Steam cleaning has been a popular cleaning method for years, and for good reason, it is really effective. Most bacteria die at around 150ºF-180ºF, and considering steam is 212ºF, you are well over the heat threshold. So steam cleaning an interior would be a perfect way to kill bacteria right? Technically yes, but only if it is done the right way.
You ever see the video of people steam cleaning vents or the steering wheel? Many detail shops offer “disinfecting services” especially lately with COVID-19. They use steam and “kill” all of the bacteria and viruses that could be on your interior surfaces. And while yes these viruses and bacteria die around 150ºF-180ºF, it only works with a key detail, time.
You see just spraying steam on a surface for a few seconds does little to nothing against actually killing the bacteria. To get to the 99.9% disinfectant number you need to be at that temperature for:
That’s how long it takes to cook instant Ramen noodles, or to microwave 2 hot pockets or longer than it would take you to perform My Girl by the Temptations even if you started over because you didn’t hit that first note right. The point is that’s a long time, and a lot longer than most people are doing it for.
Think about it like washing your hands. You can use hot water and soap, but f you only wash for 5 seconds compared to the recommended 20 seconds you are not giving the soap enough item to effectively kill the germs, and thus not doing the job. So when you put your steam nozzle into the vents to “sterilize” the vent system not only are many people not doing it for long enough, the entire vent system will not reach 212ºF. The point at which you are steaming will, but the heat is very centralized. think about when you are spraying the steam, you can hold your hand inches away and feel nothing.
Then we have the steering wheel, which is another common “service”. Again it comes down to time and how much surface is actually reaching the correct temperature. You also then run into the issue of the surface temperament, meaning if you have a delicate dyed leather or Alcantara, how many times can you expose it to 212ºF heat for 3 minutes at a time before it begins to fade or crack?
So when you are steam cleaning an interior, most likely you are not sanitizing it. However, that does not mean steam is not an effective cleaning tool. Paired with the right cleaner you can really help loosen up that contamination and open up the pores of the material to allow your cleaner to penetrate and get to all of that bacteria.
Please note, this isn’t “technically” classified as sanitizing by EPA terms, but you are bringing up most of the bacteria when you are cleaning so you are making it a much safer and cleaner environment. To actually sanitize chemically you would need to use a product that states it sanitizes and follow the directions for how long to leave the product before removing it. Just be careful and do a test spot as many can be harsh or dyed leather or interior plastics.