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The complete guide to disinfection definitions

The spread of germs often becomes a prevalent and common topic of conversation during the critical times of epidemics and pandemics, such as we are experiencing right now.

Cleaning products like sanitisers and disinfectants become a part of people’s daily lives, along with many other safety measures that are implemented to keep people safe; and although these are of utmost importance during these crucial times, good sanitisation and disinfection practices are important to our everyday lives too.

Germs are a part of the world we live in: they can be found in our air, soil, water, and on the surfaces we touch. While some germs are helpful, others are harmful and can cause serious illness and disease.

Good hygiene habits and systems are imperative to ensure the safety and health of not only ourselves but also those around us. However, with so much information out there, many of us don’t know what are the correct ways to stay safe.

When it comes to disinfection, there is more than meets the eye.

Cleaner, sanitiser, disinfectant: what’s the difference?

disinfection definitions
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

There can be much confusion between the words cleaner, sanitiser, and disinfectant, but understanding the distinction between the three is important.

Cleaning refers to the physical or mechanical removal of dirt and grime, as well as a portion of germs on a given surface. Wiping down a countertop with a damp cloth is a good example of cleaning.

Sanitising reduces the germ and bacteria colonies on a given surface to a less dangerous level. The Environmental Protection Agency defines sanitisers as chemical products that remove microbes from a surface but do not kill them.

Disinfecting, however, means killing all applicable bacteria and viruses. “Disinfecting kills the majority of viruses and bacteria,” points out Diane Calello, MD, executive and medical director of New Jersey Poison Centre, as disinfecting products kill 99.999% of a wide range of germs and microbes.

In short: cleaners simply remove dirt, soils, and impurities from surfaces, sanitisers reduce bacteria on a surface and disinfectants kill 99.999% of microorganisms.

Disinfection of hands and surfaces

Although some bacteria and viruses are airborne, most travel through touch; therefore keeping our hands clean is one of the key steps to take in order to avoid getting sick or spreading germs to others. Essentially, through removing germs from our hands, handwashing and hand disinfection are the two most simple and effective ways of preventing illness and the spread of microbes.

Good hand hygiene includes cleaning hands with either alcohol-based or non-alcohol-based disinfectant, as well as frequently washing with soap and water for over 20 seconds.

While that may not seem much, these simple practices help prevent many infections: germs from unwashed hands can get into food and drinks while people prepare and consume them, as well as getting transferred to other objects such as handrails, tabletops, door handles, keys, shopping trolleys- the list goes on and on. As people frequently touch their eyes, nose, and mouth without even realising, these germs can then enter our bodies and make us seriously sick.

However, hand washing facilities are not always available or can be difficult to access throughout our day to day lives. It is for this reason that hand disinfectant is fundamental to maintaining a high standard of hygiene, particularly in facilities and areas of high traffic and heavy touchpoints such as hospitals, hotels, offices, public transport, nursing homes, and schools, to name a few.

This brings us to the other aspect of good hygiene practices- surface disinfection. Just as important as hand washing, thorough and routine disinfection of commonly touched surfaces is the next step to the prevention of the spread of diseases.

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, areas unoccupied for 7 or more days only need routine cleaning. However, surfaces and objects in public places, such as shopping trolleys, point of sale keypads, pens, counters, vending machines, ATMs, door handles, and light switches along with many others, should be cleaned and disinfected before each use or as much as possible.

Disinfection products: how do they work?

Freestanding hand sanitiser units
Freestanding hand sanitiser unit. National Concert Hall Dublin

It can be easy to be quite sceptical when it comes to hand sanitisers and their efficacy. However, hand sanitiser products really work- in fact, they are crucial to maintaining a healthy and hygienic environment.

Hand sanitiser works exceedingly well for most bacteria and viruses by reducing the skin burden of bacteria much more effectively than soap and water. In addition, the amount of bacteria on the skin tends to remain lower for much longer than when soap and water are used.

While hand sanitiser doesn’t replace soap and water if your hands are dirty, along with regular handwashing it definitely helps fight many dangerous germs.

Hand sanitiser works by killing microbial cells; for a virus, sanitisers work by disrupting the virus’s outer coat, while for a bacterium, they work by disrupting its cell membrane, thus incapacitating the bacteria’s ability of infection.

Clinical Trials

Hygiene Solutions conducted thorough research to test the efficacy of disinfectant and its ability to stop the spread of germs in an Irish Hospital.

They used the Handle Hygiene system, a simple delivery mechanism which automatically delivers a measured dose of the antimicrobial solution onto a door handle each time the door closes. Reducing the contamination and risk of infection which is associated with manually contacting door handles and push panels.

