Flu season is just around the corner, and throughout the year bacteria and viruses are constantly trying to set up house in your home. While the best way to protect your family against dirt and infections is to maintain a regular cleaning schedule, there are other handy tips that can reduce the number of pathogens in your house. Changing the temperature and humidity can help keep harmful germs at bay, while switching the way you clean, and even changing your fixtures, can help keep you and your family healthier.
Lower the temperature
Bacteria love being warm, and the cozy, temperature-controlled environments in our homes give bacteria the perfect place to grow and multiply. However reducing the temperature in your home by just a few degrees is enough to inhibit the growth of bacteria, preventing it from spreading across your house.
While the USDA puts the lower threshold at which bacteria is happy at 40 degrees—far colder than you’d find comfortable in your home—just lowering the thermostat a degree or two is enough to slow germs down. Hospitals use this method of germ control all the time. It’s why when you enter a hospital or clinic the first thing you’ll probably notice is a blast of cold air. Hospitals also keep operating rooms between 65 and 69 degrees in order to lower the risks from bacteria during surgeries.
Lowering the temperature in your home is also good for you in other ways. Studies have found that keeping your bedroom temperature between 60-67 degrees improves the quality of your sleep, as well as the speed at which you drift off. Cooling down also helps activate your stores of brown fat. This is the healthy fat found in your core that helps regulate your internal temperature. Activating your brown fat can help maintain a healthy weight, and studies have shown it to have beneficial effects for people with Type 2 diabetes.
Balance the humidity
Humidity is just a measure of the water content in air. If you think of air like a sponge, 50 percent relative humidity (RH) means the sponge is half-full. 100 percent RH means the air is saturated and can’t hold any more water.
The humidity level is constantly changing, and how sticky or comfortable it feels to us often depends on the overall temperature as well. Generally high temperatures feel more tolerable at low humidity, and low temperatures can trick us into thinking the humidity isn’t high. That’s why it’s surprising to learn Alaska has the highest average relative humidity in the United States, at just over 77 percent, and why Nevada has the lowest, at around 38 percent.
When it comes to keeping your home healthy, humidity plays an important role, because the amount of moisture in the air can encourage or suppress the growth of bacteria. Generally speaking, the bacteria most commonly found in domestic properties flourish at relative humidity over 60 percent.
Hospitals keep operating rooms below 70 percent RH in order to protect patients during surgery, and you can do the same in your home by purchasing a dehumidifier with a built-in humidity monitor (“hygrometer”). Having a hygrometer is important as it’s really hard to gauge the actual humidity by feel alone because of the effect of temperature on how we perceive relative humidity.
As well as reducing the growth of bacteria in your home, a dehumidifier will reduce other nasties such as dust mites, mold, and mildew, all of which love hot, humid environments. By reducing your home’s temperature and lowering the humidity, you’ll make a significant difference to the amount of allergens and irritants in your house. Just remember to clean out the dehumidifier regularly, because it can quickly turn into the warm, damp environment you’re trying to eliminate.
Ventilate your home
The last consideration to keep the air in your home as healthy as possible is good ventilation. Keeping the inside air circulating is important because it prevents stagnant pockets of high humidity from developing, especially in interior rooms such as bathrooms. Pollutants can also accumulate inside if a house isn’t properly aired, from dust and microbes to harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide and radon.
If the weather allows it, open your windows and let your home air naturally whenever possible. This will keep the air fresh, and prevent the recirculation of germs and allergens that can happen with air conditioning. When the weather is too hot or cold, you can use fans to keep the air moving instead.
Good ventilation will make your home a healthier place to be by lowering humidity, eliminating allergens and toxins, and making the air you breathe feel fresher and smell better. Enclosed spaces quickly become musty, and still air provides a stable atmosphere where bacteria, mold, and fungi can begin to multiply. Using a fan or two to keep the air circulating will also reduce the work of dehumidifying your home.
Limit air pollution
Another great way to improve the air quality in your home and make your air conditioner’s life easier is to limit the number of pollutants getting into the air to begin with. You can do this by taking simple steps such as always turning the extractor fan on when bathing or cooking, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and maintaining a regular cleaning schedule. There are some tips, however, that you might not have considered to keep your indoor air pollution to a minimum.
The best way to limit air pollution is by controlling what gets blown up into the air. Every time you sit heavily on the sofa, a plume of invisible dust and allergens is ejected into the air. If you push the air out of trash bags when you close them, you’re spreading all the bacteria that’s living on the bag’s contents into the air. If you leave the toilet seat up when you flush, tiny particles get vaporized and spread around the room. Just imagine what’s settling on your toothbrush!
The less air you can move around as you go about daily activities, the fewer nasties get airborne. When you’re cleaning, mist areas with a fine spray of water before dusting in order to reduce the amount that gets stirred into the air. Don’t shake bedclothes when you’re changing them, instead roll up the sheets and place them into the laundry basket rather than throwing them. These small changes can make a big collective difference to the air quality in your home.
