If we could take a tour of our homes wearing germ-vision goggles, we might be reluctant to re-enter after running out the door screaming as if we’d just escaped from the world’s creepiest haunted house. Germs are everywhere. I happen to not think that’s such an awful thing–although I don’t want to breed germs like pets, not all germs are so bad. In a story I posted about germs in January (Eating Dirt, Embracing Germs), I wrote about researchers who were concluding that the millions of bacteria and viruses that enter the body along with “dirt” spur the development of a healthy immune system.
But just because I’m soft on germs doesn’t mean I plan on playing perfect hostess to germs that may endanger my kids–wherein lies a bit of a conflict. When I saw a story on germ hot spots and the less innocent germs that lurk in the corners (and surprising surfaces) in our homes, the mother bear in me wanted to bust out the fatigues and shock and awe every last E.coli with bleach and triclosan, even though I run an all-natural household. Every conventional suggestion for battling these hot spots relies on solutions that I know are bad for my house and the planet. So instead, I devised a different plan of attack that skips bleach and its friends, and relies on tested alternatives and some simple strategizing. Here’s my plan.
1. THE KITCHEN SPONGE
Statistics show that there can be 250,000 bacteria per square inch on the handy kitchen sponge–yes, the very implement that we use to clean our food prep areas and eating surfaces is swarming with bacteria. The moist pores that make a sponge such an effective cleaning device also make it a perfect cozy village for germs, and very hard to disinfect. Wiping counters or dishes with a dirty sponge will only transfer the bacteria, like dastardly E. coli, from one item to another.
Solution: Beware of sponges labeled with “anti-bacterial” or “kills odors” as those are impregnated with triclosan. Instead, use pure cellulose sponges and sterilize them every day by one of these three methods.
• Boil in water for three minutes.
• Wet, squeeze, and cook in the microwave for two minutes.
• Run sponge through the dishwasher.
2. DISH RAGS
Dish rags present the same problem as kitchen sponges, but since they don’t have the same pervious texture they are less attractive to bacteria.
Solution: Rinse the rag well and allow to dry for several hours before using again–most bacteria can only live for three hours without moisture. You can also apply any of the sterilizing methods from Kitchen Sponges.
3. THE KITCHEN SINK
Do you hear a buzz in your sink? Salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli are having a little party in your drain. Not really, I don’t think germs have parties, or voices, but still … the kitchen sink is a terrific venue for bacteria. Food and grime get stuck around and in the drain, and bacteria like that very much. From there, migration to the basin and faucet handles isn’t such a stretch.
Solution: Scrub the drain area and as far down as you can with baking soda and a toothbrush to get rid of food particles and grime. Always clean the sink after you have prepared food containing dangerous organisms. And clean the sink two times a week with a homemade antibacterial soft-scrub formula (see recipe on next page).
4. WET LAUNDRY
This one is as gross as it is surprising. I don’t really know how to tell you this, but there’s poop in your laundry. A report from ABC News states that there is about 0.1 gram of fecal material in a piece of underwear, which adds up to approximately 100 million E. coli bacteria in an average undergarment load. Yuck and yikes. And as many of us don’t use bleach and scalding water for laundry, much of that bacteria just takes a swirly swim and is up and running to contaminate our hands as we transfer to the dryer.
• Wash all undergarments in the same load, and make it the last load of the day to avoid contaminating successive loads.
• Add a few drops of tea tree oil to your laundry detergent, or use lavender or tea tree oil castille soap.
• If you don’t use hot water for cleaning, consider using it just for underwear loads.
• Don’t let laundry sit between wash and dry cycles, this gives germs a chance to multiply.
• If you don’t dry your laundry on high heat for a full cycle, consider doing so just for underwear loads.
• Wash hands after putting wet laundry in the dryer.
• Don’t place dirty laundry on the folding/sorting table where clean laundry will be placed.
• Don’t put clean laundry back in the dirty hamper to bring it back to the dresser.
I’m sorry to tell you this, but many garbage cans are cleaner than bathtubs, which can ring in at about 100,000 bacteria per square inch.
• Use an anti-bacterial soft scrub (see formula below) once a week, paying special attention to soap scum and bath rings which can be a great breeding ground for germs.
• Also use the soft scrub and a toothbrush for the drain and faucet/handle areas.
• In addition, spray with straight white distilled vinegar weekly, which kills bacteria as well as mold.
The kitchen gets food spills, the bathroom gets toilet bowls splashes–bacteria heaven. Most of us aren’t touching or eating off the floor that often, but are kids might be!
• Wipe us spills immediately to deter bacteria from multiplying.
• Close the toilet seat before flushing to avoid spray.
• Clean your kitchen and bathroom floors a hot-water, hard clean weekly, depending on what type of flooring you have (use the soft scrub below for tile). For more tips, read Easy Greening: Natural Floor Cleaning.
• Spray around the toilet with straight white vinegar.
7. KITCHEN GARBAGE
Not surprisingly, the kitchen garbage can is a germ magnet–food waste and a dark, moist environment makes bacteria so very happy.
• Use a trashcan with a pedal opener to avoid having to touch the can regularly.
• Use a stainless steel trash can–ions in stainless steel actually kill germs!
• Take out the trash regularly.
• Odor equals bacteria. Clean your bin once a week with the soft scrub formula below, and follow with a vinegar rinse.
Oh, kids and germs–they go together like peas and carrots. And once you factor in the germs from all the friends and classmates, that are transported into your home, sick-city.
Solution: Of course there’s always the old weekly bleach-dunk, but not for me, or anyone else concerned about our kids inhaling bleach fumes.
• Opt for toys that are easy to clean.
• Some toys can be put through the dishwasher.
• Try a vinegar dunk.
• Cloth toys can be washed in the washing machine.
• Teach kids the importance of washing their hands.
Hello germs? Hello dirty little phone. Both home phones and mobile phones are ideal places for germs to thrive. Between our hands and our mouth, the top germ transmitters, the phone is tremendously germy. In addition, when was the last time you cleaned your phone?
Solution: Wipe down weekly with very hot water, and wipe with a vinegar saturated paper towel.
10. CUTTING BOARD
Again, gross. According to the ABC report, there are 200 times more fecal bacteria on a cutting board than a toilet seat. Seriously. If you think about it, the toilet seat itself doesn’t have direct contact with a lot of bacteria, while the cutting board hosts a lot of raw food which is often loaded with bacteria.
Solution: Plastic cutting boards may be easier to clean and sanitize, but wooden ones also contain natural oils that can kill bacteria.
• Grooves on your boards can harbor bacteria, so when you have the grooves, throw the board out.
• Invest in different cutting boards for produce, bread and meat.
• Glass and plastic which are not very absorbent are the best for meats because juices don’t seep into the material.
• If they fit and the manufacturer states the material is safe, run your cutting boards through the dishwasher.
• Or, hand wash them with Annie’s method: 3 percent hydrogen peroxide alternated with straight white vinegar. Let each material rest on the cutting board for 10 minutes or so before rinsing.
DIY Antibacterial Soft Scrub (Inspired by Annie’s Homemade Soft Scrubber)
1/2 cup baking soda
Tea tree, lavender, or peppermint Castille soap (see note)
5 drops antibacterial essential oil such as peppermint, tea tree oil, oregano, lemon, thyme, or eucalyptus
Pour the baking soda in a bowl and slowly stir in enough liquid soap until you have a thick paste, add essential oil. Use as you would a commercial soft scrub.
Note: Only use liquid soap if you have soft water. If you have hard water, use liquid dish detergent.
By Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor, Healthy & Green Living