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Mar 24, 2014

Does the thought of cleaning your house with food such as vinegar, baking soda and even a piece of fruit have you running for the cleaning isle? I can’t say I blame you. I was skeptical myself, at first. We seem to be in a modern day war with germs, each new product promising to kill them better, faster and with only a quick spray of a nozzle. But does anyone ever read the directions or the ingredient list? I’d bet my left knee-cap that the majority of the population uses the products incorrectly. Why? Because I would consider myself an average person and I used to overspray and hurry the whole process, wasting money, energy and my lungs!

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I decided to ask my nursing school microbiology instructor, Sharon Eden from Iowa Western Community College and Creighton University, what she thought about homemade cleaners. “There isn't ONE perfect cleaner for every situation. And, most of the time good 'ol soap and water will get rid of the disease-causing bacteria while leaving your skin and mucous membranes in-tact. Advertisers have trained us to want some sexy and convenient bottle of liquid Napalm to teach those bacteria a lesson. You can love your family and not have to declare germ warfare in the kitchen. Still, there are some microbial hazards that should be removed and you might have to use something stronger than soap and water.”

So first, we must discuss the difference between cleaning and disinfecting. Cleaning is the act of removing the dirt and reducing the bioburden, aka- germs, by physical means. Washing your hands or wiping off a counter are examples. Disinfecting is the act of killing the germs by chemical means. Hand sanitizer and Lysol spray are examples. In order for the disinfectant to get to the germs, any barrier has to be broken down which is why it’s important to clean the surface first. For most cleaning jobs, simply washing the item or surface in warm, soapy water is sufficient. Cutting boards and food prep areas benefit from disinfectants to help reduce foodborne illness.

Ready to bring on the chemical warfare? Grab your bottle of vinegar and let’s get to work! Vinegar is 5% acid, which is what busts through the barriers to get to the germs, killing them. Malt vinegar has even been shown to kill the flu virus, so splash a little extra around the next time you eat fish and chips.

Not all salmonella is killed by vinegar. Use separate cutting boards for meat and produce. Wood cutting boards have been shown to be slightly better for meat because it harbors fewer bacteria than plastic, but Eden says “Pitch the pretty wooden chopping block. It is very porous and I wouldn't trust it with meats especially if you are worried about Listeria, Salmonella and others. I would go with the bleach or just throw the board in the dishwasher.” You can also microwave wooden cutting boards to help reduce bacteria, but don’t try it with plastic as they don’t heat up enough.

Use vinegar when tackling common mold instead of bleach. Bleach won’t get to the root of the issue, is damaging to surfaces and using it for mold is a no-no according to the CDC (Center for Disease Control).

So what about bleach? Eden says “Used appropriately, it has really good cleaning power and will begin breaking down once it comes in contact with the environment. This means that it kills when you first apply it but you don’t have the dangerous residues on surfaces after a few hours. But, you DO want to dilute it. Why? When you add water to the Clorox, it actually changes the pH and makes the solution more acidic. This makes the diluted form of sodium hypochlorite [found in bleach] more effective as an antibacterial. Without dilution, it’s not very good. In fact, if you add white vinegar to your diluted bleach, you get the best killing action of all. It has been known to even kill endospores. But, you still want to use a ventilated area and be careful with the stuff just like always. Alcohol antimicrobials also need water but for a different reason. Water helps alcohol denature the bacterial and viral proteins.”

Still not sure? A study testing common commercial household cleaners against vinegar and baking soda showed that natural will work, it just takes longer and unfortunately won’t kill everything (poliovirus), but keep in mind where and what you are cleaning. It’s your own home, not a hospital emergency room.

Picking and choosing the right cleaning and disinfecting agent is something you CAN do for the environment, your wallet, and your body! Just make sure you read the label and follow directions.

Resources and more information:,2


Contributed by Nanette Murray