Well, I just checked my clock and, given the current viral season and the many robust little germs circulating, it seems like it is time. It’s time to let everyone know what they don’t know about the concept of ‘clean’.
Now you must be wondering what I’m talking about — you take showers, you wash your hands — but there’s more to it than that. The problem is that a lot of us have a mistaken impression of how ‘clean’ we, and objects around us are.
This is largely because we constantly underestimate microbes.
Now, before you start panicking, remember that the vast majority of bacteria are harmless to humans. This is more of a guide to correcting things we thought we knew so our habits can be a bit better for ourselves and everyone else.
Soap just isn’t a murderer
This is one I come across often. People believe that washing their hands with soap is sufficient to not just remove but kill all the germs on their hands.
This is not the case.
While antibacterial soaps may kill bacteria, the FDA determined it isn’t enough to differentiate it from normal soap in preventing illness. Antibacterial soap also contributes to the growing problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. So here’s what you need to know about soap to use it the most effective way — starting with how soap actually works.
As we all know, oil and water don’t mix. Washing your hands with water alone will get rid of a fair amount of the grime by physically pushing it away, but what it can’t move will be left behind. Here comes soap to the rescue.
Detergents (a group of chemicals including soap) are structured to bond to both oil and water. They will essentially grab the grime with one molecular arm and the water with the other, ensuring that everything washes away down the drain.
What does this mean for microbes? Well, soap doesn’t kill the bacteria, viruses, mold and other things — it just makes them easily slide off your hands. Even more important to understand is that this means that bacteria can live in and on soap. Simply putting the soap on your hands is not making your hands clean. The mechanical action of washing to remove dirt, grime, and the microbes within them is very important.
So the next time you go and wash your hands, scrub them for at least 20 seconds if you want to really get them clean, and rinse them off properly with running water. You could slowly count to twenty or try singing a song chorus, that way you know you’ve given it enough time to actually do its work. Try to get places like between the fingers and under the nails for the best effect.
Dry your hands when you’re through, wet hands are a nice place for more germs to land on. Note that the water temperature doesn’t actually matter.
A quick note on drying your hands: hot-air hand dryers have been shown to be sucking up bacteria from the air and dumping them on the newly washed hands. Use hand towels if they are available.
99% Invisible: Hand Sanitizer may not substitute
Hand sanitizer is another interesting one, with even typical pocket brands claiming to kill 99% of germs. I am not in the least disputing the truth of these numbers and under normal circumstances, this is an excellent percentage of anything. The thing is, we’re talking about microbes.
These organisms, when they settle down and multiply on a surface, easily exist in the millions. I am reluctant to show what a little dust will look like when left to grow on a microbiological plate for just two days.
With that in mind, let us do a little math — just a little, I promise. Let’s say that there are only one million bacterial cells on your hand right now. They are mostly quite harmless, but you don’t like them living here and paying no rent so you rub on some hand sanitizer. This sanitizer kills 99% of them, leaving only 1% behind—but that’s 1% of a million. This means there are still ten thousand bacterial cells left alive on your hand. How about 99.9%? That is still a thousand. Well, this isn’t quite as clean as you thought it was, is it? Consider the germs’ multiplication power, and it’s clear to see why this isn’t such a good idea.
According to the CDC and studies on the topic, you need to get hand sanitizer with 60% or higher ethyl alcohol concentration or it just isn’t doing enough. You want 99.99% kill and there are several good sanitizer brands that will offer this. It’s important to note, however, that hand sanitizer loses efficacy when your hands are visibly dirty or greasy. It also isn’t as effective at getting rid of certain viruses and stubborn bacteria as handwashing. And all this assumes you’ve used the sanitizer correctly—using the right amount and allowing it to dry on your hands (the directions are on the bottle).
So, given the choice between hand sanitizer and handwashing, wash your hands. In fact, hand sanitizer is most effective when used after washing the hands to get rid of stragglers. If it’s dirt you’re trying to get off and washing isn’t an option, consider using hand wipes then following up with your sanitizer. Otherwise, you just have dirt, sanitizer and the microbes it failed to kill cohabiting on your hands.
Doing well so far? I haven’t said anything you don’t know yet? Excellent. But, now it’s time to talk about (a personal pet peeve and) another cleanliness concern: sponges and washcloths.
