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The Dish on Dirt

Societies are more hygienic today than ever before.1

We have grown accustomed to frequent bathing, modern lavatories, and an entire industry dedicated to cleaning, but cleanliness was not always the standard.2 While the Greeks and the Romans revered cleanliness and had luxurious baths, hundreds of years later in the Renaissance Era, people believed that dirt clogged pores and prevented catching diseases. When France’s Louis Pasteur and Germany’s Robert Koch developed the germ theory in the 1860’s and 1870’s perceptions began to change. Germ theory states that specific microorganisms (better known as germs) cause certain diseases.3 Following this discovery, people realized the importance of sanitizing and disinfecting, to get rid of these disease-causing germs, and cleanliness became popular again. Today, cleaning is a part of daily life for many homemakers.4

Removing dirt from surfaces and appliances keeps homes safer by eliminating matter that may contain pathogens. Dirt, however, isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, some immunologists believe that hyper-sterile environments prevent children from fully developing immune systems as they lack exposure to bacteria.5 In addition, early exposure to dirt can prevent children from developing asthma and allergies.6

Dirt includes grime, soil, and filth.  Grime is a black, ingrained dust, such as soot. Soil is the mixture of clay, sand, and humus, which lies on top of bedrock. Filth is general dirt, or excrement. Dirt can be temporary; this type can be removed with ordinary cleaning, or it can be permanent when dirt is an ingrained stain and causes physical damage to an object.7,8 Follow these tips to learn how to remove dirt from clothing and appliances.

Removing Dirt from Clothes

Whether you’re washing your gardening gear or your children’s play clothes, dirt can generally be removed with laundry detergent and washing. Remember to not only check the care labels on garments, but also the labels on detergents, stain sprays, and bleach. It is important to use the right product in the correct manner to do the most thorough job. There are many detergents that will clean your clothing effectively, but you might have to choose between a low, medium, or high sudsing detergent depending on how large your load is and what your washing machine can handle. For instance, if you have a high efficiency (HE) washer make sure to use HE detergent, which is low sudsing. Never use regular detergent in an HE washer because it will create an excess amount of suds, and could overflow your machine. Remember, more detergent does not mean more cleaning power.  You can also use laundry packets- which are capsules that have an appropriate quantity of detergent inside that is released during the wash cycle.  Make sure to the read label for the approporaite quantity to use for the size of the load you are washing.  And always store laundry detergent in the packaging it came in and away from children.

It is also important to use the right kind of bleach on the right items of clothing. There are two basic types of bleach on the market, “chlorine bleach” and color safe “non-chlorine bleach”. Chlorine bleach not only decolorizes and breaks down stains, it also disinfects and sanitizes, killing bacteria, viruses, molds, mildew, and fungus.9 Chlorine bleach should only be used to wash color-fast clothing items, and it is temporarily irritating to the eyes and skin, so it is important to store this product out of reach of children. If you have a tough stain on a non-color-fast item of clothing you should use non-chlorine bleach which will break up stains and make clothes look brighter, but will not disinfect.10

If you happen to get mud on an article of clothing, gently massage detergent into the stain and let sit for 20 minutes.11 If clothes are particularly soiled, use the “soak” option on your washing machine. Pretreatment products are also helpful if you have a particularly tough stain to get out. These products are applied to stains prior to laundering, and they contain surfactants and enzymes that break apart and lift stains from fabric.12 Check clothes after washing before putting them in the dryer to ensure that stains were removed; drying stained clothes can make the stain permanent.13

Removing Dirt from Appliances

Appliances can harbor dirt and grime. In the past, families would clean in the spring when the weather turned; they would remove furniture, beat rugs, and scrub windows and floors.14 Today, most people do a thorough cleaning every few months. Once you have decided that today’s the day to deep clean your entire home you need a plan of attack, and with so many different surfaces to get to it can often feel overwhelming to decide what product to use where. There is a multitude of different products that are formulated to clean each specific part of your home, so here is the breakdown:

When tackling any kitchen surface disinfection is key. Areas where you prepare food can be heavily contaminated with microorganisms (germs), and the only way to prevent the spread of disease is to eliminate these germs with a disinfectant. Make sure to read the label of any disinfectant you use, and follow the “spray-wait-wipe” method to allow the disinfectant ample time to soak through and kill the microorganisms.15 More specifically, to clean stainless steel appliances, use a stainless-steel cleaner.16 Refrigerators require elbow grease and soap and water, especially because they store food that can be contaminated. When cleaning microwaves, unplug and use a simple household cleaner.17 Finally, to clean the sink, use a disinfectant detergent and a stainless-steel cleaner if applicable. If your sink is backed up, use a drain cleaner to clear the blockage. This product uses a combination of chemicals to dissolve clogs, so it is imperative that you read and follow the directions on the bottle for usage and storage because many drain cleaners contain ingredients that can be corrosive to the skin and eyes.

