Bleach, Hand Sanitizer, or Natural Cleaning Products? What to Use When

by Cat Ellis

There’s always a ferocious debate among people who swear by bleach, hand sanitizer, or natural cleaning products. But the fact is, there’s no black and white answer. There are times and places for each of these.

Staying clean is a critical part of staying healthy. We have a wide array of disinfectants and cleaning products to stock up on. This guide takes the most common disinfectants, breaks down their pros and cons, and sorts out how and when to use each item.

Staying clean becomes even more important when access to medical care is not guaranteed, such as during or post-disaster. Therefore, we need to know to know how to remove pathogens from surfaces and fabrics.

Cleanliness Is Not Optional

Good hygiene and good household cleaning habits are essential to good health. While exposure to certain bacteria is good for us, even necessary for good health, there are also harmful microorganisms that can make use very sick. Some of them can live a surprisingly long time outside of the body.

For example:

One of the scariest viruses, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) doesn’t live or reproduce outside the human body. However, given the right conditions, HIV can survive outside of the body in blood droplets up to several weeks, though no cases have ever been linked to exposure to blood spills.

HIV may survive for up to four weeks in syringes after HIV-infected blood has been drawn up into the syringe and then flushed out.3 A study of blood gathered from more than 800 syringes filled with small amounts of HIV-infected blood and stored for various periods found that HIV could be isolated from 10% of syringes after eleven days where the quantity of blood was less than 2µl, but 53% of syringes where the quantity of blood was 20µl. Longer survival of HIV was also associated with lower storage temperature (less than 4°C); at higher temperatures (27 to 37°C) survival was not detected beyond seven days. (source)

The takeaway is that we need to prevent the presence of microorganisms that can make us sick. Choosing the right disinfectant and using it correctly are critical to disease prevention. Disease prevention is always important. It takes on a new level of importance if we are in a crisis situation where medical help is not available.

Cleaning vs, Disinfecting

Cleaning and disinfecting are not the same thing. Cleaning removes debris and microbes. Disinfecting kills microbes. A good example of this difference is soap vs. antibacterial products, like antibacterial hand sanitizer.

Soap

Soap does not have any bactericidal properties to it. What soap does is create lather. The lather creates friction which dislodges dirt, bacteria, viruses, and so on, off of the skin, surfaces, and fabric. These are rinsed away and down the drain.

Antibacterial Agents

Antibacterial products, however, work by exposing bacteria on the skin, surfaces, and fabric to something which kills bacteria. Antibacterial products do not impact viruses, and they are associated with advancing antibiotic resistance. Antibacterial products, like hand sanitizer, should be used as a supplement to cleaners, especially when water is at a premium.

Your Cleaning and Disinfecting Arsenal

When it comes to getting things clean there are plenty of options. Some of them are more toxic than others. Let’s take a look at a number of common cleaning products, how they work, and what their highest use is.

Bleach

Bleach is a broad spectrum bactericide and antimicrobial agent. It’s cheap, efficient, and kills just about everything. Bleach works by breaking down microbial cells which destroys the microbe.

Fun Fact: Bleach is more effective at killing germs when in dilution. To use bleach, you need to dilute bleach into water. Usually, a 10% dilution of bleach into water is used. Depending upon what type of microbe, you may need a higher concentration of bleach to water. If it’s a fungus, you’ll need 1 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water. Make sure to use a scrubber brush

Bleach has a few drawbacks. First, in liquid form, it has a short shelf life. Liquid bleach breaks down between 3 to 6 months. After that, there is no guarantee that it will kill germs as expected. You can, however, store pool shock long term, and make your own liquid bleach from that.

Bleach is also associated with breathing problems and birth defects. The associated risk is not from a single exposure, however. It is from repeated exposures with frequency over time. This is something one might see in a hospital setting where bleach is often the best choice for cleaning.

At the same time, bleach is fabulous for killing harmful microbes, including things like hepatitis and HIV. For Hepatitis A, B, and C, use a dilution of 1:9, and let sit (or submerge object) for 10 minutes. For HIV, a surprisingly small amount of bleach is needed. A meager 1:100 dilution was found effective to kill HIV on surfaces.

One more important item to mention, bleach will not disinfect HIV or hepatitis from a syringe. Syringes are best disposed of after a single use.

Ammonia

A quick warning regarding ammonia: never use this in conjunction with bleach. It will form toxic gasses, and you don’t want that. Otherwise, ammonia is a less toxic substance. It is not, however, registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Ammonia can kill some pathogens. It is effective against salmonella and E. coli. It falls short with staphylococcus. Ammonia can also kill the person working with it. Avoid the fumes.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide works well for disinfecting germs found in both homes and hospitals. It must be diluted to a 3% solution with water, otherwise, it can be toxic. Hydrogen peroxide is effective against aerobic bacteria with an enzyme, catalase, such as streptococcus. With other types of bacteria, it is effective at inhibiting bacterial growth.

Hydrogen peroxide can be used in wound care, oral care, laundry, and disinfecting surfaces.

Alcohol

Alcohol is effective as a disinfectant, as it will kill most bacteria, viruses, and fungi. But, there are three caveats.

  1. Alcohol does not kill bacterial spores.
  2. Alcohol is not effective against norovirus.
  3. Alcohol only acts as an effective disinfectant when alcohol remains in contact with the microbes.

Alcohol does not kill microbes instantly. It needs time. If you need to disinfect medical equipment, the best way to do it is by submerging them in alcohol for 20 minutes.

Appropriate alcohol for disinfectant purposes would be isopropyl alcohol or other clear alcohols, such as vodka or Everclear. While popular in old Westerns, don’t use dark liquors, like whiskey. It will only lead to infection.

