Sandboxes are one of the best ways to provide your children (and their playmates) with hours of outdoor activity, motor skill development, and imaginative expression. Unfortunately, they’re not exactly the most sanitary of places. In some cases, they can even become populated by harmful bacteria, fungi, parasites, insects, or other nasty surprises left by animal visitors.
When this happens, it may seem like the only solution is to ditch the sand and start fresh. While this is certainly a viable option, there is another way – cleaning and sanitizing the sand. In this article, I’ll detail just how to clean and sanitize your sandbox sand and offer a few tips for how to help keep it clean in the future.
Step 1: Clean the Sand
The first thing you’ll want to do is get any larger objects out of the sandbox. This means toys, yard debris, or – heaven forbid – animal droppings.
That last one is especially important since animal feces can carry dangerous parasites and bacteria. Some (particularly bird droppings) can even give rise to a harmful mold called Rhizopus Stolonifer, more commonly found on fruit or bread that’s gone bad. If you want to get your sand as clean as possible, you’ll first need to get rid of potential sources of contamination.
To get larger objects like toys out of the sand, you can rake the sand with a sturdy garden rake, making sure to get the teeth down as deep as possible. The trouble with this is that it won’t catch the smaller things like leaves or animal leavings.
A sand sifter, colander, or even a clean litter box scoop will be much more effective at capturing the smaller bits, but depending on the size of your sandbox, this could take a while.
If you want to be extra thorough (which, if your aim is sanitization, you probably do), you can move all the sand to one side and then carefully move it all back to the other side, sifting it as you go. Smooth the sand out again once you’ve finished.
Be sure and wash any excavated toys with soap and water and wipe them down with a disinfectant – the ones you plan to keep, anyway.
Step 2: Sanitize the Sand
Once the sand is free of debris, it’s time to sanitize or disinfect it to get rid of any germs, fungus, or other unwelcome contaminants that have moved in. There are two main methods for sanitizing play sand – the bleach method and the vinegar method.
The Bleach Method
Of the two methods, bleach is undoubtedly the most effective. Bleach is an extremely powerful disinfectant – look at any household bleach bottle and you’ll see a boast along the lines of, “Kills 99.9% of Germs, Bacteria, and Viruses” – so while it won’t render your sandbox completely germ-free (nothing can do that), it’s about as powerful a weapon as you can hope for.
For this method, you’ll need regular household bleach (1 gallon should be more than enough for most home sandboxes) and a large spray bottle (a 2 or 3-gallon garden pump sprayer is ideal). You’ll also want to make sure you’re not wearing anything you don’t mind getting bleach stains on!
Here’s how to do it:
- Clean and sift the sand to remove debris, then smooth it out again.
- Carefully combine 1 part bleach with 1 part tap water in the spray bottle.
- Spray the sand with your bleach/water solution until the top layer is damp.
- Mix and turn the sand with a rake or shovel to expose the dry layers.
- Repeat steps 3 & 4 about 3-5 times, but don’t turn the sand after the final spray, leaving the top layer wet.
- Once the top layer is dry (~ 1 hour), turn the sand once again.
- Let the sand dry for at least 2 days – turning it periodically – before letting kids play in it again.
Letting the sand dry without allowing animals or debris to get into the sandbox may be a little tricky. A secure yet breathable cover should work fairly well to keep critters out and let air in. But if possible, you may want to leave the sandbox uncovered during the day and give it a few hours of direct sunlight each day to help speed the drying process along. And of course, it’s best not to undertake this task during an especially rainy week.
The Vinegar Method
For those who are reticent about using a potent chemical like bleach to sanitize their sandbox, distilled white vinegar is a safe and effective alternative. Among its many other handy uses, white vinegar (also known as acetic acid) can be a powerful disinfectant. While not as effective as bleach, it is capable of killing a large number of bacteria and germs.
All you need for this is pure distilled white vinegar (again, 1 gallon should be more than sufficient) and a large pump sprayer jug. The process is ultimately the same as in the bleach method, except you don’t need to worry about staining your clothes or taking quite as much care in handling your solution:
- Clean and sift the sand.
- Combine equal parts vinegar and water in the spray bottle.
- Spray the top layer until damp.
- Turn and mix the sand.
- Repeat steps 3 & 4 three to five times, leaving the top layer wet on the last round.
