Increasing numbers of hospital-acquired infections have generated much attention over the last decade. The public has linked the so-called 'superbugs' with their experience of dirty hospitals but the precise role of environmental cleaning in the control of these organisms remains unknown. Until cleaning becomes an evidence-based science, with established methods for assessment, the importance of a clean environment is likely to remain speculative. This review will examine the links between the hospital environment and various pathogens, including meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, vancomycin-resistant enterococci, norovirus, Clostridium difficile and acinetobacter. These organisms may be able to survive in healthcare environments but there is evidence to support their vulnerability to the cleaning process. Removal with, or without, disinfectants, appears to be associated with reduced infection rates for patients. Unfortunately, cleaning is often delivered as part of an overall infection control package in response to an outbreak and the importance of cleaning as a single intervention remains controversial. Recent work has shown that hand-touch sites are habitually contaminated by hospital pathogens, which are then delivered to patients on hands. It is possible that prioritising the cleaning of these sites might offer a useful adjunct to the current preoccupation with hand hygiene, since hand-touch sites comprise the less well-studied side of the hand-touch site equation. In addition, using proposed standards for hospital hygiene could provide further evidence that cleaning is a cost-effective intervention for controlling hospital-acquired infection.