The Dirt on Disinfectant Wipes

Disposable household wipes and their consequences

JCJG Photography/

It used to be that disposable wipes were reserved for baby’s bums and rib fests. Now, household disinfectant wipes are on the countertops and in cleaning kits of many homes. Because I've never used them, I polled my network to find out why people use disposable wipes. The number one response was convenience (some people were even more honest and admitted laziness). They are used to wipe down countertops but more commonly in the bathroom where the idea of being able to disinfect and throw away the wipe is appealing.

Let's take a look at why we should re-think household wipes.

The economy of convenience

Like any single-use product, wipes are designed to be bought, used, and tossed. In fact, one manufacturer worked with a product design firm to make the packaging more attractive so they would sit on counter tops and be used more frequently. Disposable wipes create an ongoing revenue stream for businesses – and an ongoing drain on your wallet.

While we may not think of them as a large expense on a daily basis, buying patterns suggest disposables sales go up in good economic times. One analyst for Euromonitor, an international market research company, had this to say:

“When we’re looking at all-purpose cleaning wipes, we see that wipes are highly connected to how the economy is doing. We are going to see sales increasing when the economy gets better…. when disposable income is decreasing, using something only once and throwing it away seems wasteful. In contrast, when the economy is getting better, we see sales increasing... We notice the higher the disposable income is, the more likely consumers are to buy wipes.”

So deep down inside we know they’re wasteful and believe there are better things to spend our money on, and yet we continue to buy them.

The consequence of "disposable"

Household wipes require significant resources for less than a minute of use – fibres, chemicals, processing, transportation, and packaging all knowingly created to be wasted. And it turns out we aren’t even throwing them away ‘properly’.

Most people use the wipes to clean the bathroom and therefore it may seem “convenient” to flush them down the toilet. However, municipalities are finding that they don’t breakdown like toilet paper and are clogging waste water treatment plants and sewers. This means a higher chance of sewage back-up into your basement, higher costs to maintain and repair municipal systems (i.e. higher taxes), and more pollution in our lakes and rivers.

Still think they’re convenient? If your sewer backs up into your basement, you will not find it convenient.

The problem with "cleanliness"

A common ingredient in disinfectant wipes as well as air fresheners, hand sanitizers, and cleaners is quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats. These receive very little attention but could be the next BPA – studies are showing they are hormone disruptors and can trigger asthma and allergies. They are effective at killing germs, but this also means they kill off good bacteria that keep us healthy. Our preoccupation with "cleanliness" and overuse of disinfectants and antibacterials is leading to a rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or super bugs.

Clean smarter

There are certainly some circumstances where disinfectants are necessary (for example, for immune-compromised family members); always consult with your doctor if you have health concerns. However, for typical families, regular use of disinfectants are not required. Ask yourself: what did we do before household wipes?

Why not have a cloth dedicated to wiping down the toilet seat and toss it in the wash (with vinegar) after each clean? Even using a little bit of toilet paper and a vinegar spray is a better alternative to chemical-based wipes. And, as always, hand washing with plain old (non-antibacterial) soap and water is the best defence against colds and flu.

As for kitchen surfaces, soap and water is typically all you need. Vinegar can also be effective at disinfecting common household bacteria like salmonella and E. Coli. Most of us wash our prep dishes and knives with soapy water and a cloth – why should counters be any different? I can tell you that I have never used disinfecting wipes and we’ve never had issues with food-borne illnesses (knock-on-wood). 

If you’re having trouble breaking up with your wipes, start by keeping them with your other cleaners, not on the counter or within easy reach. When your current package runs out, don’t replenish it and see how you do after 2 weeks without them. Then treat yourself to a coffee with the money you save once you realize life without household wipes is actually still pretty good.

*Originally published August 9, 2016