Choosing the right disinfectants is important. Not only do they need to work, they must be safe for the environment you are working in. There is a long list of disinfectants, each with their own pros and cons.

While many are turning to green products to minimize their exposure to chemicals, green disinfectants that are effective are often hard to come by. But it is important to understand that while disinfectants may not get the “green seal” of approval, they are an important part of cleaning for a healthy environment.

Types of Disinfectants

Disinfectants kill microbes and pathogens. In layman’s terms, disinfectants kill cells. This means that they can’t be 100% harmless, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t safe disinfectant options. Disinfectants can be broken down into two major groups, oxidising and non-oxidising. Oxidising disinfectants destroy all cellular matter with no exceptions, while non-oxidising disinfectants prevent metabolic pathways needed for the cell to survive. Compounds considered to have less long lasting health and environmental impacts include active ingredients found in hydrogen peroxide and some quaternary ammonium compounds.

Oxidising Disinfectants

Oxidising disinfectants used for surface cleaning include peracetic acid, sodium hypochlorite and hydrogen peroxide. Peracetic acids can be used at very low concentrations and temperatures. Two concentrations are commercially available–5% and 15%. Peracetic acid is highly reactive and not safe for every surface. Avoid soft metals at all cost. Peracetic acid reacts violently with brass, copper, iron and zinc and will ruin such finishings. Peracetic acids are most commonly used in the food industry and to disinfect medical facilities and equipment.

Most of us know sodium hypochlorite as chlorine, not to be confused with chlorine dioxide commonly used to disinfect pools and other water systems. Although effective at cleaning, this disinfectant should be used within three months of manufacturing. As time goes on, the product will naturally lose available chlorine, simultaneously losing its efficiency.

An article written by Cleaning & Maintenance Management explains that while chlorine, along with other compounds like alcohol, is highly effective at disinfecting, it is associated with a variety of risks such as flammability and lasting health effects, like occupational asthma.

A safer, healthier oxidising option is hydrogen peroxide. You’ve most likely used hydrogen peroxide to clean a cut or as mouthwash, but have you ever used it to disinfect a surface? Used as a disinfectant, hydrogen peroxide is effective at fighting against bacteria, fungi, yeasts, viruses and spores.

In terms of health and environmental impacts, hydrogen peroxide is extremely safe. It’s comprised of water and oxygen. That’s all, simple and easy. These components come together to form an oxidizing agent that works by pulling electrons from other molecules in a cell to ultimately destroy it.

We can not stress the importance of cleaning before disinfecting with hydrogen peroxide enough. Despite popular misconceptions, cleaning and disinfecting are different. Cleaning should always be performed before disinfecting, but this is especially true of hydrogen peroxide based products. If hydrogen peroxide comes into contact with organic agents, like soil, that haven’t already been properly cleaned from a surface, its effectiveness is compromised. This goes for all oxidising disinfectants.

Non-Oxidising Disinfectants

Non-oxidising disinfectants include alcohol and quaternary ammonia compounds. Alcohol based disinfectants work well in dry environments where light disinfection is needed. Although effective in some commercial settings, alcohols are not ideal for critical patient care units where the goal is to achieve the highest level of disinfection possible.

A good health and environmentally friendly option for any working environment is quaternary ammonia, also known as quats. There are hundreds of different quats and each one has its own environmental profile, some more biodegradable than others. Quats are often used on floors, walls, toilets and fixtures in hospitals, schools and food service industries.

This disinfectant is considered less toxic when used in low concentrations; however, high concentrations can result in skin and respiratory irritation. So, pay attention to concentration levels when purchasing quats based disinfectants. Where high kill claims are imperative, concentration levels will be increased. These products will have more health warnings.

Understanding your facility and the level of cleanliness you need to achieve will help you determine which type of disinfectant is needed for your specific work environment. Although selection is important, equally important are your methods of use and how frequently you clean. Which disinfectants do you find to be the most effective? Leave a comment below!