- Let the sand dry, turning it after the top layer is completely dry.
With the vinegar method, you still want the sand to be as dry as possible before you let your kids play in it again, but it’s perfectly safe to be in contact with it before this happens – though your kids may not be too keen on the smell. But once the solution dries out, the vinegar smell should disappear almost entirely, at least as far as humans are concerned – enough of the odor may linger to discourage any neighborhood felines from using the sandbox as their own private litter box.
If you do want to take extra measures to cover the smell, however, you can add a fragrant essential oil such as lavender to your vinegar solution or mix a healthy serving of cinnamon into the sand – both of which have the added bonus of being natural insect repellants.
Step 3: Keep the Sand Clean
Once your sandbox has been cleaned and sanitized, you’ll want to make sure it stays that way for as long as possible. Here are a few simple ways to help keep your sandbox clean and free of harmful contaminants.
- Cover the Sandbox – Keeping a cover on your sandbox when it’s not in use is arguably the most important factor in keeping it clean. Make sure to use a durable waterproof cover that fits snugly over the frame. This will help keep out animals and their droppings, insects, debris, and rain, all of which can contaminate the sand all over again.
- Keep Food and Drinks Out – Any spills or crumbs will be sure to attract hungry insects and critters, but can also give rise to bacteria and mold in themselves.
- Keep Pets Out – As fun and cute as it may be, letting pets play in your child’s sandbox is a recipe for trouble. Even if they don’t get tempted to use it as a potty place, they can still bring in bacteria or other unwelcome hitchhikers.
- Keep Insects Out – Aside from keeping your sandbox covered and using cinnamon or essential oils, you can also help keep bugs out by planting a few insect-repelling plants (rosemary, mint, citronella) around the sandbox, or by spraying around the perimeter with a non-toxic, plant-based bug repellant.
- Keep the Sand Dry – Wet sand can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests. Bacteria, mildew, and mold also tend to flourish in damp areas. Keeping the sandbox covered will help keep rainwater out, but it’s still necessary to turn the sand every week or two to keep the lower layers from getting too damp.
- Keep an Eye Out for Leaky Diapers and Runny Noses – Yes, even your own children (or their chums) can inadvertently spread germs around the sandbox. Fortunately, all it takes is a little monitoring and some forethought to avoid this – being on hand with a tissue, making sure no one’s plopping down in the sand with a full diaper, etc.
How Often Should You Sanitize Your Sandbox Sand?
How often you should sanitize your sandbox mainly depends on how often it’s used. If it’s used frequently, the sand should be sanitized several times a year. If it only sees occasional use, once or twice a year should be sufficient – unless, of course, there’s evidence of contamination.
If you find animal droppings or observe mold growth in the course of your routine raking and cleaning of the sandbox, that’s a clear indication that it’s time to clean and disinfect the sand. Another common sign of contamination is if the sand has a strange or unpleasant odor, which is usually indicative of bacteria, mold, or mildew. If you live in a humid region, you may need to sanitize the sand more frequently to combat this.
Replacing the Sand
Sometimes, cleaning and sanitizing the sand may not help matters – or simply may not be worth the effort. In these cases, it’s best to get rid of the sand and start anew. In fact, it’s a good idea to replace your sandbox sand periodically, regardless. If your sandbox sees a lot of action, you may want to replace the sand once a year, but if it sees only occasional or moderate use, once every two years should suffice.
But aside from the annual or semi-annual replacements, there are other times that a sand transfusion may be necessary. For instance, if the sand has a funny smell even after you’ve cleaned and sanitized it, it’s probably best to simply replace it. Or if it has become overrun with ants, ticks, fleas, or other insects, you’ll find it nearly impossible to remove the infestation without getting rid of the sand as well.
Whenever you replace your sand, just make sure you dispose of it properly (or put it to good use in your own yard) and replace it with child-safe, sanitized play sand that doesn’t contain crystalline silica or tremolite.
It may not be possible to completely eliminate the threat of harmful bacteria and germs from your sandbox – but with a little vigilance and preventative maintenance, you can keep your sandbox safe from the most dangerous forms of contamination.
And fortunately, even if your sandbox does become contaminated, making it safe and clean again is a pretty simple task – and you don’t have to start over from scratch to do it!
Thanks for reading!