Black mold vs. mildew – Is there a difference? Does it matter? We describe 7 common misconceptions people have when dealing with black mold vs. mildew: from recognizing the differences between them to how to clean it all up safely. Come read and learn everything you need to know about black mold vs. mildew.
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BLACK MOLD VS. MILDEW – WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Mildew and mold grow everywhere in nature. They are nature’s recyclers and they break down old plant material. Mildew and mold can both grow in our homes. One can cause major damage and severe health problems. The other can cause surface damage and lung irritation. Neither is a good thing to find in our homes, but one is much easier to remove than another. How can you know which one you have? Keep reading to find out!
Fungi – Nature’s Recyclers
Mildew and mold are both fungi. Fungi are neither animals nor plants. They inhabit a kingdom all their own. Fungi are spore-producing organisms that feed on organic matter including yeasts, mildews, rusts, smuts, molds, and mushrooms. Fungi grow using filaments or hyphae that make up their bodies (mycellia). They digest organic matter externally before absorbing the nutrients.
You encounter fungi everyday in your food when you eat bread, drink alcohol, or eat blue cheese. Bread rises and alcohol is fermented using different yeasts. Blue cheese has a special type of mold (Penicillium Roqueforti or Penicillium Glaucum) that is purposely injected into the cheese, and allowed to grow, giving the blue cheese its specific flavor. Even though there are few molds that are beneficial to us, the molds that attack our homes are not.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE BLACK MOLD VS MILDEW?
Mold and mildew differ in the way they grow and what they look like. Mildew is always flat, and may begin white and then turn brown, gray or black.
Mildew is flat and grows on the surface of things.
Mold is usually fuzzy and raised above the surface that it is growing on. Mold can be many different colors ranging from white, yellow, green, gray, to black. The biggest difference between mold and mildew is how they grow.
Mold is fuzzy and raised, comes in many colors, and grows inside its food source.
HOW DO BLACK MOLD AND MILDEW GROW?
Molds and mildews are fungi that grow from microscopic spores that are everywhere in the air. They are found everywhere in nature, and are important for recycling organic matter (such as leaves). The recycling process they perform returns nutrients to the soil and is important for plants to grow. There are four things mold and mildew need to grow: oxygen, moisture, a food source, and warmth. Moisture is the only one of these factors you can control. Keep your home dry, and you can keep mold and mildew away!
The biggest difference between molds and mildews is in their method of invading and digesting organic matter. Mildews only grow on the surface of food sources. Molds grow inside of their food source. Molds can penetrate deeply into drywall, carpets, underneath kitchen and bathroom sinks, etc. Making molds much more difficult to remove.
It is possible that no matter how clean you keep your home, at some point you will have mildew. Mildew can be found anywhere that is warm and moist both inside and outside your home including: bathrooms, floors, walls, ceilings, crawl spaces, boats, sheds, and more. Mildews can also be found in your garden growing on plants such as tomatoes, squash, crepe myrtles, and more. Mildews are usually white or gray, but they are always flat, never raised above the surface
Mildew is much easier to remove than mold. Simply cleaning the area with baking soda or white vinegar should eliminate the mildew. Mildews generally do not cause lasting damage. However, their spores can cause coughing and allergic reactions. It is wise to wear proper protective equipment when cleaning.
Molds are much more difficult to eliminate than mildew in your home. It hides in places no one ever thinks to look like under cabinets, in crawl spaces, and behind furniture. This type of fungi grows inside of their food sources. Because they grow inside the food source (such as drywall, carpets, wood, cabinets, insulation, etc.), they must be completely removed to stop them from growing and spreading to other areas of your home.
To completely remove the mold, you have to remove the food source contaminated with mold. If the contaminated food source is not completely removed, the mold will keep coming back. It’s all got to go: floors, ceilings, drywall, cabinets, insulation, wood, everything the mold can eat has to be removed.
This is why people get so frustrated when they are trying to get rid of mold. They clean the surface over and over, and the mold just keeps coming back. The only way to get rid of mold for good is to completely remove the contaminated food source and fix any moisture problems associated with it.
