Synbiotics: what they are and why they might change cleaning forever

New products that apply a layer of healthy bacteria to surfaces promise to transform the cleaning industry.

Cleaning has traditionally been focused on killing germs. A new generation of cleaning products takes a different approach — instead of wiping out bacteria on a surface, it introduces a layer of healthy bacteria to keep the bad bugs at bay. 

Synbiotic cleaning products were big news at the Interclean conference in Amsterdam in May, sparking excitement that a revolution is coming for the industry. Synbiotics are the third generation of an approach to cleaning that puts aside harsh chemicals in favour of using live bacteria. 

They work by combining probiotics (the sort of beneficial bacteria you might find in yoghurt) with prebiotics (a food source that allows the good bugs to thrive) to create a healthy microbiome on surfaces. This layer overwhelms the dangerous bacteria and prevents them from reestablishing themselves.

Dr Gavin Macgregor-Skinner is the senior director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, a division of ISSA. He says this new approach to cleaning, which leaves a defensive shield behind, might prove longer-lasting than traditional methods. Synbiotics are also proving equally effective on soft and hard surfaces in diverse environments such as kitchens, bathrooms and on upholstery.

“There’s been lots of research and what we’re finding is that when you combine your synbiotic cleaning products with your routine cleaning processes, we’re getting those longer lasting cleaning, where we’re getting less of the harmful bacteria,” Macgregor-Skinner says.

“What usually happens after we finish cleaning a surface is it starts getting dirty again. But if you use a synbiotic cleaning product, you’ve put beneficial bacteria on that surface, whether it be porous, non-porous, hard or soft, and it creates a safer, healthier clean for a much longer period of time.”

Importantly, synbiotic products are effective at killing off much more than just the bad bugs.

“We see that the symbiotic cleaning products create an acidic environment and we know that that environment inhibits mould and mildew growth on tiles, on grout, and in shower curtains. The enzymes within them break down proteins, starches and fats respectively. And we also already know from enzymatic cleaners that these activities help decompose the organic material matter on surfaces.”

Research has also shown that synbiotic use in hospitals promises to be a game-changer in the fight against superbugs (bacteria that have developed a resistance to disinfectants and antibacterial treatments). One study suggested that where synbiotic cleaning products were used, hospital acquired infections fell by up to 52%. Other research found that using synbiotics in the cleaning of hospital wards could reduce antimicrobial resistance by up to 99.9%. 

Macgregor-Skinner says he expects these products to have a “staggering” and positive impact on the cleaning industry in the coming years.

“They’re going to significantly improve our cleaning performance. They’re going to help us do better in protecting the built environment. They’re ecologically sustainable. They offer so many benefits, and they protect surfaces between the last clean and the next clean.”

He says ISSA will play an important role in helping people find a way to make this new generation of cleaning products compatible with existing approaches and routines.

“We have to educate and train people on the benefits and the proper use of synbiotic cleaners to maximise the effectiveness. How do we ensure the compatibility of these synbiotic cleaning products that contain beneficial bacteria with existing cleaning routines and services to ensure that we get optimal performance? There’s lots of work for us to do.”

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