Prior to being a full-time mom (my bank labels my occupation as “homemaker,” which I loathe), I was a surgical technologist. I guess I technically still am, if we are being completely honest; I keep up on my continuing education and certifications, dreaming of the day when I can go back to “the real world.”
Surgical techs are an interesting bunch. We are frighteningly well-versed in things like germs and the difference between “disinfection” and “sterilization.” We toss around profane language in everyday conversation but the word “contaminated” makes us shudder.
Nothing makes me more insane than labeling those baby bottle sanitizing machines as “bottle sterilizers.” Really? You’re selling a miniature autoclave? Or when canning recipes call for “sterilized canning jars.” Please tell me more about how I am supposed to sterilize glass jars on the stove in my kitchen…. but I digress.
In tech school, we spent quite a bit of time learning the difference between cleaning chemicals and their corresponding levels of disinfection. I even had a project where I ordered some petri dishes and agar from Amazon (prior to tech school you could find me spending my days hanging out in the biology labs at Portland State University like the super-cool kid I was, so this is right up my alley), and took swabs from different medical instruments that had been cleaned with varying levels of disinfection.
No surprise, but the petri dishes grew all sorts of nasty, smelly gobs of yuck in them, but there was a significant correlation between the level of disinfection and the size of the germ colony. My high-level disinfection swab, where the instrument was soaked in household bleach, hardly grew a thing. If it did, it was microscopic after weeks in the petri dish.
I tell you this story to explain why I think the way I do about hand-washing dishes.
In an RV, I do not have the luxury of a dishwasher. A dishwasher is an excellent way of getting a higher level of sanitation than hand-washing, because of the high temperatures and long running time it can wash with. Unfortunately, as a scrub tech, I am painfully aware that hand-washing my dishes is not the optimal way to sanitize my dishes.
So I turned to chemistry (which was, coincidentally, my college minor).
In surgery, if we cannot use the usual vapor-heat sterilization (autoclave), the alternative is to look towards chemicals to get the job done.
Alright, here is where is is going to get controversial:
I use bleach.
Here’s why people hate bleach:
- Although it is not technically toxic in and of itself (it can cause mild irritation to eyes, skin, lungs, etc.), it’s very reactive, and can release chlorine gas, which is super highly toxic.
- The bleach manufacturing process is not great for the environment: one of the byproducts released into atmosphere is dioxin, which is bad for the ozone.
Here’s why bleach is awesome:
- It destroys the cell membranes of nasty things like bacteria and fungus and kills them. There are certain nasties in this world, like clostridium difficile, where bleach is the one recommended substance to actually kill it. Affectionately called c.diff in the healthcare world, it’s one heck of a nasty stomach bug (well, technically colon bug, if you get my drift… *wink*wink*)
Quick chemistry lesson on bleach:
If you do not want a chemistry lesson, skip this part. But if you are someone who likes to know why we do the things we do, and make an educated decision for yourself on if this is a good method to try, read on.
Common household bleach contains sodium hypochlorite (NaClO). The “chlorite” part of that molecule means chlorine. Essentially salt (“sodium”), chlorine (“chlor”),and oxygen (“ite”).
It destroys bacterial and fungal cell membranes using a oxidation process.
Which is great. Kill all the bacteria, as far as I’m concerned.
This is where people get hung up:
If you mix chlorine bleach with any kind of acid, it causes the bleach to release its chlorine molecule as a gas, creating chlorine gas. Chlorine gas was used as a chemical weapon in WWI. Yep, same shit. Mix bleach and vinegar and you are making your own personal chemical weapon.
With that being said, I use bleach while doing the dishes.
There are ways around the whole chemical weapon scenario, if you have a basic understanding of chemistry.
Method 1: Non-chlorine bleach.
This is usually made with sodium percarbonate. See what they did there? They replaced the chlorine with carbon. Way less toxic. And, while it still uses oxidation to break molecules apart, it’s not as strong or effective as chlorine bleach, making it excellent for your colored laundry. It’s usually marketed as the “color-safe” bleach. Some non-chlorine bleaches use peroxide, like the OxyClean brand (I think). Same idea. Oxidizes, but not as violently as chlorine.
We usually buy non-chlorine bleach. Granted, we do have a stash of chlorine bleach, but it’s tucked away for special uses, and 90% of the time we just go with non-chlorine bleach to be on the safe side.
Yeah, it’s not as strong. But we use it for our light-duty jobs.
