Cleaning & Disinfecting 101

What are germs? What's the difference between a bacteria and virus? How are germs spread? How can germs be eliminated? We're glad you asked. Find all this and more.

Introduction to Microorganisms

A microorganism is an organism that is too small to be seen by the naked eye — in other words, it is "microscopic." Microorganisms include bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and prions, among others. Microorganisms exist virtually everywhere, and most are harmless. In fact, many microorganisms promote good health.

But when a microorganism has the potential to be harmful, it is often referred to as a "germ." There are different types of common germs that can be controlled through basic hygiene and cleaning practices. These include:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Fungi (mold and mildew)

About Germs

Germs live in soil, air, water, food, animals, plants, and people. Even most germs with a potential to cause illness can often be helpful. For example, many bacteria that live inside the human body are beneficial, and exposure to other germs can help humans build up their immune systems and stay healthy.

But in some instances, exposure to harmful germs can cause conditions like foodborne illness, diarrhea, and other diseases. Some are easily managed and can go away on their own; others are more serious and can lead to severe illness. It's important to practice healthy habits and prevent the spread of these germs.

Germs can be spread via:

  • Direct contact — like touching the hand of some who is sick.
  • Indirect contact — like touching a surface that held raw food, or was contaminated by someone who is sick.
  • Through the air — like when someone coughs into the air.
  • Through contaminated food and water.
  • Some germs are spread through contact with animals or by a bite or scratch.

How and Where Germs Survive

Germs thrive in moist conditions. In some instances, germs can live on surfaces for hours — and even days. For example, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, flu germs can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours... and the Agency has noted that staph and MRSA germs can survive on some surfaces for hours, days or even months, depending on such factors as temperature and humidity.

The important thing to note is that while surfaces may look clean, it can contain many infectious germs. You need to disinfect to reduce germs on surfaces.

Cleaning versus Disinfection

Cleaning and disinfecting are not the same thing. Cleaning removes germs from surfaces, whereas disinfecting actually destroys them.

Cleaning with soap and water to remove dirt and most of the germs is often enough for daily cleaning. However, the Public Health Agency of Canada stresses that it's important to routinely clean and disinfect surfaces, too, to prevent the spread of germs and protect your family.

  • Disinfectants are registered with Health Canada and contain ingredients that destroy bacteria and other germs. Check the product label to make sure it says "Disinfectant" and has a DIN number.

There are different categories of germ reduction products, as well:

  • Disinfectant: Kills pathogenic germs (but not spores)
  • Sanitizer: Kills 99.9% of pathogenic germs
  • Antiseptic: Kills germs on the skin (such as an alcohol-based hand sanitizer)

Examples of Illnesses Caused by Germs

Viruses are very Challenging Germs

Viruses are different from bacteria and mold/mildew. They are extremely small — only 1/100th of the size of bacteria or mold/mildew. But unlike bacteria or mold/mildew, which are capable of growing on their own, viruses need a host to infect in order to reproduce. It is through this process that viruses cause disease.

In many cases, it only takes one virus particle to make you sick. That's why frequent handwashing and surface disinfection are important measures to help control the spread of disease — especially those caused by viruses.

Read more about reducing the spread of germs in Healthy Homes.

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Prevention Tips


Handwashing is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of germs. Every time you touch a contaminated surface, you can transfer germs to and from your hands — but proper and thorough handwashing removes most germs from your hands.

When to Wash

  • Before eating.
  • Before, during or after preparing food.
  • Immediately after handling raw foods, such as poultry.
  • Before picking up a baby
  • Before dressing a wound, giving medicine, or inserting contact lenses.
  • After visiting the toilet or changing a diaper.
  • After contact with blood or body fluids (like vomit, nasal secretions, saliva).
  • After touching animals or their toys, leashes or waste.
  • After touching a contaminated area (e.g., trash can, cleaning cloth, drain, soil).
  • More often when someone in your home is sick.
  • Whenever hands look dirty.

How to Wash

  • Wet your hands and apply liquid, bar, or powder soap.
  • Rub hands together vigorously to make a lather, and scrub all surfaces, including under and around the nails.
  • Rinse hands well under running water.
  • Dry your hands using a paper towel or air dryer.
  • If possible, use your paper towel to turn off the faucet.

