Killing germs requires a two-step process, cleaning and disinfecting, says Susan Sumner, PhD, a food scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Cleaning means removing surface dirt and debris, and while it is an important part of the germ-killing process, it doesn’t kill germs by itself. Cleaning a surface ensures that germs have no place to hide from chemicals that can kill them. “You have to have a clean, clean surface to sanitize,” Sumner says.       

But what about kitchen cleaners that contain disinfectants? Do these products make it possible to clean and disinfect in one step? Only if a surface is not heavily soiled, Sumner says. Otherwise, germs may linger.

Elizabeth Scott, PhD, a microbiologist who is the co-director of the Center for Hygiene and Health in the Home and the Community at Simmons College in Boston, Mass., recommends using a recycled paper towel, not a kitchen sponge, to get crumbs and spills off the counter. Toss the paper towel in the trash and then follow by applying a disinfectant. Because some chemicals take up to 10 minutes to fully disinfect a surface, be sure to read the label to find out how long you need to leave it on. Then be sure to wash your hands.

To be sure you’re using a product that actually kills germs, Scott suggests looking for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration number on the label. And watch for two words: sanitize and disinfect. These are legal terms that guarantee that a product will meet certain specifications. “Sanitize” means it will kill 99.99 percent of specified bacteria within 30 seconds of application. “Disinfect” means it will kill all specified organisms within 10 minutes of application. It is possible for an agent to both sanitize and disinfect, depending on how long you leave it on.

One of the best and least expensive disinfectants is chlorine bleach, but in recent years, experts have been sounding the alarm about the use of chlorine bleach and its connection to dioxin, a potent, cancer-causing chemical that is persistent in the environment.