. That’s the simple part. But it’s more complicated than it sounds. Here’s the information from recent research.

Transmission through the air vs. on surfaces

COVID-19 is transmitted mostly through the air. People sneeze and droplets containing the virus travel through the air. They can reach the space where someone else is breathing. Masks hinder the transmission, but without masks it is very easy for the virus to be sneezed or coughed out of an infected person and breathed in by someone else. That’s how many diseases are transmitted.

However, the droplets in the air don’t all stay in the air. They fall onto surfaces. They can also be transferred from an infected person when she rubs her eyes or her nose and then touches a surface. COVID-19 viruses can live on porous surfaces like fabric or cardboard for as long as two days, and they can live on hard surfaces for weeks.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some people worried about catching the disease from packages left on the porch or from touching objects in a grocery store. This is not impossible, but it is much more common to catch the disease directly from other human beings sharing your space.

Every disease is different. Monkey pox can live on surfaces for weeks. It is also most likely to be transmitted directly from one person to another, but it is possible to infect clothing or bedding and the infection can live for 15 days on fabric.

These are two diseases that have been in the headlines, but other viruses and bacteria can also be transmitted on surfaces. Cleaning surfaces in your home is important to avoid everything from colds to flu to COVID-19.

Cleaning vs. disinfecting

The rule is: clean first, then disinfect. It’s not pleasant to think about, but sometimes the germs don’t just fall from the air onto a surface. Sometimes they are carried there along with substances from the body. Spraying a disinfectant can’t always get through these substances to reach the virus or bacteria. In the same way that painting a dirty wall can sometimes mean the new paint sticks to the dirt, not to the wall, disinfecting a surface with bodily fluids on it can sometimes just reach those fluids.

Cleaning removes the dirt and grime and nastier substances, too, leaving a clean surface which you can then disinfect. As the the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) puts it in a recent research report, “The cleaning process, through friction, physically removes microbes and their associated matrices in which they may be embedded, such as saliva and/or nasal secretions from the nose or mouth, as generated by coughing or sneezing.”

When you have thoroughly cleaned a surface, you can disinfect by spraying the surface with an effective disinfectant and letting the solution dry. If you spray and immediately wipe it up you won’t get the benefits of the disinfectant. In fact, you can actually spread germs, depending what you use to wipe up.

You don’t need to disinfect every surface every day — especially if you’re using harsh chemicals like chlorine, this can be bad for your health. Make a point of disinfecting when someone in your home is ill or has been in a risky situation.