Is There a Green Way to Disinfect?

Cleaning professionals will encounter situations in which sanitizers or disinfectants are necessary to protect public health. However, we must always keep in mind that these are very powerful cleaning agents that, while they continue to serve us well, can produce unfortunate, even harmful, results.

The good news is that there are options to choose from that go far beyond selecting a product based on either sodium hypochlorite (bleach), quat, or some other disinfecting or sanitizing agent.

While any disinfectant or sanitizer must be registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “kill” the pathogens of concern, within these parameters, manufacturers of disinfectants and sanitizers offer products that are effective yet produce fewer residues or emissions (i.e. VOCs), and have an overall reduced impact on the environment.

Currently in the U.S., there are no EPA-registered disinfectants marketed as Green. However, this is all about to change as the EPA has for the first time developed a program to allow Green-certified disinfectants through the Design for the Environment (Safer Choice) program and is now working with the states to help bring these products to market later this year.

Until this happens, to minimize the harmful impact of traditional disinfectants and sanitizers, cleaning professionals can consider certain alternatives which have proven to be effective at eliminating germs and bacteria . But before we explore these options, we need to mention four important things:

  • First, a disinfectant or sanitizer should only be used if and when necessary. Unfortunately, disinfectants have often been over used or used incorrectly. These products are designed to kill pathogens, so by their very nature they can be potentially dangerous to users, building users, and the environment, especially if appropriate precautions are not taken.
  • It is recommended that disinfectants or disinfectant alternatives be used in a two-step process: first clean the surface to remove soils and then apply the disinfectant to kill pathogens, germs and bacteria.
  • There are situations where a disinfectant or sanitizer is legally required to be used, such as in certain areas of a hospital or in food preparation areas. In these cases, regulations must be adhered to and an alternative to an EPA-registered disinfectant should not be substituted.
  • Finally, when an EPA-registered disinfectant is necessary, we must make sure the disinfectant selected kills the germs and bacteria we need to address. For example, if there is concern about swine flu (H1N1), ensure that the kill claim listed on the label indicates the product is designed to kill this virus.

Regarding disinfectant alternatives, at the top of our list of products that have a reduced impact on the user and the environment are those manufactured with hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, acetic acid or other active ingredients that have met the “screen” developed by EPA’s Design for the Environment program. These products are now used in many schools and many areas of medical and other facilities. These ingredients have been identified as safer to use and are proving to be quite effective as well.

Another entirely chemical-fee option is the use of ozone or steam vapor. As to steam vapor, the germ-killing ability depends on various factors but primarily the temperature created by the system; water should be heated to 250 °F or more to be effective. In one study, it was shown that a steam vapor system was able to kill viruses, fungi, and even antibiotic-resistant bacteria within about five seconds.* Note that when using steam, it may still be necessary to apply a disinfectant to the surface after cleaning to further protect occupants.

Spray-and-vac systems offer a third non-chemical option. While the developer of these systems does not recommend their use without cleaning solutions or disinfectants, independent laboratory tests have found that these cleaning systems can be effective at removing many germs, bacteria, and pathogens without chemicals. However, it may still be necessary to apply a disinfectant to further protect occupant health.

There are other ways cleaning professionals can use traditional disinfectants and still have a reduced impact on the environment:

  • Read the label and follow all directions including proper dwell time and dilution rates
  • More is not better; a more concentrated disinfectant does not clean or kill pathogens better, instead, it wastes product and money, and increases environmental impacts.
  • Choose a disinfectant with a more neutral pH value, closer to 7, to reduce the risk of irritating the eyes and skin of users who unintentionally come in contact with the disinfectant.


* “Steam Vapor: A Green Disinfectant,” by Dr. Benjamin Tanner, Cleaning Maintenance Magazine, September 19, 2010.