Ways to battle bacteria without bleach

You don’t need to reach for the bleach to feel safe

Spring cleaning was a ritual most of us learned at our mother’s knee: flinging open the windows, beating out the rugs, getting rid of the fluff and fug of winter. All very cosy and comforting. In recent years, however, cleaning has turned serious.

We’ve never been more aware of viruses, and even the most laid-back housekeepers have been eyeing up the bleach and Googling new-generation germ-busters such as steam cleaners. Lakeland has seen demand for antibacterial cleaners and wipes increase by 76% year on year.

Blue spray bottle with spray against purple backgroundCredit: Offset

“Many of us have cleaned like we have never cleaned before,” says Debora Robertson, domestic agony aunt for The Telegraph.

“It’s about seizing what little control we have left in our lives.” Lynsey Crombie, ITV’s Queen of Clean and author of The 15-Minute Clean agrees but insists it’s as much about boosting mood as blitzing microbes. “Cleaning is a form of escapism,” she says. “Having a spick-and-span home helps us all feel better.”

Cleaning has gone, well, viral on social media as ‘cleanfluencers’ turn it into an art form. Charlotte Burges, brand manager of sustainable cleaning company Method, says customers have ‘clamoured’ for antibacterials made from gentler ingredients, such as lactic acid, as cleaning products have leapt off the shelves.

But should we be zapping every last microbe?

Avoid blitzing with bleach

Microbiologists, the ultimate germ experts, come down on the side of caution. “Generally, we should be more vigilant in the current climate,” says Val Edwards-Jones PhD, emeritus professor of medical microbiology.

“Spraying bleach around is completely unnecessary and can harm our health”

“Science shows that Covid-19 is in the air and lasts for long periods on surfaces so high-touch areas should be cleaned regularly.”

However, blitzing with bleach isn’t the best plan. “Spraying bleach around is completely unnecessary and it can also harm our health,” says Sara Drais PhD of the Microbiology Society.

She points out that over-disinfecting could be counterproductive. “Many microorganisms can be harmful to our health, but many others are beneficial to our bodies [aside from helping us digest food, bacteria produce natural antibiotics to repel harmful microorganisms],” she says.

“On the inside and outside of our bodies, we have trillions of bacterial cells that help our bodies with its natural function. An overuse of antibacterial products might compromise this and make us more susceptible to other, more harmful, microorganisms.”

It seems we need to educate ourselves and clean not harsher but smarter. Lynsey Crombie says it all starts with basic good housekeeping. “Dusting, wiping surfaces clean and vacuuming helps slow the growth of harmful pathogens.

“It’s essential to wipe away grime before using disinfectants as they can’t do their work on dirty surfaces.”

Never mix, and avoid sprays

When Dr Drais cleans, she starts from the cleanest area of the home (it avoids spreading germs from the grubbiest corners).

She uses pretty standard products – Cif Cream (around £1 from most supermarkets) for the kitchen and The Pink Stuff paste (from £3.95, Amazon) for the bathroom.

She says we should wear rubber gloves, never mix cleaning agents and avoid sprays as there’s a risk of inhaling irritating particles.

The British Lung Foundation seconds her advice, warning that studies suggest being exposed to chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), bleach and ammonia in harsh cleaning products can increase the risk of developing allergies or asthma.

“The sink is usually filth central”

With Covid pulling focus, it’s easy to forget that other germs lurk around our homes. “The sink is usually filth central,” says Debora Robertson. “It can harbour E. coli, salmonella, and other nasties.”

Meanwhile a report published in Applied Microbiology warned that a single flush of the lavatory can send E. coli into the air where it floats for up to six hours. So, putting the seat down isn’t just good manners – it’s basic hygiene.

Chopping boards are another dodgy area. According to NHS Direct, they have around 200% more bacteria than your loo seat. But scrubbing with bleach isn’t necessary or advisable.

Pop non-wooden boards in the dishwasher (on a cycle of at least 650C); for wooden boards, pour over freshly boiled water.

Stick with the eco-products

Before Covid, the pendulum was swinging away from harsh chemicals as we embraced new eco-products and cleaning more sustainably. The good news, according to the experts, is that there’s no reason to turn back.

“I go nuclear on some areas (sink, loo, hall) with kill-everything cleaner, but I’m adopting a gentler approach elsewhere,” says Robertson, who recommends the cleaning brands Koh and Tincture.

“Bleach is still excellent in the sink and the toilet, however many of the new plant-based products have been extensively tested and proven to be as effective,” adds Professor Edwards-Jones.

“I don’t bleach anything because most surface cleaners have a 99.99% kill and are antiviral if used properly. Leave them on for five minutes before cleaning with a cloth or antimicrobial wipe.”

There’s also a welcome focus on habits we might recall from our youth. My mother believed in the power of fresh air. “Since I was a child, opening windows was a common practice in my house,” says Dr Drais. “It changes the air in our homes and gets rid of dust particles as well as microbes that might be airborne.”

And shoes? “Shoes should be taken off as we come in the house and washed regularly after going out.”

No need to go overboard

Dr Drais says there’s no need to go overboard on scrubbing every item of our food shopping.

Washing fruit and veg also helps to wash out pesticides and other chemicals. “I place them in a strainer and run tap water through them for 30 seconds or more.”

Lynsey Crombie is more cautious. “Many of my readers have invested in fogging machines, spraying their parcels and food shopping using a safe hypochlorous acid [HOCI],” she says.

HOCI is a natural antiseptic disinfectant made from electrolyzed salt, water and vinegar: it’s as effective as bleach but with no harmful chemicals or fumes.

A step too far? Not according to Professor Edwards-Jones. “When I get a home delivery, I spray it with a hypochlorous acid spray before wiping it and putting it away,” she says.

Until recently, fogging tended to be limited to commercial use, but Lakeland has introduced a DIY hypochlorous spray kit.

The new steam age

We’re also seeing a new steam age emerge. “There’s been a massive increase in people investing in steam cleaners,” says Crombie.

“They’re a great alternative to bleach as steam will kill 99.9% of germs and bacteria and no product is required. Steam lifts and breaks down dirt – it doesn’t push it around your floors like most mops.”

The majority of steam cleaners come with attachments so they can be used on most surfaces. Professor Edwards-Jones agrees, “Steam cleaners are a very effective way of reducing microbial contamination.”

Ultraviolet light is also making its mark. It’s estimated that our phones could contain more harmful bacteria than a public toilet seat (up to 18 times more germs).

Crombie advocates UVC light machines for phones and other small items that get handled a lot – keys, credit cards, watches.

UVC is a shorter wavelength of ultraviolet light that is widely used in hospitals and commercial settings and is now coming into the domestic market.

“UVC machines are great for phones and keys – as you come in you drop them into the box and allow the machine to kill the germs,” says Crombie. The UVC bulbs can disinfect phones in under ten minutes.

So, it seems that, in these Covid times, our spring cleaning should be both smart and stringent. It may take more effort, but we’ll end up with homes that aren’t just sparkling clean and sweet-smelling but as safe as they can possibly be.

This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Saga Magazine. Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Saga Magazine today.

Written by Jane Alexander