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Making a Clean Sweep

Monday, 06.03.2017

Are you cleaning your home in a correct and proper manner to safeguard the health of your family all throughout the year? Read on to find out how to finetune your cleaning routine to emerge victorious in the war against germs. 

Ensuring our personal havens are clean and sanitary remains as important as ever, considering that the cold and flu are endemic in Singapore (that is, they occur year-round with seasonal spikes). Most studies have shown that the flu virus can live and potentially infect a person for two to eight hours after being deposited on a surface. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu viruses are relatively fragile, so standard disinfecting practices are sufficient to remove or kill them.

Hand, Foot and Mouth disease (HFMD) is another viral illness which is common especially among infants and younger children under the age of five. Last year’s HFMD outbreak was a particularly serious one, prompting local newspapers to run stories in May and June warning of an impending epidemic. Usually the red flag is raised when reported cases of the illness exceed 1,000 a week.

While HFMD is normally self-limiting with the body’s immunity naturally combating the virus in seven to 10 days, the strains of enterovirus responsible for causing the disease is very easily spread. The incubation period is typically between two to five days, but can extend to up to 14 days before the manifestation of symptoms. The virus is present in body fluids (nasal, saliva, faeces, fluid from blisters, sores and ulcers). However, the child who is exposed to the virus and without immunity against it is already infectious during the incubation period. The virus is spread through close contact with other children who have the illness, and when using items contaminated with the virus. Breaking the chain of transmission is imperative by keeping the affected individual at home and by disinfecting surfaces and objects that are likely to be exposed to the virus. Maintaining strict personal hygiene, especially proper washing of hands, is also advised.

Cleaning Frenzy
It is understood that observing basic hygiene at home plays an important part in preventing or minimising the spread of infectious diseases. In general, hygiene mostly refers to the conditions or practices that prevent the spread of disease-causing organisms. Meanwhile, cleanliness refers to the processes of cleaning (for example, hand washing) to achieve hygiene. Home hygiene covers the procedures used in a variety of domestic situations to remove infectious microbes, and these include hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, food and water hygiene, care of pets, general home hygiene (keeping spaces and surfaces clean), and home healthcare (the care of those who are at greater risk of infection).

The discovery during the last century that microorganisms are responsible for the transmission of infection sparked the development of more home cleaning solutions. Consumers are now spoilt for choice with a staggering—and sometimes bewildering— proliferation of products spilling from the shelves. 

It has led to a great deal of confusion too, with today’s household cleaning products running a mind-boggling gamut. Confronted with such a vast array, many of us are uncertain about the specific purpose and use each type of product. Following is a breakdown which might help:

Increasingly, those in the regulatory fields of health and medicine are of the view that disinfectants, medical sterilants, sanitisers, and other antibacterial products may be harmful if improperly or excessively used, as besides killing germs, they are capable of killing human cells too. Although disinfectants can reduce the “bad” bacteria associated with illness, they are equally capable of killing “good” bacteria that is necessary for performing useful functions in our environment and in our bodies. The overuse of antimicrobial products has also been linked to the creation of “superbugs,” which are bacteria and viruses that have become resistant to the chemicals developed to control them. With that in mind, no household disinfecting or cleaning product is guaranteed to complete eradicate the spread of every kind of microbe. 

Fine Print
When purchasing surface disinfectants and non-food contact sanitisers, the US-based Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)* has identified certain ingredients that have significant environmental and health risks. The use of these disinfectant chemicals has been identified as triggers for asthma, allergies and other health concerns, so try to avoid products containing them:

The Bad: chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite), quaternary ammonium chloride compounds (quats), and peroxyacetic acid (can cause asthma); ortho-phenylphenol (OPP) (may cause cancer); thymol and pine oil (can cause skin sensitivity as well as other health issues). 

Instead, choose products with these active ingredients that have been recommended as safer alternatives as they are not “carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, asthmagens, or skin sensitizers and do not have serious environmental concerns”.

The Good: hydrogen peroxide, lactic acid, caprylic acid, or citric acid 

*Although the EPA is based in the US, its findings and recommendations are usually endorsed and implemented by other countries worldwide, such as Singapore.

Cleaning Tips At Home

While we would love our homes to perpetually be spick and span, the reality is that it’s an impossible task! “As fast as they are removed by cleaning, the microbes in our homes are being constantly replaced, via dust and air from the outdoor environment, by commensal microbes that are constantly shed from the human body and our pets, and from contaminated foods brought into our homes,” notes the UK-based International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene (IFH), adding that the idea of creating a “sterile” home through excessive cleanliness is “implausible”, as even the cleanest-looking homes will still contain “bacteria, viruses, fungi and moulds, as well as dust mites and other insects.”

