Getting Clean with Some Household Science

Ah, summer in Chicago. A time of long days, longer lines at the Shedd Aquarium, and endless amount of fruit flies everywhere in your kitchen.

insect kitchen food cleaning illinois science council
Fruit flies; Drosophila melanogaster

Fruit flies? At least with me, since my family and I are really into keeping the windows open and turning on the air conditioning way later then we should, through a combination of wanting to waste less energy and unbridled masochism.

In addition to endless Drosophila melanogaster annoying you and eating your basil plants, it’s also the time of muddy feet in the house from hiking in the Forest Preserves, dropping endless swag from different summer festivals, and way too many dishes to wash after yet another party/cookout/game night on the porch.

Break out the Ajax and the rubber gloves, it’s time for cleaning science!

First off, how clean does a place need to be? Well, the literature goes back and forth for whether or not a dirtier house is a better house for you to keep (especially in ‘high use’ areas, such as the kitchen and bathroom). It is true that having a completely spotless house can arguably be led to higher amounts of allergies and asthma in children. With that being stated, having an especially dirty kitchen leads to higher infestations of vermin, as well as higher amounts of anxiety amongst residents of said messy places.

When you’ve concluded over how clean your kitchen and house overall needs to be, next comes the tools to make something clean. Gloves, almost always rubber, work if you need to protect your hands. Gloves made of other materials, such as cotton or wool, aren’t waterproof, so they could potentially soak your hands, not providing you with the necessary barrier from bacteria that you are cleaning off your surfaces. Speaking of soaking, many different sources deviate on the best liquid needed in order to properly clean.

Anti-bacterial agents are obviously a select choice for those interested in making sure pesky microscopic germs are eradicated from their house. Some old but good products for these, such as Pine Sol, are known as strong antiseptic agents due to their chemical ability to break down and kill the vast majority of microscopic growth of bacterial cells throughout any area in which it is applied. This is necessary in order to keep a well-used area especially clean because these are the microbes that can grow into larger, grosser, colonies throughout your house. The risk is even higher when there are elemental agents around, such as water and food crumbs that can promote bacterial growth.

Speaking of water, what is that damp, musty smell in your kitchen and bathroom? Often, especially in the wet and hot summer months of Chicago, this is the smell of mildew and other fungi growing in areas that aren’t properly kept dry, ranging from the back of your washer to the towels you soaked after a dip at Montrose Beach. It’s also found in multiple different forms, ranging from the black spots you may see in bathtubs, to the fuzzy white growth on your Farmer’s Market peaches. While some budding microbiologists may be interested in growing their own mold zoo, I personally would not recommend it for anyone wanting a clean house! In addition to making everything smell like a medieval dungeon, mold that isn’t cleaned can make you sick too. Caused by microscopic airborne reproductive spores, breathing in too much mold can cause allergic reactions or even lung disease when it is prolonged.

illinois science council blog cleaning mold spores
Black mold spores under a microscope. Credit: El Sayed Al Gayar, Faculty of Agriculture, Damietta University

One of the best ways to get rid of these is right back to antibacterial liquid, especially good old bleach, mixed in water. Bleach contains inorganic compounds that break down all organic material that it comes in contact with it. Just like how bleach makes many antibacterial agents poisonous to humans and animals, it makes it deadly to microscopic beings as well, which is why they’re used in high-use places such as public pools (hence that delightful smell of chlorine–which, in a pool setting, is just highly concentrated bleach).

Bleach’s chemical breakdown of organic material is a certain end to mold. But with that being said, it can destroy any organic material, which ranges anywhere from weird coffee or wine stains on your nice carpet to a potentially poisoned human who ate off a plate that still had bleach on it. What is a person supposed to do?  

Many people, especially those concerned about chemical toxicity in places where they eat and brush their teeth, often turn to other, less harsh, forms of antiseptics to scrub out dirt, mold, and other gross things from the high trafficked parts of their homes and workspaces. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) has a wide variety of cleaning properties, including that of a neutralizing agent, due to its chalky composition, just like how an antacid can soak up acids in an upset stomach. Many individuals who prefer to clean using organic material swear by a solution of baking soda mixed with water

baking soda vinegar illinois science council blog
Baking soda and vinegar.

Another chemical that is known to attack bacteria with the fury of an angry housekeeper is white vinegar. This substance is a simple antibacterial agent that has been historically used for everything fungus-killing, ranging from mouthwash to sterilizing surgical tools. (Fun fact: when I was a poor college student, I often used vinegar to clean my face, simply due to the fact that it gets rid of bacteria so quickly!) While vinegar’s property of killing bacteria should not be understated, it still hosts potential possibility for mold to escape due to the organic material of the vinegar’s compounds, and the olfactory residue of vinegar can be incredibly unpleasant for some. (Unless you love the smell of a fish and chips shop)

Of course, not everyone wants their house to smell like vinegar, so if you’re torn between bleach and vinegar, here are some hints to follow when looking up cleaning products:

  • What compounds are listed on the back?
  • Does the label say “antibacterial” or “antiseptic?”  
  • How harsh is the solution?
  • Are there warnings on the label?  

Make your choices, and make sure that mold is scrubbed away by the time Labor Day rolls around, and you don’t feel embarrassed to have people over. Happy Cleaning!

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