Learn exactly what you need to do to fully clean and disinfect your kitchen to minimize the risk of illness and cross-contamination at home.
Whether you have a huge kitchen or a compact kitchenette in a studio apartment, cleaning, and disinfecting practices are the same. Regular cleaning and, when warranted, sterilization of the kitchen space not only reduces the risk of issues that can make us sick.
This article covers exactly what you need to know to thoroughly and properly clean and care for your kitchen appliances, surfaces, and floors. As a result, your cooking space will be safe and healthy.
What is clean and sterile, anyway?
First, let’s cover the lingo. What exactly do these terms mean, and how is “clean” different from “sterile”?
- Clean. When an object or surface is referred to as clean, this means there’s no dirt, dust, or grime visible to the naked eye. Remember: Clean does not mean there’s no contamination. A kitchen counter, for example, can be wiped clean of crumbs but may be covered in invisible bacteria.
- Sterile. When an object or surface is sterile, there are no bacteria, fungi, spores, or viruses that can potentially cause illness. Note: a clean surface isn’t necessarily a sterile one.
How do cleaning and disinfecting products work?
To clean and disinfect surfaces and appliances in your kitchen, there are a few products you’ll want to use. Here is what you should know about the most common cleaning and disinfecting products for the kitchen and home in general.
Water. Rinsing with water helps remove dirt and bacteria. Warm water is often more effective than cold water at cleaning because it can better dissolve sticky or stubborn substances. For a deeper clean, water is most often used with other agents like alcohol, detergents, and soap. Never mix hot water with disinfectants like alcohol or bleach because these chemicals are toxic when inhaled, and high temperatures increase the risk of breathing them in with steam.
Detergents and soaps. Soaps originate from natural sources and are biodegradable. Detergents are synthetic and not typically biodegradable. Detergents and soaps work by removing fats and oils from surfaces, most effectively rinsing with warm or hot water.
Soap and water are your first defense because removing dirt makes disinfection and sterilization more effective. Soaps are usually applied on the skin while detergents are usually used to clean plastic, glass, vinyl, glazed ceramics, tiles, metal cookware, and utensils, as well as clothes and fabrics. While some soap brands are labeled as antibacterial, remember that these agents are ineffective against viruses.
Alcohol. You may be most familiar with rubbing alcohol, which is used to disinfect skin as well as surfaces. According to the CDC, you can use 70% isopropanol sold at pharmacies and grocery stores, but do not dilute it any further before using.
Bleach. To use liquid bleach, dilute 5 tablespoons in 1-gallon water, or 4 teaspoons in 1-quart water. It is best to dilute liquid bleach with cold water, because warmer temperatures will release more toxic fumes. Note: diluted bleach loses effectiveness as a disinfectant after 24 hours. Store diluted bleach in a plastic bottle or a spray bottle; empty the bottle after cleaning and rinse thoroughly to prolong the use of the bottle. Wipe the diluted bleach solution on surfaces such as glass, glazed ceramics, stainless steel, flatware, plates, tools, floors and then let it air dry. You can also wipe or rinse the surface with clean water after use. Make sure to have good ventilation while cleaning with bleach.
Hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is an unstable chemical and degrades in water to produce special nascent oxygen. This atomic form of oxygen is highly reactive and attacks lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids, acting as a disinfectant that kills bacteria, viruses, fungi, and spores. A 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide destroys rhinovirus, the same virus that is responsible for the common cold, within 6 to 8 minutes of exposure and is likely effective on the COVID-19 virus as well.
Vinegar. White vinegar is a natural, inexpensive antibacterial. Test surfaces to ensure they’re safe for this type of agent.
Baking soda. Made into a paste when mixed with water, baking soda effectively scrubs grime and dirt as it brightens.
Wet Heat. You can sterilize a wet sponge or cloth in a microwave. Remove carefully with tongs or an oven mitt. While the microwave oven is still steamy, wipe it dry with a clean dishtowel. Dishwashers can be used to sterilize utensils, dishes, storage containers, etc.
Ready, Set, Clean!
Now that you are armed with the proper cleaning products for your home, it’s time to get to work! Here are the steps to properly clean your kitchen to reduce contamination, clutter, and dirt:
Declutter. Set up your kitchen space so that appliances, dishes, and cutlery (in other words, items you use the most frequently-used items) are readily available. In addition, store away any products that you only use occasionally. And donate anything that you rarely use or no longer need.
Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after cleaning, sterilizing, and disinfecting. This is important because our skin makes for an excellent, germ-friendly breeding ground. Always wear a pair of disposable gloves when handling chemicals to protect yourself. If you have reusable gloves, make sure you only use them to clean. Use disposable sponges or paper towels, if able, when wiping down surfaces. If you’re using a spray, wear protective eyewear.
Surface cleaning. A general rule of thumb when cleaning surfaces is to first rinse and scrub with warm water and soap or detergent. Then apply a second disinfectant such as alcohol, bleach, hydrogen peroxide. Be sure what you’re using won’t damage the surface being cleaned. Finally, let all surfaces air dry or wipe them down. Standing water can be a breeding ground for bacteria.
Refrigerator. First, take everything out. Toss any expired, rotten or moldy foods. Donate or toss unused or unwanted items that are causing clutter. If you have access to compost, this is a good time to use it! Next, remove the shelves and drawers. Thoroughly clean all surfaces with water and soap. Then use a clean towel or sponge to wipe down the interior of the fridge. And don’t forget to wipe down high-touch items in particular, such as the door handle and the fridge drawers.
Optionally, you can use a solution of 1 tablespoon of liquid bleach dissolved into 1 gallon of water to sanitize. Do this after you have cleaned everything with hot, soapy water. Dry everything thoroughly before return items to the shelves and drawers. Then, as you refill the fridge, assign different areas for different types of items to keep things organized and so that you know exactly what is available and on hand. Helpfully, your fridge probably already has crisper and meat/cheese drawers, but you also can create areas with trays or bins, which are easy to pull out. Clean up spills as they occur. This way, your fridge will remain sparkling clean!
Pantry. Take everything out. Wipe down the shelves with hot, soapy water. Before reloading, check the expiration dates and toss any expired food, donate excess items that are unopened. Wipe off can lids. Clean up spills as they occur. To protect your shelving, you can also line them with stick-on shelf liners. These are easy to clean and stain-resistant.
Countertops, sink, stovetop, trash container. Wash down all surfaces with warm soapy water and a clean towel or sponge. Dry the surfaces with clean disposable paper towels or cleaning cloths. Whenever possible, clean as you go to prevent a big, unsanitary mess from accumulating.
No home-cooked meals are going to taste great if you worry that it’s covered in bacteria. So take the time to make yourself a clean place to prepare your meals.
- Business Insider: The CDC recommends wearing disposable latex gloves when disinfecting your home — here’s where to buy them affordably as prices on cleaning supplies continue to surge (July 16, 2020)
- Business Insider: How to disinfect every room in your house (June 5, 2020)
- Good Housekeeping: How to deep clean your fridge (December 6, 2020)
- Sparkles of Sunshine: 6 SIMPLE TIPS FOR CLEANING OUT YOUR PANTRY (April 2017)
- New York Magazine: The Strategist: The Best Natural Cleaning Products, According to Experts (February 14, 2020)
- Serious Eats: How to Sanitize Your Home and Kitchen During COVID-19 (April 2, 2020)
- What to Buy: To Organize Your Fridge (and Keep It Neat) (January 6, 2020)
- TipHero: Sterilize Your DishCloth in the Microwave (November 2, 2016)