For September, teachers return to school to prepare their classrooms, select supplies and organize shared resources. In this month’s Ask Nancy, we address questions about Setting Up School Spaces with Healthy Materials and Habits.  


Is there a list of healthy supplies that teachers can access and share with families so that we are inviting non-toxic items into the school without offending anyone?

Nancy says:

Commonly used supplies can contain chemicals that trigger asthma and allergies in students. By explaining to all families and staff alternative products that are safe for all kids at the start of the school year, teachers will get everyone off to a healthy start!  Share this resource chart or use some of the info on it to create your own.  Just remember, some schools have additional policies geared to your unique school community.

Supply List for Healthy Classrooms



What are some effective cleaning supplies that do a good job cleaning but are safe & non-toxic around kids?

Nancy says:

Some schools have a custodial staff responsible for keeping the school clean.  Other schools rely on the teachers to maintain a clean classroom.  Here is how to ensure those efforts tackle dirt and germs safely and effectively:

Teach Good Hand-washing Habits

The number one way to keep germs from spreading is to teach good handwashing. Use plain soap and water for handwashing before eating, after using the bathroom, after recess, and anytime they get dirty. Antibacterial soap isn’t recommended. Use plain fragrance-free soap.

When there is no access to a sink, as on a field trip, alcohol-based (at least 60% alcohol, dye-free and fragrance-free) hand sanitizer or alcohol-based sanitizer wipes can be used. Hand sanitizers are not a substitute for handwashing. They aren’t effective when hands are dirty or greasy.

Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Disinfecting

Know the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Use the right product for the task:

  • CLEANING removes dirt and most germs. Use soap and water. Choose green cleaners certified by a third party such as Green Seal or EPA’s Safer Choice. In the classroom, cleaning is the focus.
  • SANITIZING reduces germs to safe levels, for example in food service environments. Food code regulations have specific requirements for sanitizers in the cafeteria and kitchen.
  • DISINFECTING kills most germs, depending on the type of chemical, and only when used as directed on the label.

In schools, custodial staff use disinfectants and sanitizers regularly only in high-risk areas – nurse’s office, bathrooms, cafeterias, kitchens, drinking fountains, sink and door handles, and athletic facilities; preferably, when students are not present. Overuse does not provide any additional protection and can expose students and staff to harmful chemicals.

Students should never use disinfectants. Disinfectant wipes shouldn’t be used to clean hands. This includes Clorox wipes.

If students are helping to clean:

  • They should only use soap and water.
  • Fragrance-free baby wipes could be used for quick cleaning.
  • Most store-bought cleaning products are not safe for children to use.

Rely on Cleaning to Remove Dirt and Germs

If staff, besides trained custodial staff, needs to assist with classroom cleaning, they should use a school or district provided basic cleaner. A third party certified green cleaner is preferred.

  • Custodial staff can make a simple all-purpose cleaner for classrooms. Mix one teaspoon of fragrance-free dish soap in a spray bottle filled with water. Spray on surface and scrub with paper towels or a microfiber cloth. Rinse and wipe dry to remove any residue.
  • Microfiber cleaning cloths improve cleaning – the removal of dirt and germs. Dampened with water they are great dust removers. With soap and water, they remove most germs.
  • Disinfecting is the responsibility of school custodial staff. They are trained to use disinfectants in a safe and effective manner and to clean up potentially infectious materials and body fluid spills – blood, vomit, feces, and urine. Contact your custodian or school nurse if students are ill and your classroom needs cleaning and disinfection. If teachers use disinfectants, the district must provide training and supply the appropriate cleaner and sanitizer or disinfectant.


Why is hand washing better than hand sanitizer?

Nancy says:

I get this question all the time!  Soap and rubbing hands together under running water removes oil, dirt, and harmful surface germs. Hand sanitizer doesn’t remove dirt in which germs hide and only kills a few easy-to-kill germs.

It is important to use plain soap for hand washing rather than anti-bacterial products.  Antibacterial ingredients, in particular triclosan and quaternary ammonia compounds (quats), only kill a few types of germs and are unnecessary when washing hands. It doesn’t matter if germs are alive or dead when they are washed down the drain.

As for non-alcohol based hand sanitizers, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only recommends hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol. Non-alcohol ones are even less effective than alcohol hand sanitizers.

Disinfecting wipes, which are frequently overused, are inappropriate for general purpose cleaning which should always be an all purpose cleaner or simple soap and water.  Disinfectants can give a false sense of security because when they are not used exactly to label instructions, they don’t work properly. Most disinfecting wipes require the surface to be cleaned first, and then remain visibly wet 4-10 minutes (dwell time) to be effective, requiring multiple wipes. These products also have many issues for students due to the chemicals and fragrance they contain being an asthma trigger.