Disinfection is also important when cleaning your bathroom because bacteria and viruses are aerosolized and deposited on surfaces each time your toilet is flushed.18 The general rule for cleaning in the bathroom is to do a thorough disinfecting once a week. Follow the “spray-wait-wipe” method in the bathroom as well. For example, if you are applying a mold and mildew-eliminating product let it sit in your grout before you brush it away. This also applies to the products used to eliminate soap scum and water spots that can build up on your tub, plastic shower curtain, or glass shower door.19 The label on any of these products will direct you to the length of time you should let the product sit before washing, scrubbing, or wiping it away. To clean mirrors, windows, or other high shine surfaces use a glass cleaner in small quantities, and wipe the product with a clean cloth until the area is clean to avoid streaks.20 Finally, keep toothbrushes and other personal hygiene, like razors, stored away to prevent them from coming in to contact with airborne germs from flushing toilets.21

Dirt can easily settle on floors in any room and be ingrained into carpets. For hardwood, sweep or use a dry mop to remove minimal amounts of dust or debris. Use a wood-floor cleaner for more significant accumulations of dirt, and mop with the grain to remove. Vacuums are great for removing extremely small particles from carpets including dust, hair, and loose dirt. Finish cleaning with a spot cleaning treatment or a carpet shampoo if necessary. Always read the labels before cleaning to learn how to use each product properly.


  1. Montgomery, D. R. (2007). Dirt : The Erosion of Civilizations (1). Berkeley, US: University of California Press. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com.proxyau.wrlc.org
  2. The Economist . (2009, December 17). The Joy of Dirt. Retrieved May 8, 2017, from http://www.economist.com/node/15108662#print
  3. http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/contagion/germtheory.html
  4. The Economist . (2009, December 17). The Joy of Dirt. Retrieved May 8, 2017, from http://www.economist.com/node/15108662#print
  5. The Economist . (2009, December 17). The Joy of Dirt. Retrieved May 8, 2017, from http://www.economist.com/node/15108662#print
  6. Dirt. (2017, May 03). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirt
  7. Dirt. (2017, May 03). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirt
  8. Dirt. (2017, May 03). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirt
  9. Bernarducci, E., Bilancieri, J., Cassin, T., Chase, B., Endres, M., Fisher, R.,… Zdanowski, D. (1992) The CSMA Consumer Products Handbook. Washington D.C., US. Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association, Inc.
  10. Bernarducci, E., Bilancieri, J., Cassin, T., Chase, B., Endres, M., Fisher, R.,… Zdanowski, D. (1992) The CSMA Consumer Products Handbook. Washington D.C., US. Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association, Inc.
  11. How to Remove Mud Stains from Clothes. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://www.persil.com/uk/laundry/laundry-tips/stains/how-to-remove-mud-stains-from-clothes.html
  12. Bernarducci, E., Bilancieri, J., Cassin, T., Chase, B., Endres, M., Fisher, R.,… Zdanowski, D. (1992) The CSMA Consumer Products Handbook. Washington D.C., US. Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association, Inc.
  13. Editors, S. (2017, May 09). Don't give up on your favorite shirt without trying these stain-removal tips first. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.sheknows.com/home-and-gardening/articles/8153/stain-removal-smarts-how-to-get-stains-out-of-your-clothes
  14. K, J. (2010, March 25). Spring cleaning is based on practices from generations ago. Retrieved May 8, 2017, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/23/AR2010032303492.html
  15. Wagner, J. Spray-“Wait”-Wipe. Retrieved August 29, 2017 from http://micro-scientific.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/techbulletin1.pdf
  16. Kender, D., Lynch, T.W. (2017, March 16). How to clean every part of your surprisingly gross kitchen. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://dishwashers.reviewed.com/features/how-to-clean-almost-every-appliance-in-your-kitchen
  17. Kender, D., Lynch, T.W. (2017, March 16). How to clean every part of your surprisingly gross kitchen. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://dishwashers.reviewed.com/features/how-to-clean-almost-every-appliance-in-your-kitchen
  18. Bernarducci, E., Bilancieri, J., Cassin, T., Chase, B., Endres, M., Fisher, R.,… Zdanowski, D. (1992) The CSMA Consumer Products Handbook. Washington D.C., US. Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association, Inc.
  19. Kerr, J. A Smarter Way to Clean Your Home. Retrieved August 29, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/how-to-clean
  20. Bernarducci, E., Bilancieri, J., Cassin, T., Chase, B., Endres, M., Fisher, R.,… Zdanowski, D. (1992) The CSMA Consumer Products Handbook. Washington D.C., US. Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association, Inc.
  21. C. (2011, January 21). De-Germing Your House: Words to the Wise. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/de-germing-your-house-words-to-the-wise/

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