Swabs taken before the study began showed that microbe counts on the handles of all of the gent’s toilets averaged around 70 bacteria per square centimetre, whereas the female toilets showed a different baseline pattern with counts averaging around 120 bacteria per square centimetre on the handles.

The swabs taken from a laboratory’s door handle were quite low, never going above 40 per square centimetre. This is probably due to the fact that most users would have washed their hands prior to leaving as a routine action.

When the Handle Hygiene system was installed, a great reduction in microbial counts was noted in every single case with the counts coming down to 20 per square centimetre or less. This was true for both the male and female toilet door handles, whilst the laboratory door handle counts reduced to an average of 2 per square centimetre.

Many other similar research shows that hand disinfectant and disinfecting solutions are exceptionally effective in stopping the spread of germs.

Alcohol-based vs Non-alcohol-based sanitiser products

There are two types of disinfection products that we always hear about: alcohol-based and non-alcohol based, and with it always comes the question: Which is the best?

Essentially the two work in similar ways- the solution breaks down the bacteria and germs through a process of denaturation, permanently killing them, eliminating their ability to spread and make us sick.

Alcohol-based products will contain one of two active ingredients; alcohol or isopropanol. Both are effective antiseptic products that kill germs and bacteria.

Non-alcohol-based solutions contain benzalkonium and provide the same level of protection as alcohol-based products.
When it comes to the decision of whether to pick an alcohol-based or a non-alcohol-based solution there is no good or bad choice.

However, one might have certain advantages over the other, particularly when it comes to certain environments and facilities. It is important to do enough research about the two, to ensure you make the right decision for your needs, preference, budget and most importantly, the environment the product will be used in.

For alcohol-based disinfectant to be effective, the alcohol content of the solution needs to be between 60% to 95%. The high alcohol content has long raised concerns, as it is a highly flammable solution. Not only is it a risk during transportation, but it is also difficult to store, as there are many strict regulations governing where and how much solution can be stored on the premises.

As well as that, facilities need to take additional care to ensure they adhere to local rules and requirements when dealing with such flammable compounds. In environments where a substantial amount of hand sanitiser product is required (such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities) a non-alcohol-based sanitiser could be a more feasible solution, as it does not pose a fire hazard neither during transportation nor its storage.

Another concern with alcohol-based hand sanitisers can be the potential toxic hazard it poses upon ingestion.

Alcohol-based products are harmful to the skin, eyes and the respiratory system. As well as that, consumption of such high levels of alcohol can lead to acute alcohol poisoning in children and adults.

Most dispensing mechanisms for hand sanitisers are easy to open and are placed in accessible locations to encourage use, therefore presenting a hazard, particularly in environments where there may be children, such as schools or play centres.

These facilities might opt to use a non-alcohol-based disinfectant which is non-toxic. Unlike alcohol-based disinfectants, non-alcohol solutions are not harmful to the skin, eyes, or the respiratory system, making it an overall safer option. It does not pose a problem if it comes into contact with our eyes and skin or is accidentally ingested.

Another common side-effect often associated with the repeated use of alcohol-based hand sanitisers is dry and chapped skin, as well as severe irritation. This is caused by the fact that alcohol strips away the oils in your skin that retain moisture and the absence of these oils can lead to increased skin irritation on the hands. In some cases could even lead to dermatitis.

Choosing non-alcohol-based disinfectants eliminate such concerns and are safer to use in spaces where hand sanitiser products need to be used often.

Alcohol-based solutions can also be damaging to floors and walls, staining the areas where dispensers may drip or leak. Non-alcohol-based solution would be a good option for museums or old architectural monuments and buildings.

Another huge advantage of non-alcohol-based disinfectants is their composition: non-alcohol-based disinfecting products contain benzalkonium. This means that while alcohol-based product’s ability to kill bacteria ends once the product has dried on the skin, benzalkonium based products continue to provide protection even after the solution has dried. This is particularly beneficial in more crowded spaces like concert halls or shopping centres, where there may be fewer locations for sanitiser dispensers.

In addition, the impact we have on the environment is now more important than ever. Non-alcohol-based products such as our Nuevo hand rub effectively kill 99.999% of microbes while still being environmentally friendly. They can be handled without PPE and disposed of without any specific regulations. Not only that, Nuevo’s production is specifically designed to reduce the carbon footprint and benefit our planet.

In conclusion, although there may be a lot of information when it comes to sanitisation and disinfection practices, it is imperative to conduct research before deciding on a product, in order to find something that will best fit your preferences, needs and facility. As well as that, learning about the best hygiene practices will optimise everyone’s safety.

Whatever your needs, using an effective hand sanitiser as part of your preventative defence against illness and disease is a crucial step to maintain a healthy environment. We manufacture both alcohol-based and non-alcohol-based solutions as well as dispenser systems here at Hygiene Solutions and would be happy to answer any questions that you may have.