BLACK MOLD – SOMETHING OF A MISNOMER
All molds have the potential to cause irritation and allergy symptoms. However, some molds can also cause much more dangerous health problems. Some molds, but not all, produce toxins (called mycotoxins). Toxic molds can cause health problems ranging from poisoning to cancer. Not all molds are toxic, but many are. The thing is… dangerous and toxic mold is not just black, it can be many different colors. Toxic molds can appear to be green, yellow, brown, and black.
So, where is the line between an allergic mold and a toxic mold? That line is defined by something called a mycotoxin, and is NOT defined by color.
Mycotoxins, literally ‘fungus poison’ in Latin, are secondary metabolites that can be produced by molds, and are not living organisms. Mycotoxins are a byproduct of mold. Not all mold spores produce mycotoxins, but some do. So the molds that produce mycotoxins are the ones that could be categorized as toxic or poisonous, no matter what color they are.
Mycotoxins are chemical substances that can cause many health problems ranging from mild to severe. Even if you are not allergic to mold, you can be affected by mycotoxins.
IS MOLD A HEALTH PROBLEM?
In one word… Yes. As we just said, whether the mold is black or not is kind of irrelevant. It is impossible to know if you have toxic mold just by looking. People may spend weeks, months, and even years fighting illness, and never know what they are really fighting…mold. Many of our customers find us after a recommendation from their doctor, that they may in fact have a mold problem, and not just an illness.
Mold is most often associated with allergies, but mold is much more menacing than people know. While all molds have the potential to cause irritation and allergy symptoms, molds can also cause much more dangerous health problems including: fungal poisoning and mental health problems.
Remember that the color of the mold is not what causes it to be dangerous. The danger is from mycotoxins: the dangerous substances the mold produces. You can learn more about mycotoxin poisoning in our article: When Mold Is Worse Than Allergies.
To learn more about how mold can affect mental health check out our articles: Mold and Mycotoxins: Effects on the Brain and Nervous System in Adults and Effects of Mold on Children’s Health.
DIY VS. PROFESSIONAL MOLD REMOVAL
Mildew is usually easy to remove and is easily a DIY project. Mold however is a different story. You may wonder if professional help is really necessary. Customers often ask us, “Can I clean the mold myself or do I need a professional?” Our answer depends several factors including:
- how extensive the mold problem is
- what building materials, furnishings, and belongings are affected
- where the mold is located
- whether or not you mind being in confined spaces such as your crawlspace, basement, or attic
If you’re familiar with our blog, you know that the first thing to do when cleaning mold is to fix the moisture problem that led to the mold growth. Until you fix the moisture problem, mold will continue to grow and spread.
Mold is great at hiding in hard to detect locations such as in drywall and insulation. If the area of mold covers more than about 10 square feet, there is a good chance the mold problem is more than an isolated issue. It’s time to call in the professionals when you smell a musty odor in your home you can’t identify, or have health problems associated with mold.
If the area of mold is less than 10 square feet, you may be able to handle it yourself. To get all the details check out our post: Cleaning Mold: DIY vs. Professional.
BLACK MOLD VS MILDEW – HOW TO DIY
Removing mold and mildew can be a DIY project, but it’s a good idea to know when to call the pros. Our tips for mold and mildew removal help you know what products to use, and what not to use. We can help you clean up the problem area safely. Whether you choose to DIY or have us help you, we want to help you get back to living your best life!
What Not To Use – Bleach
The goal of mold or mildew cleaning is not to kill it, or even to disinfect a surface or material, but rather to remove it from a surface. Think of mold and mildew more like dirt. If you had a wall with dirt on it, would you simply spray it with bleach and consider it cleaned? Of course not.
Bleach is a combination of chemicals used to kill bacteria and whiten clothes, floors, and walls. Bleach contains sodium hypochlorite which is toxic to bacteria, fish, and human beings. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discourages the use of bleach and biocides for mold cleaning.
