Disinfecting Naturally

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When I wrote my last post on lathering action, I felt compelled to write another piece on disinfecting your home. Many critics of natural cleaning methods always seem to come back to one point – “So how do you make sure you kill bacteria and viruses in your home?” Well, the solutions are, in keeping with tradition here, pretty darn simple.

First of all, I want to start off with a bit of a plea to the public. Can we give up on the idea that our homes need to be 100% “free of germs”? I really think we need to let go of that one. Yes, I know, we have endured years of advertising that claims we need to eliminate “99.9%” of the bacteria on our household surfaces. But you know what? Modern science is telling us that this may NOT, in fact, be a wise decision. We need to be more realistic, and look at the facts more closely.

You may have heard about “superbugs”, and antibiotic resistance. This has been a pretty hot topic over the last few years. Explained simply, this basically means that, through years and years of persistent and excessive antibiotic use, many bacteria have become tolerant of them and have been surviving better despite antibiotic treatment. The “germs” are getting stronger, and resisting the tough methods we are using to eliminate them. Why is that?

Well, when you treat bacteria with an antibiotic, it does not necessarily kill off every organism. And the ones that remain are generally the strongest, most resilient ones. Eventually, more and more of these resilient strains start to reproduce, and you are left with tougher and tougher bacteria that require stronger and stronger methods of elimination.

And guess what – medical professionals are running out of options faster than these superbugs are growing. It is a definite area of concern, especially within hospital environments where sterilization is necessary and mandatory for successful surgeries and invasive procedures.

Now let’s apply this same theory to your home. When you bleach or apply alcohol or sanitizing, antibacterial wipes, and other very potent disinfectants to your surfaces, guess which bacteria remain behind? That stronger “0.01%” that your product is not killing off are the ones who are left to reproduce. And those are the ones that are least likely to be affected by your disinfecting solutions. See where this is going? By applying unnecessarily strong disinfectants in your home, you actually may be breeding stronger bacteria. At the very best, you are leaving the strongest behind.

Not to mention the fact that bleach and other antibacterial chemicals can be very dangerous for children and pets, and are generally disconcerting for me to have in my home at all. Fumes from bleach are harmful to the respiratory tract, and ingestion of it can be deadly. And these substances negatively impact the environment when they go into the groundwater (bleach especially so).

Furthermore, there are lots of bacteria and microorganisms that may be of benefit to our bodies and immune system that live in our environment (not to mention within and on our own bodies). We need a healthy amount of “gut flora”, and even our skin has a layer of protective microbes that are undesirably killed off by things such as hand sanitizer and cleaning with bleach.

All of that being said, it leads me to this. How do I eliminate ALL of the bacteria in our home? I don’t. That’s right, you heard me! I don’t. I clean my home to an acceptable standard that eliminates health concerns, but I don’t make it a personal goal to just kill off all of the microorganisms in my house. My goal is to keep my home healthy and disease free. Can you do that with natural cleaning methods? Absolutely. How do I do that? Read along!

First, hand washing is a must in my home. Whenever we come in from being out in the community, or from playing in the dirt, we wash our hands. With regular soap. Using soap has been widely demonstrated as the best method for eliminating harmful bacteria and viruses from your hands (and body). Why? Because you are scrubbing them and physically removing the germs rather than just ‘killing’ them. It is this physical, mechanical removal of microorganisms that is the most effective method of cleaning.

Second, when I want to do more of a disinfecting type job (cutting boards, countertops, doorknobs, bathroom surfaces), I use vinegar and tea tree oil. These two are my best germ busting buddies. The natural acids in vinegar actually cause about 80% of bacteria and viruses to become inert. And tea tree has natural antimicrobial properties. Plus, it smells nice. I also use baking / washing soda and borax to clean things like toilets and bathtubs. For further reading on these methods, check out my article and recipes HERE.

Do I kill off 100% of the bacteria with these? No. But the sodas and borax, being naturally abrasive, physically remove most anything of concern. And I use soap, get in a good scrub, and physically remove bacteria and viruses on the surfaces that really count, like dishes.

Should you eat lunch off of my toilet seat? Mix up a batch of chicken soup in my bathtub? Prrrobbbbably not. There might be a few stragglers on there, and I certainly don’t clean them after each use. And seriously, ew. But you aren’t going to die of a staph infection because you didn’t chemically destroy all of the bacteria on your toilet. As long as you aren’t scratching your bare butt and then eating a sandwich, you are probably good to go.

I am also a firm believer in the fact that our immune systems need practice to become effective. If you lived your whole life in a completely sterile environment, and then tried to function in the real world, your body would probably react incredibly negatively to even very mild strains of bacteria and viruses.

If you have items of concern that you really think need a thorough disinfecting, first, scrub them well with soap to physically remove microorganisms, and then allow them to soak in a sink full of full strength white vinegar, or just spray them down with it and let sit. Hydrogen peroxide is also a beneficial disinfectant – I don’t use it much because I am satisfied with my vinegar, but I have researched that wiping with vinegar, and then following with hydrogen peroxide (NOT both together), kills off most microorganisms of concern. If you own a dishwasher, it also likely has a setting to sterilize – using your detergent and super hot water as active agents. You can also boil things that are heat tolerant (do NOT boil plastics).

So, long story short, I think it is time to rethink what “disinfecting” means in your home. We really don’t need to kill everything off – we can live in harmony with a few microorganisms and be perfectly healthy (in my opinion, more so). Here’s to hoping we can collectively reach a new level of comfort with what constitutes “clean enough” 🙂

For further reading on the topic, check out these links:
Does vinegar kill germs? – David Suzuki Foundation
Non-toxic Disinfecting – David Suzuki’s Queen of Green
Does vinegar really kill household germs? – ABC Health & Wellbeing
What is bleach and why is it dangerous? – Sustainable Baby Steps

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