Little kids will put just about anything into their mouths, no matter where it's been, including their toys. To them, it's just another way of exploring the world. But do you need to add a daily toy scrub-down to your long parental to-do list?

“Everything you touch has bacteria,” says Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “You don’t need to create an overly sterile environment.”

But it’s still smart to clean toys regularly. Here are four tips for keeping your child’s playthings spic-and-span.

1. Start with the hands that touch the toys. Good hand hygiene can lessen contamination of toys in the first place. Help your little ones scrub up frequently with soap and water. Make doubly sure to wash their hands after eating, using the bathroom or swiping a runny nose, advises Adalja. If your child has a cold or the flu, separate the toys he plays with at the end of each day and clean them well before putting them back into the toy box.

Related: How to Disinfect Your Home When Someone Is Sick

2. Know when to clean. It’s not necessary or realistic to clean your child's toys every time they're played with, Adalja says. Obviously, playthings should be washed when they’re dirty — for example, they’re visibly grimy or a kid threw up on them. You also should clean toys that babies or toddlers put in their mouths. And clean and sanitize toys after your child has been sick (keep reading for advice on how to do that). Otherwise, pick and stick to a regular toy-cleaning schedule, says Adalja. Once a month should be often enough.

3. Use the right cleaning method. Different types of playthings need to be cleaned in different ways.

  • Soft toys. Plush toys are more likely to harbor germs than hard toys, Adalja says. To clean plush toys, the toy manufacturer Fisher-Price recommends tossing them into the washing machine, adding laundry detergent and running a cycle on hot. Then dry the toy in the dryer. To attack dust mites that could trigger allergies, stick plush toys in the freezer overnight.
  • Plastic toys. With plastic toys that don’t run on batteries, you have two choices. You can wash them by hand in hot, soapy water to remove surface dirt and gunk. If you need to cut grease or remove stubborn dirt, add vinegar and baking soda to the mix, advises the American Academy of Pediatrics. Rinse well. If washing by hand sounds like a hassle, you can simply stick toys that don't have batteries in the dishwasher, which will sanitize them too.
  • Metal or wood toys (or battery-operated plastic toys). Gently wipe down the surface of the toys with a damp microfiber cloth to remove dirt or grease.

Related: How to Disinfect Your Furniture

4. Sanitize when you must. Just washing a toy with soap and hot water can remove many of the germs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because no sanitizer is 100 percent safe, though, only sanitize when necessary. To sanitize, you can soak hard plastic toys for five minutes in a fresh bleach solution, then let them air dry. Use 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water, advises the Department of Health Services in Berkeley, California.

Or, you can wipe down metal, wooden or battery-operated toys with the bleach solution. Once the bleach has dried, it’s OK for little ones to stick the toys in their mouths because the chlorine will have evaporated. If you’re buying a sanitizer or disinfectant, look for products that bear logos from third party testers, such as ECOLOGO, Green Seal or the EPA’s Design for the Environment.

Finally, put germ-laden playthings in perspective. Vaccination is far more important than cleaning toys when it comes to keeping little ones healthy, Adalja says.

Related: 6 Ways to Make Your Flu Vaccine More Effective

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Allie Johnson is an award-winning freelance consumer writer with a degree in magazine journalism. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two dogs.