Of course, there are more reasons to avoid bleach. Bleach is designed to kill bacteria, and will not completely remove a mold or mildew problem. Molds and mildew are fungi (not bacteria) and they can, and will, grow back after bleaching.
What To Wear To Clean Mold and Mildew Safely
Before even choosing a cleaning product, you should know what kind of safety equipment to wear to clean a moldy surface. Mildew is rarely toxic, however, it is sometimes difficult to tell mold from mildew. Err on the side of caution, and wear the safety equipment! You’ll never be sorry you were extra cautious.
The basic equipment consists of an N-95 respirator, goggles or eye protection, & protective gloves with long cuffs. Long pants, a long sleeved shirt and waterproof boots are important to wear as well. Closed toed shoes are a good substitute for boots, especially if you are working on a small area of mold.
Both mold and mildew are a respiratory irritants and allergens, so a mask with a N-95 respirator is important, especially if you know you are allergic to mold. A simple dust mask will NOT protect you from the mold spores or mycotoxins.
For more information about safety, visit: What to Wear before entering a Home or Building with Mold Damage by the CDC.
To learn more about face masks see our post: In-depth Guide to Face Masks: Allergies, Grass Cutting, and COVID-19.
What To Use To Clean Mold and Mildew Safely
Before using any cleaners, you must ventilate! Ventilation is extremely important during cleaning, so that any disturbed spores exit the building. Close and tape off doors to the rest of the house and use a box fan in a window pointing out while cleaning. This will prevent spores from invading the rest of the home, and remove them from the air of the room to be cleaned. Also, ventilation helps remove the smell of whatever your cleaner of choice. Remember smelling good does NOT equal clean!
There are 3 simple ingredients you can safely use to clean away mold and mildew in your home: white vinegar, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide. Remember NOT to mix these ingredients! Keep reading for maximum cleaning power and safety!
Can it really be that simple? What about all of those mold and mildew cleaners that are being marketed? What about the claims that a certain product kills mold, removes mold, removes stains, disinfects surfaces and prevents mold from ever returning? If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Believe it or not simple and safe ingredients are better. To learn more about the products you use to clean your home, and how they are NOT regulated by the federal government, check out our articles: Cleaning Products – Homemade vs. Store Bought and How to Choose the Best Black Mold Removal Products.
Hard Surface Cleaning
To clean a hard surface (like a shower stall, tiles, toilet, sink, or floor), simply add hydrogen peroxide OR white vinegar to a clean, empty spray bottle undiluted. Never mix these chemicals! Choose one or the other.
When using hydrogen peroxide, spray the area to clean thoroughly, and let it sit for 10-15 minutes. Then, scrub the area, and rinse it clean with water. Repeat if needed.
For white vinegar, spray the area to clean thoroughly, and let it sit for at least 15 minutes or up to one hour. Then, scrub the area, and rinse it clean with water.
To use baking soda, add a teaspoon to a tablespoon of baking soda to a clean empty spray bottle and fill the bottle ¾ full of hot water. Shake to dissolve. Spray the area and use a scrub brush to clean the mold away. Then, rinse the area with clean water.
When using baking soda, it usually works best with a white vinegar spray following the baking soda, but not at the same time. The baking soda should be scrubbed away and rinsed before spraying with vinegar.
Baking soda is a base and vinegar is an acid. When they are used together, they react to form carbon dioxide gas and heat. The chemicals are neutralized (changed to a neutral pH of 7) when mixed, and have less cleaning power than they would if they are used separately.
You can add 5 to 10 drops of tea tree essential oil to the white vinegar spray to increase the disinfectant power. Tea tree essential oil is distilled from the Melaleuca alternifolia tree from Australia. The essential oil is antifungal (kills fungi), antiviral (kills viruses), and antimicrobial (kills microbes, including bacteria).
However: we advise people with allergies or asthma to use this oil with caution, as it can be irritating to the skin and lungs. To learn more about essential oils and how to use them safely check out our post: Essential Oils For A Healthy Home.
