Wiping out misconceptions about cleaning cloths

Aug. 24, 2018

Although significant progress has been made in preventing certain infections, about one in 25 hospital patients has a healthcare-associated infection (HAI) on any given day , and the direct medical cost of HAIs is estimated to be around $10 billion annually. Fortunately, infection rates and their costs can be reduced by selecting effective disinfecting products, using the right tools and implementing proper procedures. Disposable disinfectant wipes allow employees to quickly and easily disinfect high-touch surfaces that can spread pathogens to patients.

However, some healthcare professionals have concerns about the impact disposable wipes have on solid waste. By comparing the environmental impact of disposable disinfectant wipes and reusable microfiber cleaning cloths, healthcare facilities can invest in products that support their sustainability goals without sacrificing effective cleaning performance or patient health and satisfaction.

Disposable disinfectant wipes

Pre-wetted disinfectant wipes are increasingly being adopted in healthcare settings due to their convenience and effectiveness in killing bacteria on a variety of surfaces. These disposable wipes do not require users to dilute concentrated chemicals or determine how much solution needs to be applied to a surface. Thus, the wipes simplify the cleaning process and reduce the likelihood of dilution errors and lapses in disinfecting compliance. Healthcare facilities can implement simple procedures that specify when to use a new disposable wipe to reduce risk that a wipe would be used in multiple rooms or on patient care equipment after being used in the adjoining patient restroom, which can result in cross-contamination.

Disinfectant wipes are viewed as an asset because they allow environmental services (EVS) teams to quickly clean patient rooms without compromising cleaning effectiveness, thereby improving room turnover rates and potentially increasing the number of patients that can be seen each day. Given the high number of HAIs recorded each year, it’s no surprise that workers can feel pressured to cut corners when disinfecting rooms in order to stay on schedule. Finding ways to improve room cleanliness and turnover rates can result in shorter wait times, higher patient satisfaction scores, an enhanced reputation for the facility and greater revenue.

Although disposable wipes weigh less than one-third of an ounce, they are not recyclable and add to the solid waste generated in a healthcare facility. In a landfill environment, the plastic polymers used in a nonwoven wipe will not readily break down. Healthcare organizations with sustainability goals often include reduction of solid waste as a target, making disposable wipes somewhat less desirable. However, pre-wetted wipes offer excellent disinfecting performance, killing germs rapidly to help prevent HAIs and ultimately making them more valuable to a healthcare facility.

Reusable microfiber cloths

While many people assume that reusable microfiber cloths are more environmentally friendly than disinfectant wipes, the reality is much more complex. Reusable cloths do produce less landfill waste at the healthcare facility, as they are not thrown away after a single use like disposable wipes. While cleaning cloths made from durable microfiber allow for many uses before disposal, they do wear down with use and laundering.

One study cites an industrial average of 12 uses before a cloth should be discarded. Yet even the most responsible EVS teams will deal with the issue of misplaced microfiber cloths. So although a facility may calculate 12 uses per cloth, or even 50 uses if cloths maintain their quality for a longer period of time, a percentage of cloths will be lost during cleaning shifts and the laundering process.

When evaluating the environmental impacts of reusable cloths, healthcare facilities should also consider the disparate amounts of disinfectant used in cleaning. Pre-wetted disinfectant wipes use the perfect balance of disinfectant to avoid waste while still ensuring cleaning effectiveness. Reusable cloths use more disinfectant solution during application from a bucket or with a trigger sprayer. While it’s true that more than one pre-wetted disinfectant wipe is needed for each patient room, the same is true for microfiber. It’s recommended to use separate cloths for different areas, like the sink, toilet and bed, to reduce risk of cross-contamination. With potentially hundreds of rooms per hospital, laundry can quickly add up.

Laundering reusable cloths requires resource-consuming steps, including heating water, applying chemical detergents and using electricity to power washers and dryers. Laundering also ties up facility space and requires heating, cooling and lighting. Additional energy is used if the cloths are transported off-site for laundering. Laundry, disinfectant use, wipe loss and disposal must be taken into consideration when considering a microfiber program.

Understanding the impact of cleaning

To fully understand the environmental impact of a cleaning product or system, it’s necessary to take a full account from cradle (i.e. raw materials) to grave (i.e. disposal). Calculating all potential environmental impacts at each stage of a product’s life cycle across a variety of categories, such as carbon footprint, ozone depletion, water pollution, air pollution and solid waste, can help compare two systems that might have varying impacts. This will establish a useful baseline to help healthcare organizations make informed decisions.

In healthcare facilities, pre-wetted disinfectant wipes are an essential for preventing the spread of pathogens that can cause HAIs. Stocking a facility with high quality disinfectant wipes and executing thorough training on the use of these products can enhance the cleaning process, increase productivity and prevent the spread of HAIs in healthcare facilities while maintaining environmental stewardship.


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/hai/surveillance/index.html
  2. https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/quality/how-hais-lead-to-direct-indirect-and-unintended-hospital-costs.html
  3. http://www.infectioncontroltoday.com/environmental-hygiene/room-turnover-times-trash-and-dash-approach-jeopardizes-patient-outcomes
  4. https://nrchealth.com/impact-improved-patient-experiences/
  5. EPA. National Risk Management Research Laboratory. (1997) Environmental Assessment of Shop Towel Usage.
  6. https://www.cleanlink.com/hs/article/Fighting-Infections-With-Proper-Cleaning-And-Disinfecting–14164