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5 Tips for Cleaning & Disinfecting Safely


  • Many chemicals can cause symptoms if mixed together while cleaning.
  • Keep all chemicals in their original containers.
  • Do not put cleaning products into a water bottle.
  • Read the directions completely before use.

Have you been cleaning your house more than ever before? With all of the coronavirus concerns, it is good to be extra thorough when disinfecting and wiping down “high contact” surfaces. But, check before you mix those chemicals, because some things just don’t mix and not all chemicals are appropriate for every cleaning job.

The Missouri Poison Center has had an increase in calls about cleaning products, disinfectants, and hand sanitizers due to concerns over COVID-19. Follow these 5 tips for cleaning and disinfecting safely.


Although household bleach smells very strong, the product is mostly made up of water. The actual bleach chemical (sodium hypochlorite) varies in concentration from 5-8%. On its own, bleach can be irritating, especially when used in closed spaces with little to no ventilation. When bleach is mixed with ammonia containing cleaners, chloramine gas is released. If it is mixed with cleaners having an acidic pH (such as vinegar), chlorine gas is released. Chlorine gas can also be released when bleach is mixed with urine, such as when cleaning the area around a toilet or when pets stains are cleaned.

Both chloramine and chlorine gases are immediately irritating with a very pungent odor, causing watering of the eyes, runny nose and coughing. Our natural reaction is to turn our faces away from the gas, and to leave the area, which is our body’s way of protecting us from further symptoms. Sometimes people are just determined to finish their cleaning job, but it is very important to listen to your body and get away from the area. If possible, crack a window open and turn on the vent fan. Close the door to the room and stay out of the area until the smell has dissipated. Symptoms are usually relieved with fresh air and sipping cool fluids. Exposure to chlorine and chloramine gases are rarely serious, with only a small percentage of cases requiring medical attention.


Vinegar has become a favorite for those wanting to avoid chemical cleaners, but it should not be mixed with hydrogen peroxide (keep in mind many of the OxiCleanTM products contain hydrogen peroxide). When vinegar of any kind is mixed in the same container with hydrogen peroxide, periacetic acid is formed. Periacetic acid is used as a sanitizer, but in high concentrations it is corrosive and can cause irritation of the skin, eyes and respiratory system.


Hand sanitizers have a high percentage of alcohol as the active ingredient (usually ethyl or isopropyl alcohol, or a combination of both). The alcohol in the hand sanitizer can have the same effects as drinking an alcoholic beverage, but this is not likely in accidental taste ingestions. When applied to the hands, these sanitizers are effective in reducing illness by killing germs. Bottles of hand sanitizer are frequently scented with attractive fragrances, left out for convenience, and are not usually packaged in child-resistant containers. This makes them very attractive to curious children, leading to accidental tastes and licks of the gel. The use of hand sanitizer by children should be supervised by an adult; it is NOT TRUE that children can get drunk from licking their hands after application. In a healthy toddler, it would take much more than the dime-sized amount typically used to sanitize hands.

Abuse of hand sanitizers for the high alcohol content is very different from a curious child licking the gel. If you know of an adult or teen abusing hand sanitizer, call the Missouri Poison Center. The poison center is open all day, every day for poisoning emergencies and questions.


There are many different brands of disinfectant wipes available for household use, such as Lysol® or Clorox® Disinfecting Wipes. The ingredients vary from brand to brand, but their purpose is to disinfect hard surfaces such as countertops, floors, bathroom fixtures, keyboards, and phones. If a surface is dirty, it should first be cleaned with soap and water. Then, a disinfectant wipe can be used to help kill germs such as viruses and bacteria. Read the directions carefully, most times the hard surface needs to stay wet with the disinfectant for several minutes to ensure all germs are killed.

Disinfectants are not intended to be used on the skin or in the body because they can irritate the skin or cause toxic effects if a large amount is swallowed. Sometimes children are found chewing on a disinfectant wipe and may get the clear liquid disinfectant into their mouths. If you find your child chewing on a disinfectant wipe, do not panic and call the Missouri Poison Center for advice.


Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting there’s actually a difference between these three terms. Cleaning removes germs and dirt from surfaces, but does not necessarily kill germs. Disinfecting works by using chemicals that kill germs after cleaning. Sanitizing lowers the number of germs to a safe level and can be done by cleaning or disinfecting, depending on the process. Actual disinfectants should never be used on surfaces that come into direct contact with food. Some products, like sanitizers, can be used in this way, but it is important to follow package guidelines.

Products such as cleaners, disinfecting wipes, and alcohol based hand sanitizers need to be kept up, away, and out of sight of children in their original containers. For information about which product to use when, follow expert advice, and do not create your own blend of products. The CDC has a great website to learn more about this topic:

For any questions or concerns about safe use of chemicals, call the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222. Specially trained nurses and pharmacists are available 24/7/365 to answer your questions. The service is free and confidential.

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