Clearing Up the Hype Around ‘Hygiene Theater’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance for how to clean and disinfect surfaces properly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at home and in facilities.

In the days after the release of that guidance, we were dismayed to read many misleading headlines and media stories claiming that previous advice about using disinfecting products was just “hygiene theater.”

That latter term has received a lot of hype in recent months, with overzealous claims that there is too much cleaning and disinfecting.

But there is a role for proper cleaning and regular disinfecting in everyday life, before, during and after COVID.

We all can certainly agree: No one wants to overuse or misuse disinfectants. What might be lost in the media coverage on the CDC’s guidance is the important role these products do play.

The CDC recommends situations as to when proper use of these products make sense, situations that occur every day for millions of people across the United States, such as during flu season.

Personal hygiene and regular cleaning are essential to good health and the key to preventing the spread of germs, bacteria or viruses that can make us sick. In fact, new data released from the American Cleaning Institute found that 70 percent of Americans view cleaning as a way to ensure the health and safety of themselves and their families.

The use of the term “hygiene theater” and the hype surrounding it has led to too many misleading narratives being played up in the media, such as “soap vs. sanitizers” and “cleaning vs. disinfecting.”

What we can’t lose sight of is the need for smart, targeted hygiene. This boils down to using the right amount of the right product for the right task. Or, in other words, “read the label.”

The terms cleaning and disinfecting can often be confused, but it is important to understand the difference: Cleaning involves removing dirt and germs from a surface, but it doesn’t necessarily kill bacteria, viruses and other germs. Disinfecting is actually killing germs. When you disinfect after first cleaning the surface, it can reduce the spread of illness by killing the remaining germs that may cause illness.

The best way to reduce the spread of germs, especially on frequently touched surfaces, is to clean and disinfect. Clean the surface first to remove dirt and grime and then disinfect. Target high-touch surfaces that are more likely to carry harmful viruses and bacteria, and the areas where you’re most likely to pick up those viruses and bacteria: doorknobs, light switches, remote controls and appliance handles, to name a few examples.

This is even more important in commercial settings and offices, where so many businesses are trying to get back on their feet, welcoming back employees and customers.

Let’s quit disparaging the use of products and chemistries that are essential to public health. Instead, let’s encourage the safe and responsible use of cleaning, hygiene and disinfecting products that will continue to be necessary long past the coronavirus pandemic.


Melissa Hockstad is the president & CEO of the American Cleaning Institute.

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