When Soap and Water Aren't Available

You can still keep your hands clean even if water isn't available. Hand sanitizers are designed to kill germs on hands that are not visibly dirty, without the need for water or towels.

Hand Sanitizing Gel:

  • Apply gel per label directions.
  • Rub hands together briskly, including the front and back, between fingers, around and under nails until hands are dry.

Hand Wipes:

  • Wipe all areas of hands until they are visibly clean.
  • Use one or more wipes, and dispose of them in an appropriate trash container.
  • Let hands air dry.
Ounce of Prevention Program

Ounce of Prevention Program

Together, CDC and LYSOL created the Ounce of Prevention Program, designed to help families practice effective germ prevention every day.

The easy-to-adopt messages from Ounce of Prevention are:

1. Clean Your Hands Often. Keeping your hands clean is one of the best ways to keep from getting sick and spreading illnesses.

2. Routinely Clean and Disinfect Surfaces. Cleaning with soap, water, and scrubbing removes dirt and most germs. However, using a disinfectant cleaner kills germs, giving even better protection.

3. Handle and Prepare Food Safely.

  • Clean hands and surfaces often
  • Separate — don't cross-contaminate one food with another
  • Cook foods to proper temperatures
  • Chill — refrigerate foods promptly

4. Get Immunized. Getting immunizations is easy, low-cost, and saves lives. Make sure you and your kids get the shots suggested by your doctor.

5. Use Antibiotics Appropriately. Antibiotics don't work against viruses such as colds and flu. Unnecessary antibiotics can be harmful. Antibiotics should be taken exactly as prescribed by your doctor.

6. Be Careful with Pets. Pets should be routinely cared for by a vet. Babies and children under age 5 should be watched carefully around pets and animals. Always wash hands after touching animals or animal waste.

7. Avoid Contact with Wild Animals. Wild animals can carry deadly diseases and pass them to you and your pets. Keep your house free of wild animals by not leaving any food around. Keep garbage cans sealed.

Ounce of Prevention includes a free downloadable brochure and poster.. It also features a custom website for kids, to get them excited about handwashing, safety, and other health topics. Visit Ounce of Prevention for Kids..

Learn more about the Ounce of Prevention program at Partners in Germ Prevention..

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Other Tips for Reducing Infection

The Ounce of Prevention Campaign encourages good personal and home hygiene to help practice germ prevention, and urges prompt immunizations. In addition, there are other important things you can do to reduce the risk of infection for yourself and your family.

Practice these important behaviours, and teach them to your children, too. When combined with frequent and thorough handwashing, these simple tips can help protect your children from germs.

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes. Use a tissue and dispose of it in the trash. If no tissue is available, use cough or sneeze into your sleeve.
  • Avoid close contact. Stay home if you are sick, and do not come in close contact with someone else who is ill. If your child is sick, contact your healthcare provider to see how long you should keep your child home from school, and when he/she will no longer be contagious.
  • Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes, especially during cold and flu season.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Good nutrition helps strengthen your immune system to make you better able to fight infections.
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle. This can boost your immune system and help keep you free from disease.
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Surface Disinfection

The Public Health Agency of Canada also recommends surface disinfection as an important element in containing the spread of germs, including cold and flu germs. Wipe down the following surfaces with a household disinfectant according to directions on the product label:

  • Kitchen counters and surfaces
  • Bedside tables
  • Surfaces in the bathroom
  • Toys for children

After disinfecting, be sure to rinse children's toys and items that will come into direct contact with food.

Read more about LYSOL's Partners in Germ Prevention..

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A Special Note about At-Risk Audiences

Germ prevention is especially important if you, or someone in your home, is in an at-risk group. This can include young children, the elderly, women who are pregnant, those with a chronic health condition, or those whose immune system may be suppressed. In these instances, the immune system may be less able to fight off disease and infection.

Practising frequent and thorough handwashing and surface cleaning/disinfection are extremely important for reducing the spread of germs to these and other at-risk audiences.

Learn more Who is at Risk?

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