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Keeping Your Home Clean: Choosing a Sanitizer

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Amarat Simonne, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

I have two elementary-school-aged kids, and sometimes, especially in fall and winter, I start feeling like it might be a good idea to coat them with hand sanitizer before they leave for school! The colds, fevers, sore throats, and stomach “bugs” they bring home can seem endless.

Then again, sometimes I look around my kitchen and start to wonder if I should fire my housecleaner. (Note: I have no housecleaner!) Look at that sink! The cabinets—yikes! And what IS that sticky thing on the floor?

With all this in mind, I’ve recently been thinking about how to better sanitize my home. I want to eliminate more of the viruses and bacteria that can spread illnesses like colds, flu, and foodborne disease to my family. But I don’t want to spend a lot of money or time, or worry that products will be harsh or highly toxic. What options do I have?

Clean First!

Experts advise that first of all, before we sanitize, we have to clean. Products that kill germs will be ineffective if dirt, grease, and other organic matter remain on surfaces. So my first step, clearly, is to thoroughly clean surfaces like counters, sinks, faucets, appliances, and so on with soap and water.

Option #1: “Quat” Compounds

When I move on to sanitizing, there are several choices. One option is so-called “quat” products that contain quaternary ammonium compounds (these are sold under various familiar brand names). You’ll probably see something about alkyl dimethyl ammonium chlorides on the label. These products are effective, but may need to stand on surfaces for 10 minutes to work, and must be rinsed off any surface where food will be prepared. Some people don’t want to use them because they may cause skin and nasal irritation and have been associated with asthma.

Option #2: Bleach-Based Sanitizers

Another surface sanitizing choice is a familiar product to all of us: unscented liquid bleach. Bleach must be used with care, as it is harmful to eyes and skin and irritates the lungs. However, it’s also inexpensive and highly effective, and does not need to be rinsed off surfaces after use. Concentration levels in some bleaches have recently changed, so it isn’t possible to make a single recommendation for how to mix up a bleach/water spray—but it’s easy. Look at the label on your bleach bottle for the “recipe.” Remember never to mix bleach with other cleaners. You will also see premixed cleaners at the store that use bleach as a base.

Option #3: Vinegar or Hydrogen Peroxide

You can also make cheap and simple surface sanitizers at home from white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. The most effective vinegar solution involves briefly heating the vinegar, but you can also use unheated vinegar. These formulas are less toxic, but a bit less effective than some other choices. To learn more about how to make these simple home sanitizers, check out this UF-IFAS publication.

Option #4: Thymol-Based Sanitizers

Finally, I recently purchased a new type of EPA-registered sanitizer that uses thymol, an ingredient derived from the thyme plant. Its label states that it kills 99% of many household germs, and it has the bonus of being very safe to use around food and people. It needs to stay on surfaces for 10 minutes before being wiped dry to be effective, and it does have a strong herbal smell. We may see more of these botanically based sanitizers in the future.

Although sanitizers are important, there’s no substitute for good handwashing practices and for avoiding dangerous cross-contamination when preparing food. Also remember to follow the basic food safety steps of Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill when preparing food. With this knowledge by your side and a better understanding of how to reduce dangerous germs in your home, you can look forward to a healthier tomorrow.

(Photo credit: ulkan/iStock/Thinkstock)


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