Safe disinfection might not be something that you’ve considered before. Disinfection has become a new buzzword, enlivened with the emergence of COVID-19. But did you know that disinfectants have been around for hundreds of years in some form or other?

For thousands of years, we sought ways to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, even when we didn’t understand them well. In 1862, Louis Pasteur developed and pioneered the procedures of disinfection, sterilisation and pasteurisation after proving that bacteria can only evolve from existing bacterial cells. Around 1865, Sir Joseph Lister concluded from Pasteur’s findings that bacteria must also be responsible for poor wound healing. His remedy: carbolic acid to disinfect the air and hands, and to soak dressings before covering wounds. This development resulted in carbolic acid gauze, the accessibility of which revolutionised wound healing and infection prevention.

Cleaning and disinfection: what’s the difference?

Both cleaning and disinfecting are important for reducing the spread of viral illnesses. Some viruses may remain viable (living) for hours to days on surfaces, depending on what those surfaces are made of. Best practice for cleaning is physically cleaning surfaces then disinfecting them. Cleaning refers to the physical removal of germs, dirt and impurities from surfaces. Disinfection refers to using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces.

Two-step cleaning

While there may be a physical component to disinfection (i.e. rubbing the chemical across a surface), it does not count as cleaning. A surface must be physically cleaned and then disinfected: this is known as two-step cleaning.

Note that you have to physically clean a surface first for effective disinfection. Bacteria can be shielded by or hidden under the grime that remains on a surface. This means that when you disinfect, the bacteria, and therefore the infection risk, will remain. Disinfecting does not necessarily clean surfaces or remove germs, but by killing germs that remain on a surface after cleaning, disinfection can further lower the risk of spreading infection. The exception is if you use a two-in-one cleaning tool, such as a special two-in-one cleaning wipe, that will both clean and disinfect at the same time.

Safe disinfection in the workplace

Now that we know why we should disinfect, and when, we need to talk about doing it safely. While disinfectants are effective at removing unwanted pathogens, they can be harmful to the people using them. Not only that, but chemical damage to surfaces can create new infection risks as a damaged surface can harbour bacteria. As such, it’s important to make sure that the right disinfectants are used, and that they are used properly to avoid damaging people and surfaces.

The CDC state that when selecting and using a disinfectant, we should do so with many criteria in mind:

  • Select the appropriate disinfectant based on the type of surface to be disinfected (e.g. hard surface, soft surface, electronics, fabric type etc.)
  • Understand all of the potential health hazards and use all recommended protective measures, including barriers to prevent contact with the body and respiratory protection, i.e. appropriate PPE!
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and product label directions for safe, effective use
  • Use the proper concentration and method for application/use
  • Ensure the disinfectant is in contact with the surface for the correct amount of time (i.e. the amount of time the surface is visibly wet) following application
  • NEVER mix disinfectants with any other chemicals, as mixing some chemical disinfectants with other chemical substances can be hazardous. Also, mixing a disinfectant with anything else could change its properties and it may no longer be effective

Safe disposal of disinfectant waste

Disinfectant-associated wastes are also hazardous and must be managed properly to avoid unintentional harm. They must be disposed of according to the manufacturer’s instruction, in a way that will not cause harm to those handling the waste. Most disinfectants can be disposed of through the sewer system by running cold water into the sink before pouring the disinfectant into the sink. Leaving the cold water running for a few moments after the disinfectant has been disposed of dilutes the disinfectant.

Proper cleaning and safe disinfection are essential for maintaining an infection-free facility. Have you downloaded our free IPC Audit checklist? You can use it to improve your facility’s infection prevention and control today. Download it here.