Hard Surface Cleaners — A Guide to What the Label Tells You (surfacecleaners)

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Hard Surface Cleaners – A Guide to What the Label Tells You

Submitted by Lorene Bartos, UNL Extension Educator

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With so many new cleaning products on the market, it's more important than ever to read the labels, understand what the terms mean, and follow the manufacturers' instructions. The Soap and Detergent Association offers some explanations.

Disinfectants and Sanitizers:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cleaning and disinfecting are not the same. While soap and hot water can remove some germs from surfaces when you clean, they can't kill all germs. In fact, they may even spread them around. Use a disinfectant or sanitizing product when you want to kill germs on a hard surface. Disinfectants and sanitizers come in many forms and each has its own benefits. Check the label to see what you are getting.

Disinfectants and anti-microbials are designed to destroy pathogenic micro-organisms, which are causative agents involved in communicable human diseases. These diseases can run the gamut from the common cold and staph infections to foodborne illnesses and tuberculosis.

Sanitizers are designed to reduce the number of micro-organisms to a safe level by killing them; typically, sanitizers kill 99.9% of these germs.

Any product claiming to kill bacteria or viruses must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). So, if destroying these agents is your goal, look for cleaning products having an EPA registration number on the product label.

Be sure to follow the label directions, as many products need to "stand" on a surface for a period of time in order to kill germs.


For surface cleaners, cleaner/disinfectants and cleaner/sanitizers, active ingredients are listed on the product packaging. The following ingredient function categories are often used in many home hygiene products. Note not all products in these categories contain all of the ingredient categories.

Cleaning agents/surfactants: Lift dirt and soil and helps remove germs from surfaces.

Buffering agents: Stabilize the various ingredients in the formula.

Fragrances: Give consumers a choice of pleasing scents.

Disinfecting and sanitizing ingredients: Kill bacteria, viruses and/or fungi that cause odors, mold and/or illness. Some of the more frequently used active ingredients are sodium hypochlorite, ethanol, pine oil, hydrogen peroxide, citric acid and quats (quaternary ammonium compounds).

"Warning," "Caution" and "Danger" Designations:

"Caution" and "warning" are the most commonly used "signal words" for cleaning products. These two terms are interchangeable for household cleaning products. They mean the product is not likely to produce permanent damage as a result of exposure. However, keep in mind appropriate first aid should always be given in case of exposure.

"Danger" indicates accidental exposure to the undiluted product could cause damage to the mouth, throat and stomach; or the material could ignite, if exposed to an open flame, heat or spark.

When selecting cleaning products, be sure to read the labels and use products that are right for the cleaning you are doing.

Ask Lorene

(This resource was added March 2008 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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