This poses an interesting problem when wiping down cutting boards, countertops, or applying alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Alcohol evaporates before it can disinfect thoroughly, leaving potentially harmful pathogens alive to make you and your family ill.

Vinegar

Vinegar is not a great disinfectant. It is, however, a great natural cleaner, especially when paired with baking soda. Vinegar helps to remove microorganism during the cleaning process. For example, when using vinegar to clean a bathroom sink, any bacteria will have been dislodged during the cleaning and rinsed down the drain.

Herbal Washes

There are some wonderful, antimicrobial herbs and essential oils. If you are looking for a truly natural disinfectant, this is your best bet. However, herbs and essential oils are similar to alcohol in that they kill by contact with a microbe over time.

If you choose to make an herbal wash as a disinfectant spray, you would need to allow it to dry on the surface without wiping. You would also likely need to repeat the spraying several times, so that the microorganisms you are trying to kill will be exposed to the herbal spray long enough to do the job. As a general rule, I use 30 minutes as a baseline. A better option would be to submerge the object into the herbal solution.

An herbal wash is made either by steeping herbs in water or by making an herbal vinegar. To make the wash as a tea, steep 1 cup of herbs in 1 quart of hot water for about an hour. After an hour, strain out the plant material, and reserve the liquid.

If you make a wash as a tea, it is only good for a day or two, and you need to keep it in the fridge. If you want it to last longer you need to add either isopropyl alcohol or Everclear to 20% ABV (alcohol by volume). If you make the wash as a vinegar, the vinegar is shelf stable as is. Use herbal washes for wounds, surfaces, and fabrics.

To make an herbal vinegar, fill a mason jar with your selected herbs, pour in vinegar to the top, run a knife through the plant material to get rid of air bubbles. Let it sit for 6 weeks, give it a shake every day. Then strain out the plant material, reserving the liquid.

If you wish, you can add essential oils to your wash. The amount necessary will differ depending upon the oil, but in general, I use a 5% dilution or higher. This would be at least 30 drops per ounce of liquid. So, a cup of herbal wash would require at least 240 drops of essential oil.

Some of my favorite antimicrobial herbs and essential oils to use include:

  • Thyme
  • Clove
  • Cinnamon
  • Tea Tree
  • Juniper
  • Rosemary
  • Lavender

While this is far from a conclusive list, this should get you started making herbal washes.

Different situations call for different products.

Each of the above products has its pros and cons. Because of this, there will not be one best product for all situations.

Day to Day Cleaning

In general, the germs you typically find in your own home do not call for hospital-level sterilization. There is typically no need for the harsher cleaners, which tend to have negative health outcomes associated with them. For example, bleach is associated with birth defects, but only from repeated, frequent exposures.

You can certainly keep bleach on hand for emergencies. For example, it is perfectly reasonable to use bleach, in dilution in water to spray down the kitchen and bathroom is someone in the household has had an intestinal infection. If someone in your home has a compromised immune system or a highly contagious illness, then bleach makes perfect sense.

However, for day to day cleaning, bleach isn’t necessary. I clean my own kitchen and bathroom with DIY cleaning supplies. I use my own homemade soap to make laundry soap. I use herbal washes for the floors and herbal vinegar sprays for things like mirrors, counters, the shower, and the toilet.

I like to use grease cutters, like sweet orange and lemon essential oils, to my sprays. This helps cut grease when cleaning stove tops and backsplashes, but also to clean around doorknobs and door jambs that can get dirty with fingerprints. I also like to add essential oils like tea tree and thyme for cleaning more germy things, like toilet seats, sinks and cutting boards after food prep.

For washing clothing, I make my own castile soap, grate it, and mix with baking soda, along with a cup of vinegar to the wash water. I prefer to line dry, which helps to get my whites naturally white. Sunlight does kill germs through solar radiation. It is not the best option for sanitizing resilient microorganisms, but it is more than good enough for the average household’s laundry.

Deep Cleaning and Sanitizing

If someone in your household had a contagious illness, such as MRSA or C. difficile, then it is definitely time to bust out that bleach. You can use this to disinfect all commonly touched surfaces, like doorknobs and toilet handles.

Bleach is can be especially helpful with laundry. MRSA is easily spread through sharing linens, and bed linens must be changed daily to prevent both spreading and reinfection. Try to stick to whites if you have someone in your home with special medical needs for this reason.

If we were faced with some type of deadly disease, for example, drug-resistant tuberculosis or something like Ebola, you bet I would be bleaching everything. I’m just not going to take that chance.

The same is true of hand sanitizer, even though many people staunchly believe it’s terrible for you. It isn’t something you should use on an everyday basis, but if you’re in a situation in which thorough, frequent handwashing isn’t possible, like at a store, on a plane, or a sanitation emergency with no running water, hand sanitizer can help prevent the spread of disease and waterborne illnesses.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not as effective as people think because the alcohol evaporates too quickly. They should be reapplied repeatedly in situations like the ones above.

If an area needs to be decontaminated, the process is done in multiple layers. For example, a common practice by professional decontamination crews is to clean with bleach, then flood the area with hydrogen peroxide in gas form.

That’s not a DIY option, but be aware that you can also have multiple layers of disinfectants and cleaners. So, perhaps you bleach an area down or a load of laundry, your other layer could be a thorough wash with soap and very hot water. Take precautions, like heavy rubber gloves to protect your hands.

What are your favorite ways to clean?

Have other ideas or favorite products for disinfecting surfaces? Let me know in the comments!

Cat Ellis

About the Author

Cat Ellis

Cat Ellis is an herbalist,  massage therapist, midwifery student, and urban homesteader from New England. She keeps bees, loves gardening and canning, and practice time at the range. She teaches herbal skills on her website, Herbal Prepper. Cat is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, and the author of two books, Prepper’s Natural Medicine and Prepping for a Pandemic.

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