Cleaning Softer Surfaces
Hard surfaces generally are able to be cleaned, and most of the time mold will not grow back if it is completely removed and the moisture problem has been fixed. Soft surfaces (such as carpet, drywall, upholstered furniture, etc.), are not always able to be cleaned completely enough to keep the mold from coming back.
Depending on how deep the mold penetrates the materials, upholstered furniture could be cleaned by a professional. Linens, clothes, and towels can be laundered in hot water to remove the mold, but stains may remain.
Leather tends to mold quickly in warm, damp environments such as basements.
Leather is prone to mold damage, and can be cleaned. However, leather should not be kept in a basement or location where moisture levels are high. To clean leather check out The Spruce’s Step-By-Step Guide on How to Clean Mold From Leather. You can also have significant or sentimental leather items cleaned by a professional leather cleaner.
When you have softer surfaces such as carpet, drywall, and furniture that have been contaminated with mold, it’s probably time to call a professional. It is very difficult to tell just how much of the surface has really been invaded by the mold just by looking.
Best Commercially Available Products for DIY Mold and Mildew Removal
There are 2 commercially available mold removal products that we recommend. Both are cleaners that are safe to use in your home and near children or pets. Remember that you should always wear personal protective equipment when cleaning mold of any color, no matter how safe your cleaner may be.
The first is Concrobium Mold Control Cleaner. You can check out the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning | Concrobium Mold Control Cleaner Rating here.
The best mold removal products are those that are non-toxic and safe to use around children and pets.
The other product we recommend has not been reviewed by EWG, however, it is an excellent and safe product that we can highly recommend. Bioesque Botanical Disinfectant Solution kills fungi and mold within 3 minutes. It also kills bacteria and viruses including COVID-19.
To learn more about this product and its safety check out the company’s website at: Bioesque’s Botanical Disinfectant Solution.
Tips for Cleaning Mold and Mildew
- Remember that your goal is not to kill the mold or mildew spores, but to remove them. When they have been removed completely they cannot grow back.
- Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate! Ventilation is important during cleaning, so that any disturbed spores exit the building. Close and tape off doors to the rest of the house and use a box fan in a window pointing out while cleaning. This will prevent spores from invading the rest of the home, and remove them from the air of the room to be cleaned.
- Be sure to spray and then wipe all surfaces with a damp rag. Dry wiping will disturb spores and send them into the air! Airborne spores can regrow in new locations, and cause even more mold to grow. Mold and mildew spores are not visible to the naked eye, so be sure to cover all surfaces with your cleaner of choice, even if they look ‘clean’.
- Vacuuming is not the best method of removal. Do NOT use a vacuum to clean mold unless you have a vacuum with a HEPA filter. HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate air, which means the filter can stop most particles of dust, pet dander, allergens, etc. that are 0.3 microns or larger and keep them from being put back into the air. The HEPA filter should be changed periodically to increase efficiency. Use with caution as mycotoxins may not be filtered out even when using a HEPA vacuum. Remember that you will eventually have to empty the vacuum, and it will be filled with the mold.
No matter what product you choose, be sure to wear proper safety equipment, ventilate the room to the outdoors, and follow all product directions.
KNOW WHEN TO CLEAN AND WHEN TO CALL
It’s easy to take care of mold and mildew as a homeowner, but it’s also a good idea to know when to call in the pros. You should be able to take care of mildew yourself, but if it keeps coming back, or is causing health problems for your family, you may want to call in the pros. It might just be mold, not mildew.
Mold is great at hiding in hard to detect locations such as in drywall, under sinks, and in carpet. If the area of mold covers more than about 10 square feet, there is a good chance the mold problem is more than an isolated issue. If you smell a musty odor in your home you can’t identify, or have health problems associated with mold, it’s time to call in the professionals.
To learn more about what mold removal really looks like check out our post: Home Mold Remediation.
Especially if you don’t live in our service area, check out our post: How to Choose the ‘Best’ Black Mold Removal Company. We help you know all the questions to ask and all the answers!