The reason why these don’t cause us to be ill all the time is centred on a theory known as the “hygiene hypothesis”, which suggests that some exposure to living bacteria is actually healthy for us. This helps us gradually acquire natural resistance and the body’s immune systems may even be strengthened, particularly in kids.

Although the common cough, cold, flu and HFMD can be spread throughout the year in Singapore, there’s really no reason to panic and take drastic measures to turn your home into a cleanroom environment. Instead, equip yourself with the right knowhow and methods to make your cleaning regime even more effective, which results in a cleaner home overall!

• Cleaning and disinfecting isn’t the same thing. Disinfectants are not effective cleaners because they are not intended to be. They are formulated to destroy bad bacteria and germs. The proper sequence is to clean surfaces first with a general household cleaner to remove dirt; rinse with water, then follow with a disinfectant to kill germs.

• Focus on cleaning, not disinfecting. Use a disinfectant only when it comes to cleaning areas that are frequently touched or used, as they likely to harbour more germs (e.g. the toilet, kitchen sinks, doorknobs, taps, tables, countertops, light switches, computer keyboards, taps, phones, toys and even backs of kitchen chairs). Don’t dismiss simple cleaners like detergent or soap with no antimicrobial claims as they are useful for removing dirt and other organic matter that may be breeding spots for bad bacteria. 

• Always follow label directions. Carefully read the instructions regarding dilution, application, rinsing and length of time needed for the product to work. The latter, known as “dwell time”, is necessary to be followed for the cleaning product to be effective. Although housework is a chore, don’t hurry through the steps and immediately wipe or rinse off the product as soon as it’s applied. Also, do not mix products indiscriminately with other cleaning chemicals as doing so may sometimes cause toxic gases to form. 

• Helping “hands” matter. Beyond a scouring sponge, broom and dustpan, choosing the right cleaning tools and appliances can make a difference. It begins with items as basic as your mop and cloth—cleaning professionals recommend using microfibre versions to improve the effectiveness of cleaning. Such mops in particular, have been found to attract dust better and have more absorbency than traditional mops—thus less water and cleaning agents need to be used. If your budget allows, you may even consider getting a home steam cleaner. As the name implies, such gadgets produce steam to clean dirt, grease and bacteria from surfaces and floors at high pressure. There are three main types: steam mops, handheld steam vacuums, and a combination of both. Take note that while most steam machines do not require the use of additional chemicals, the high temperatures may affect certain surfaces and care must be taken to avoid injury from burns.

• Go back to basics. The best way to prevent  infection and illness is far more easy, accessible and failsafe than we give it credit for—and that’s the practice of frequent and proper handwashing using running hot water and just regular soap. Next, ventilate your house naturally by opening the windows in all the rooms. This helps clean the air of any potential airborne germs that may be circulating. In fact, natural ventilation works better than aerosol (spray) air fresheners that claim to have disinfecting/sanitising properties. Disinfectants usually need to be in contact with a surface for one to 10 minutes to work effectively, so there is almost no germ-killing benefit from such spray products. If anything, they only mask unpleasant odours, and even then, the fine mist carries the risk of causing or aggravating respiratory problems such as asthma.

To accommodate busy lifestyles, one household cleaning product has evolved in the form of disinfectant wipes, which are growing in popularity for their ease of use and convenience. When resorting to such ready-to-use wipes, however, Clorox, a brand that is well-known worldwide for its range of professional and consumer cleaning products, has the following advice. “Using the right disinfecting wipes with the fastest kill times coupled with implementation of standardised cleaning protocols [are ideal],” says Lynda Lurie, director of marketing at Clorox Healthcare. Lurie also advises that these wipes should be made with a “strong substrate (material) and stay wet longer… [to] disinfect greater surface areas with fewer wipes”, which will help reduce cost and wastage.

To avoid cross-contamination and the spread of germs, the same cleaning wipe should also not be used on multiple surfaces but be disposed of immediately after use. Together, let’s develop healthy habits! Remember, good hygiene begins at home and every family member can play a part in keeping everyone’s living environment clean!

Wash hands the right way!

One of the best natural defenses your family has against the spread of germs is hand washing. What’s more, the use of antibacterial soap is totally unnecessary as long as you and your little ones follow the correct handwashing steps. Ensure that the time spent rubbing soap on wet hands is at least 15-20 seconds (or, get your kid to hum the Happy Birthday tune twice!).

Here’s the right method and sequence:
1. Wet hands and dispense a small amount of liquid soap to hands
2. Rub: palm to palm • between fingers • back of hands • base of thumbs • back of fingers • scrub fingernails against palm • extend down to wrists • rinse under running water (preferably hot but not scalding) 
3. Dry hands with paper towel then discard in a lined bin

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