For doing the majority of my dishes, my method is as follows:
- I fill one side of my sink with hot water and a splash of non-chlorine bleach.
- On the other side of the sink, I hand-wash my dishes with soap, water, and a scrubby sponge as usual, then drop them in the bleach-water side rather than rinsing. (Remember: I’m using a non-chlorine bleach so I don’t care if dish soap gets in there. Dish soap is pretty much the best de-greaser on the planet.)
- Because we use the safe-but-weak stuff, I let it soak for 20-30 mins, and I’m a little bit more generous on the amount I add to the water.
The bleach soak is replacing my (much-missed) dishwasher in the whole dish-sanitation process. In other words, my healthcare comrades, we can’t autoclave, so we are going to Cidex. Figuratively.
For practicality’s sake, I generally skip the whole bleach thing if I just use that pan to, say, make stove-top popcorn. Or if I’m making coffee, I feel zero need to bleach my Aeropress when a quick wipe down with soap and water is perfectly fine. It’s more for the nastier stuff, like if I make my toddler mac n’ cheese and let the pan sit out on the counter just a few hours longer than it probably should have (I’m not even going to pretend that doesn’t happen regularly). Or if I look up from the couch and see the cat gleefully licking the coffee creamer remnants off of the “I might make another cup of coffee so I won’t wash this yet” spoon.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I use chlorine bleach to bleach the heck out of that plastic cutting board that I just de-boned a raw chicken on. Or the really expensive travel coffee mug that we discovered in the back seat of the car and we can’t recall when the last time we saw it was, but clearly there was some mystery liquid left in it from however-long ago.
Method 2: Bust out the Big Guns for the Extra Nasties:
- Fill half the sink with HOT water (hot water increases the bleach’s effectiveness) and a splash of chlorine bleach.
- While the soaking side of the sink is filling, hand wash the item on the other side of the sink, if you can stand the smell of the nasties without making yourself gag. If not, just rinse quickly and immediately plunge into bleach bath. If you *can* wash it, be sure to use a cheap sponge you won’t mind parting with. I will toss the sponge out, because I don’t believe that you can ever really clean a sponge once it’s gross. I buy like 6 of them for $1, so there is no need to cross-contaminate.
- Let soak. I don’t have soaking guidelines, I just let it soak until I’m comfortable that whatever nasties I’m trying to kill are good and dead. I’m sure there’s a formula, but my motto is that it’s can’t be TOO clean, so it’s usually in the 1-2 hour realm. Honestly it probably only takes a fraction of that time, but I don’t care. Salmonella is a thing that I want no part of.
- Rinse the item in plain water well. I should recommend wearing gloves while handling bleach, but I don’t have sensitive skin at all, so I never do. But, you know, be an adult and make good choices for yourself.
- Once the item (and the sink basin) has been rinsed completely with clear water, proceed to hand-wash as usual.
To keep things nice and safe in the small confines of an RV, we buy Seventh Generation natural dish soap, which has a pH of 7.9-8.1. This puts it just oh-so-slightly on the alkaline end of the pH spectrum, meaning it’s not acidic. So technically I could mix this with chlorine bleach and be fine. I still like to just rinse well with water. It take a few seconds but gives me peace of mind.
If you aren’t sure where your dish soap sits on the pH scale, just go online and look up the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for your particular brand. As long as the pH is higher than 7, you are fine. Seventh Generation’s dish soap pH sits somewhere in between stream water and sea water. Surprisingly, it does a fantastic job cutting grease. Like, comparable to Dawn. No joke. (And no, no one pays me to say that, either, but it would be awesome if they did…. ahem.)
Air drying dishes on a drying rack is more sanitary than wiping them with a towel. if you have time and space, air dry. We have a nifty collapsible rack that sits inside my sink so it doesn’t take up precious RV counter top real estate.
It seriously just occurred to me that I could never have a single-basin sink. I love big farmhouse sinks, but clearly I use both sides of a divided sink often enough that a beautiful, single-basin sink would be highly impractical… sad.
I think the only people in the world who can optimize the dish washing process better than a scrub tech is definitely a sterile processing tech. I bet their dish-washing routines are impeccable.
I don’t even want to hear from people who are going to email me to tell me that vinegar works just as well as bleach. It doesn’t. Sure, there is a place for vinegar in cleaning. Like washing windows. But don’t think that scrubbing your toilet with apple cider vinegar is going to make it germ-free. I don’t care what you read on the internet.