You want to protect your family from dirt and germs, but getting rid of every germ isn't possible -- or necessary. In most cases, clean is good enough, says Atlanta pediatrician Jennifer Shu, MD.
Cleaning involves getting rid of dirt and gunk where germs can grow. The friction of cleaning -- often with soap and water -- removes most surface germs, which is adequate for most household surfaces. In other cases, however, it's a good idea to disinfect, which destroys or inactivates most of the germs.
Here's a quick guide on when to do which and how to go about it.
"In general, you don't have to be overly careful about laundry," Shu says. You want clean clothes, but disinfecting them usually isn't necessary. For heavily soiled clothing, she recommends rinsing them before putting them in the wash. Some washers have a "soak" feature for that purpose.
When washing, use laundry detergent and the warmest water recommended on the clothing label, she says. "Generally the warmer the water, the more germs you will kill."
If a family member has been sick with the flu or other infectious illness, however, disinfecting the laundry may help prevent illness from spreading to others. To disinfect laundry, add chlorine bleach (for whites only) to the wash. If you are washing clothes at a coin laundry, wipe the surface of the machine with a disinfectant before loading. Then add a disinfectant to the wash cycle. Follow the directions on the disinfectant label for adding to wash.
Regularly disinfect surfaces that are touched by more than one person, particularly if someone in the family is sick, Shu says. These include doorknobs, refrigerator door handles, microwaves, faucets, and toilet flushers. Clean them and then disinfect with a commercial disinfectant or make your own by adding no more than a cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water. Or combine steps by using a single product designed to clean and disinfect. Look for products that say they are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency on the label.
For electronic devices such as phones, remote controls, game controls, and computer keyboards, wipe with sanitizer cloths or use a product designed for electronics. Computer keyboards can also be covered with a plastic or silicone cover to make cleaning and disinfecting easier, Shu says.
How often to disinfect? That depends on how often the area is trafficked, Shu tells WebMD. "It would be nice to do it once a day if you can. If somebody is sick you definitely want to step it up a little bit."
For toys that are used by one child, neither disinfecting nor frequent cleaning is necessary. "A good idea is to clean it if there is visible junk in it, such as dirt, blood mucus -- that kind of thing." Use warm, soapy water to clean toy surfaces.