Get a plant or two
Plants are natural air purifiers. As well as consuming carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, some species can also absorb and neutralize other toxins commonly found in domestic homes. Don’t worry if you haven’t got green fingers, because these species will be happiest if you leave them alone, save the occasional spritz of water.
Here’s our top five:
These hardy plants need very little tending, and are non-toxic to animals, making them perfectly safe to have around if you have four-legged friends. Keep in bright, indirect sunlight and water sparingly and your spider plant will happily absorb toxins such as carbon monoxide and xylene, a solvent found in paints and rubber.
English ivy is a tough plant that looks classically elegant and will grow easily in your home. This ivy likes plenty of water and is particularly good at combating mold and fecal particles, so it’ll be more than happy in your bathroom as long as it gets some sunlight each day.
Mums are bright, colorful blooms that love the sun. Put one on your windowsill and it will get to work filtering out the ammonia, benzene (a chemical found in plastics, detergents, and glue), and formaldehyde from your air. Warning: mums are toxic to animals so avoid if you have pets.
Another great plant for bathrooms, Boston ferns love cool, humid environments with indirect light. They remove formaldehyde and xylene.
Also known unflatteringly as mother-in-law’s tongue, snake plants are almost impossible to kill if you don’t over-water them. They love dry environments and most light levels, so you can put them in almost any room, where they’ll remove benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene, a solvent found in paint and nail polish.
Use an ultraviolet air purifier
Research has shown that exposure to sunlight can reduce bacteria colonies by up to 50 percent. Opening curtains and blinds and letting in as much sun as possible is a great way of freshening your home and keeping the number of microbes under control. However for some rooms that isn’t possible. Interior bathrooms, closets, and finished basements can all benefit from sunlight but don’t have the option.
What kills germs in sunlight is a specific wavelength of ultraviolet (UV) light: 254 nanometers is the magic number. This light creates mutations in the DNA of bacteria and germs, killing them. While modern glass filters out most UV light, letting the sun shine is still a great way to keep the inside of your home healthy.
For rooms where sunlight isn’t an option, you can always use a UV cleaning wand. These handheld tools produce the same bacteria-killing UV light as sunlight, and can be directed to sanitize any surface. Most claim to kill up to 99.9 percent of bacteria and viruses, including MRSA and H1N1. You can buy portable versions, or get air purifiers with UV technology, and even buy UV bulbs that fit inside HVAC systems to purify the air without putting you to any extra trouble.
Steam clean (almost) everything
You probably know you can steam clean soft furnishings and furniture, but have you thought about steam cleaning your showerhead, faucets, glass, ceramic, trashcans, work surfaces, and more? Steam cleaners are fantastic tools for sterilizing your home and keeping it healthy. They don’t use any abrasive or smelly chemicals, and there’s no waiting around for the cleaner to take effect.
You can use your steam cleaner on any surface that won’t be damaged by heat and/or water. Handheld steam cleaners can be easily maneuvered to get into difficult spots, and the heat can dissolve difficult substances like dried-on wax and gum. Steam cleaners can also kill pests such as dust mites and bed bugs.
Try using your steam cleaner on tile floors and walls, windows and mirrors, cutting boards, and high-contact areas such as door handles. Keep the cleaner moving, and don’t forget to wipe down everywhere you’ve cleaned. Steam cleaners will kill bacteria and loosen dirt, but they won’t remove it entirely, so you still need to wash grime away. You’ll also want to wipe up any water residue from the condensed steam.
Warning: don’t use a steam cleaner on any electrical appliance, porous surfaces such as brick, marble, and wood, or painted walls.
Invest in copper fixtures and tools
Copper is back in fashion, and for good reason. Lab testing by the EPA has certified that antimicrobial copper alloys continuously kill bacteria without wearing out, and are safe for use. The testing looked at how effective copper was at killing Staph, E. coli, MRSA, and other common bacteria, and found a greater than 99.9 percent effectiveness rate. While copper can’t prevent cross-contamination of bacteria from other surfaces, it is a great material to have in the home, particularly in kitchens and bathrooms.
Copper pots and pans, faucets, sinks, doorknobs, switch plates, and more can all reduce the spread of bacteria in your home, and look good doing so. You can also find small and large appliances finished in copper, from range hoods to coffee percolators, as well as tools and accessories like measuring spoons, coasters, and cutlery.
If copper isn’t your thing, you can always choose copper alloys such as bronze and brass instead, as they have the same bacteria-killing properties approved by the EPA.
Cleaning your home might sometimes feel like a never-ending battle against germs and allergens, but you can get dramatic results by making a few simple changes that improve your odds. By taking a proactive approach to dirt and microbes and preventing them from taking hold, you make the task of cleaning easier from the outset.
The changes we’ve suggested can also improve the air quality and hygiene of your home on a continual basis, not just in the immediate aftermath of making the change. This will make your home a fresher, more pleasant place to be, allowing you to reap the benefits of living in a healthier atmosphere this flu season and beyond.