It absorbs more than just water
If you’re like me, the unfortunate fact is that the only dishwasher in your home is you. Soap, water, and a sink are how you get your dishes done. And, of course, to get those plates cleaned good and proper you have your trusty sponge. But for how long do you keep Ol’ Reliable and how exactly are you using it?
To start with, we need to understand the nature of a sponge. A kitchen sponge is full of holes, is frequently coming into contact with food, and spends most of its time saturated with water or slowly drying. This means it has a lot of surface area for microbes to settle into, a good food supply to keep them well-fed and comfortable in there, and a nice water-rich environment conducive to growth. Such environments in other circumstances easily promote the growth of bacteria and mold, so why would the sponge be an exception?
Make no mistake — kitchen sponges are a hotspot for bacteria.
Your kitchen sponge habits make a very big difference to whether you are making your plates clean or, invisibly, much dirtier. There are many good habits that will help to reduce microbial transfer from your useful and squishy little incubator. So think to yourself if you’re using sponges the right way.
- Rinse and squeeze out the sponge after every use. Leaving the food particles in a damp sponge creates excellent conditions for microbial growth.
- Use different sponges for different things. If you are using the same sponge to wash your dishes, clean up your counters and wipe off your appliances, you are ensuring that all the varied bacteria in your kitchen are spread equally all over your kitchen. While cooked food coming off a plate is unlikely to contain things like Salmonella, that bit of raw egg that spilled on the counter earlier just might—and you don’t want to wipe that on your forks.
- Change sponges at least monthly and discard a sponge the moment it becomes discolored or produces an off odor. The reason it smells like that is typically a combination of mold and bacteria having a party in your sponge.
- You can also microwave sponges, which has proven effective in eliminating germs.
Now, with the more standard sponge care aside here is my personal suggestion for extending the lifespan of your sponges: rinse your dishes off with water before ever applying a sponge to them, this decreases the amount of food scraps in and on your sponge.
If the lasagne has become one with the dish, leave the dish in the sink either with water in it or immersed in water for a short time. The particles will soften and be easily removed with running water and little hand rubbing. This way you don’t need to scrub the plate hard with the sponge and trap food particles inside it. Another pointer is that abrasives like steel wool do not and cannot substitute for a normal sponge. Instead, they leave scratches and depressions in the surfaces of dishes into which bacteria can settle. They are also far more difficult to clean.
Washcloths live a similar life. You know that weird smell it has? It’s not just your own personal eau de you, it is very probably the scent of fungus settling in for the long haul. The same thing happens when other fabrics are left in water for too long. That smell is mildew. Ensure that your washrags are properly rinsed out — ideally washed with soap in hot water—and hung up to dry properly after every use.
A few extra bits of information
Freezing food does not kill bacteria.
If it’s microbes you want to be rid of then heat is the way to go. Most fungi have a low tolerance for high heat, and if it feels hot to your touch most bacteria won’t like it too much either. Freezing, on the other hand, only causes them to slow down and stop reproducing for the time being. Once thawed, the bacteria start to multiply again. Keep this in mind when deciding which foods in your freezer to trust. Similarly, ice is not clean simply because it is frozen. An ice cube that falls on the floor is a dirty ice cube, don’t put that straight in your mouth.
For that matter, the Five-Second Rule is a lie.
Even as you inhale this very moment microbes are entering your lungs. That chip is picking up bacteria in the air on its way to the floor. You just need to accept that when you pick it up and eat it. It is what it is. Fortunately for you, most microbes are harmless—but please don’t eat a chip that fell in dirt.
On a more positive note, it turns out that sugar-free chewing gum is actually quite useful for teeth cleaning. Consider using it between meals when brushing your teeth isn’t immediately an option. It absolutely has to be sugar-free, however, or it will have a very opposite effect. It has been shown to be useful for removing bacterial buildup from the surfaces of and between teeth.
Now there are many more aspects we could explore, but for now, you should have the basics. So here’s a little tip to get you through the current flu season. Hands are by far one of the easiest ways to move germs around so remember not just your own cleanliness but the spaces around you. Keep track of public surfaces, like doorknobs and handrails, that your hands touch and try to be conscious of moving your hands to your face. Wash them often. Sanitize them for good measure if you want to. Stay safe, healthy and squeaky, shiny clean.