Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

What's The Difference?

October 5, 2012

Last year, a Wal-Mart store in Baltimore was evacuated when two patrons got into an altercation.

Bleach, another disinfectant product and ammonia were alleged to have been thrown at one of the parties involved.

Potentially harmful and irritating fumes were emitted from the site that forced the closure of the store for several hours as emergency medical services (EMS) and hazardous materials units assessed the situation, cleaned up the spill and ventilated the building.

As many as 19 people were transported to hospitals suffering from eye injuries and respiratory ailments.

The Wal-Mart story is a vivid illustration that, while many may be used in daily cleaning processes, chemicals have different properties and may not be compatible to use together.

The irritating fumes created at the Wal-Mart store may have been the result of bleach and ammonia mixing together and releasing harmful chlorine gas.

Harmful fumes can also be released when bleach comes in to contact with the ingredients of many of the disinfectant cleaning products available on the market today.

The best way to avoid creating a hazardous environment is to avoid mixing cleaning products or co-using them without first undertaking a thorough rinse of the entire surface.

A brief description of the properties and uses of bleach and disinfectant cleaners will assist in making the best product choice for the task at hand.

When To Use Bleach

Bleach has been around for more than 50 years and, when it is not being utilized as a weapon, it is both tried and true for many common tasks.

In fact, bleach is an appropriate chemical for removing or "bleaching" stains on many surfaces such as grout, shower curtains and, of course, our laundry whites.

Bleach is recommended for use as a sanitizing agent for direct food contact surfaces such as dishes and utensils prior to putting them into service.

It can also be used to disinfect fabrics and other "soft and porous" surfaces that have been contaminated with harmful germs, a task which ready-to-use disinfectant (RTU) cleaning products are not designed to perform.

Although bleach can be used effectively as a disinfectant for many tasks, it has some attributes that can make it less desirable than a RTU disinfecting product for some applications.

Household bleach is made up of about five percent active sodium hypochlorite.

At this concentration, bleach can be damaging to and/or cause discoloration of surfaces, clothing and other materials with which it comes in contact.

It also emits a strong odor that can become unpleasant or irritating in areas that do not provide sufficient ventilation.

Bleach must be diluted according to the label instructions to prepare the appropriate solution strength for the various cleaning and disinfecting tasks it can perform.

The contact time required for bleach to disinfect a surface is 10 minutes.

In some circumstances, it is recommended that the contaminated surface be pre-cleaned prior to the disinfection step.

Therefore, while it can be used effectively as a disinfectant, bleach has some inherent limitations, and a general purpose RTU disinfectant product may be the more appropriate choice.

When To Choose A Disinfectant

The formula common to most RTU disinfectants on the market today is an aqueous alkaline base with a quaternary ammonium compound (quat) as the active disinfecting ingredient.

In addition to disinfecting, many of these products contain detergents for use in cleaning heavily soiled surfaces prior to the disinfection step.

These disinfectant products will not "bleach" or discolor surfaces when they are used according to the label instructions.

RTU disinfectants are generally not corrosive or damaging to eyes, skin or contact surfaces in their final concentration.

Most of these products have added fragrances to impart a pleasant scent when they are used.

As RTU products, they do not require any diluting and, in fact, they must be maintained in their original concentration to ensure adequate disinfection of treated surfaces.

The required dwell time for many RTU disinfectant products is far less than the 10 minutes required for bleach to disinfect surfaces; it may be under one minute for some common germs.

The main limitation in using RTU disinfectant products is that they are designed to kill germs on hard and non-porous surfaces, and they are not proven to be sufficiently effective in killing germs on fabrics and porous surfaces such as concrete.

But, for cleaning staffs and facilities maintenance personnel, the ability to apply a disinfectant product in a RTU spray applicator to most hard, non-porous surfaces to both clean and disinfect them can be a major benefit compared to the time and effort required to dilute and apply an appropriate solution of bleach.

With a RTU disinfectant product, as long as you do not dilute or contaminate the contents inside the bottle, you are ready to go.

Registration Requirements For Disinfectants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the regulating body for all disinfectant products.

Efficacy claims and required product dwell times must be substantiated by a third-party laboratory using Association of Official Analytical Chemists' (AOAC) germs and test protocols and submitted to the EPA for review and acceptance.

Only then can a germ kill claim be placed on the label of a disinfectant product.

To be labeled as a hospital-grade disinfectant product by the EPA, a product must pass the AOAC effectiveness tests against three specific organisms: Salmonella choleraesuis, for effectiveness against gram-negative bacteria; Staphylococcus aureus, for effectiveness against gram-positive bacteria; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, for effectiveness against primarily nosocomial pathogens — those favored for growth in a healthcare environment.

Both bleach and many RTU disinfectant products carry hospital-grade disinfection claims.

Consult the product label to determine if a disinfectant product meets your requirements and the dwell time it requires to kill specific germs.

Disinfectant manufacturers may also test products for effectiveness against specific organisms of known concern in healthcare facilities or to public health such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the hepatitis C and the herpes virus.

It is the generally accepted belief of experts that a product satisfying the AOAC tests for a hospital-grade disinfectant designation would also be considered effective against other relatively fragile microorganisms providing it is used according to the manufacturer's label instructions.

But, validation of a specific germ is necessary to claim it on the product label.

The EPA allows both bleach and RTU disinfectant products to be used in healthcare facilities and other industrial and institutional environments to both clean and kill germs.

When used according to label instructions, both categories of products can be effective.

Cleaning and maintenance staffs in industrial and institutional facilities should consider ease of use, the speed of disinfection, surface type and appropriateness in making their determination of whether bleach or a RTU disinfectant product is the more appropriate choice for a given application.


Claudia Britton is the technology manager for Permatex, an ITW company. The Spray Nine brand, a recent Permatex acquisition, has been a leader in the development and manufacturing of high-quality cleaning products since 1948. Spray Nine is credited with introducing the industry's first "spray-on, wipe-off" disinfectant cleaner. For more information about ready-to-use disinfectants and the other cleaning solutions offered by the Spray Nine brand from Permatex, visit www.SprayNine.com.