Hygiene Theater: Pulling Back the Curtain


By Ken Campbell, sales director, PathoSans

Did you know there is a term for dysfunction when it comes to disinfection? It’s called “hygiene theater” and it arose during the initial stage of the COVID-19 pandemic when the entire world turned to frequent cleaning and disinfecting to fight the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Some critics felt that certain cleaning measures were unnecessary and just for show. Although cleaning and disinfection remain an important part of maintaining public health, it’s important to understand where to draw the line between essential cleaning and overcleaning to maintain safety, reduce wasted resources and uphold cleanliness.

The Rise of Hygiene Theater & the Dangers of Overcleaning

During the first months of the pandemic, numerous stories about extreme disinfection measures emerged. For example, an airport in Hong Kong installed full-body disinfection booths that sprayed chemicals at airport staff for 40 seconds. Additionally, some people began disinfecting food and packages with harsh and toxic chemicals before bringing them into their homes. Fear and confusion about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 drove many to try unproven and potentially dangerous methods.

The media frequently highlighted images of individuals wearing hazmat suits and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to clean and disinfect facilities. Meanwhile, airlines started showing off their electrostatic sprayers to prove that traveling was safe as early as May 2020. Many businesses have used these tactics to convince the public that they are serious about health and safety measures.

Unfortunately, grand displays of sanitization measures, such as the New York subway shutting down every night for disinfection and the Chicago Loop Alliance disinfecting sidewalks, can create a false sense of security. These processes may make people feel safe in public settings, but this assurance can lead them to take fewer precautions such as hand hygiene and social distancing. Using the most powerful tools, cleaning almost constantly and wearing an excessive amount of PPE does not equate to an effective cleaning program.

Additionally, there are risks and disadvantages associated with excessive cleaning. This is because many facilities use traditional chemicals with potentially harmful ingredients that can impact the wellbeing of building staff and occupants, as well as damage counter tops, floors and other high-touch surfaces in the long term. When organizations engage in hygiene theater, they risk exposing people to high levels of toxic chemicals that can impact indoor air quality (IAQ) and have lasting health effects. New tools like electrostatic sprayers, when used without proper training or to apply hazardous chemicals, can further exacerbate IAQ and health issues. Besides the health risks, overuse of cleaning tools and chemicals creates plastic and chemical waste that ends up in waterways, landfills and oceans.

How to Avoid Hygiene Theatre

Hygiene theatre is the result of an information gap, a lack of strategy and miscommunication. So, here is how to resolve all three issues and build a well-developed strategy.

1. Use improved information. When the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic started, not a lot was known about how it was transmitted and the best methods for combatting it. We have learned that surface transmission is not as likely as first thought. We learned that it is transmitted primarily by exposure to infectious respiratory fluids.

In many cases, the initial response was to clean and disinfect everything as frequently as possible. We now have better information to take a more strategic approach.

Facilities can access an abundance of information and follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also provide a great deal of useful information about cleaning and disinfecting products.

2. Develop a strategy. A strategy needs to align and integrate three components:

  • Surfaces – Even though surface transmission for SARS-CoV-2 is much lower than originally thought, it is still the foundation of effective building maintenance. Keep in mind, there are still plenty of other pathogens that are transmitted by surface contact. Any surfaces humans come in contact with need to be cleaned and disinfected sooner or later. With the pandemic came a lot of new surfaces to manage such as plexiglass partitions. Other surfaces, such as desks, counters, gym mats and windows may have been cleaned but rarely disinfected. Determining when (frequency) and how (methods) those surfaces need cleaning is critical.
  • Frequency – Frequency of cleaning is driven by the frequency and volume of human contact. Surfaces added to address SARs-CoV-2, like plexiglass partitions, may require more frequent cleaning and disinfecting. High touch surfaces will also require increased frequency, especially as cold and flu seasons arrive. Another important consideration for frequency is concomitant effects of the chemicals being used. Overcleaning with certain chemicals can have an adverse effect on the indoor air quality and worker health. Obviously, there are a lot of variables that go into determining the frequency of both cleaning and disinfecting. The decisions need to be based on solid information and cannot be reactionary.
  • Methods – We have seen a dramatic spike in the use of electrostatic sprayers, foggers and misters to combat SARS-CoV-2. These wide area applicators are very effective methods for cleaning and disinfecting hard-to-reach and larger spaces. However, not all cleaning and disinfecting chemicals are well-suited for large area applications. Choosing the right methods for cleaning and disinfecting depends on the chemicals used, necessary cleaning and disinfecting frequencies and the types of surfaces being addressed.

Developing a well-informed strategy requires proper alignment of surfaces, frequency and methods for both cleaning and disinfecting. It also requires a more holistic approach to pathogen control that is not limited to SARs-CoV-2.

3. Communicate better. Improved information and a complete strategy lay the ground work for better communication. From there, it is easier to explain what you are doing, why and what the benefits are.

It is important to keep in mind that the audiences you are communicating with have different perspectives and need different communication strategies.

  • Employees – If employees know the “why” behind the cleaning program, they will be much more willing and confident to share that information with clients and their patrons or customers. If you are clear, concise and confident when communicating with your employees, they will be able to do the same with customers.
  • Clients – Articulating the strategy can be a key differentiator for your business. Clients can also proudly pass along that information to their customers. Transparency with cleaning and disinfecting programs will prove to clients that you are more judicious with their budget and resources as well as more professional and conscientious.
  • Customers – Customers are the people your client serves – building tenants, school employees, students, store patrons and anyone else who visits the facility you are cleaning and disinfecting. Because customers are not cleaning professionals, it is particularly important they have clear information to understand how you are protecting them from SARs-CoV-2 and other pathogens.

Cleaning for Health, Not Performance

In the past year and a half, we’ve learned a lot about how COVID-19 spreads and the many disinfectants and technologies available to address SARS-CoV-2 and other infectious disease risks. While the desire to disinfect as much as possible was understandable given how little we knew in the initial months of the pandemic, we now need to take a measured approach to health and safety, including strategic cleaning and disinfecting.

It’s time to pull back the curtain on overusing cleaning chemicals. This can lead to unnecessary waste generation, safety risks and inefficiencies. Conducting a risk assessment and choosing environmentally friendly cleaning and disinfecting solutions like electrochemically-activated solutions (ECAS) can help ensure that your infection prevention program is not hygiene theater but an effective system that takes occupant health and the future of our planet into consideration.

For more information about how ECAS can enhance your cleaning and disinfection program and show your customers and workers that you care, contact me at ken.campbell@pathosans.com.


Ken Campbell serves as sales director for PathoSans, a leading provider  of  on-site generation (OSG) devices that produce ready-to-use,  highly effective cleaners and  disinfectants  known as electrochemically activated (ECA) solutions. Learn more at www.pathosans.com  

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