When it comes to housecleaning, here's how to tackle the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.
These are strange times, and when times are strange, the internet does what it is so uniquely good at: It spreads a lot of misinformation.
Recently we’ve seen all kinds of far-fetched claims about how to kill the virus responsible for COVID-19 – some of them so dangerous that we’re not even going to repeat them here. Suffice to say, people are panicking and hungry for ways to protect themselves. Fair enough. But we thought it would be prudent to take a look at some of the things proven to be effective for destroying the new coronavirus at home.The Centers for Disease Control notes that current evidence suggests that the virus may “remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials.” They add,
"Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings."
Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency tells us that coronaviruses are some of the easiest types of viruses to kill. “It has an envelope around it that allows it to merge with other cells to infect them,” Stephen Thomas, M.D., chief of infectious diseases and director of global health at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, tells Consumer Reports. “If you disrupt that coating, the virus can’t do its job.”
The difference between cleaning and disinfecting
- Cleaning is the removal of germs and dirt from a surface. It does not kill germs, but removing them depletes their numbers and thus lowers the risk of spreading infection.
- Disinfecting means using chemicals to kill germs on a surface. Unlike cleaning, disinfecting does not remove dirt or germs.
By cleaning first and then disinfecting, the risk of spreading infection can be lowered. Surfaces should be cleaned using detergent or soap and water – and allowed to dry for at least 10 minutes – prior to disinfecting.
General tips for cleaning and disinfecting householdsIf anyone is coming in and out of the house, routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces is warranted, these include tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks, et cetera. The CDC recommends household cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants that are appropriate for the surface. Be sure to read and follow instructions for safe and effective use, and pay heed to those instruction, for example, wearing gloves and making sure there is sufficient ventilation.
If your household is home to someone suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, please see cleaning instructions included in the CDC's recommended precautions for household members, intimate partners, and caregivers.
Products that can kill the coronavirus
Soap and waterHand sanitizer could practically be a new form of currency at this point, but do not overlook the wonders of good old soap. “It isn’t possible to disinfect every surface you touch throughout your day,” says Thomas. “The planet is covered with bacteria and viruses, and we’re constantly in contact with these surfaces, so hand-washing is still your best defense against COVID-19.”
Perry Santanachote writes in Consumer Reports that the action of scrubbing with soap and water can break that aforementioned protective envelope. “Scrub like you’ve got sticky stuff on the surface and you really need to get it off,” says organic chemist Richard Sachleben.
Isopropyl alcoholThe CDC notes that alcohol solutions with at least 70 percent alcohol should be effective against coronavirus. Apply undiluted alcohol and let it sit on the surface for at least 30 seconds to disinfect. Note that it may discolor some plastic surfaces.
But NOT vodka
Despite what some are suggesting, an 80-proof product is only 40 percent ethyl alcohol, compared with the 70 percent required to kill the coronavirus.
And NOT distilled white vinegar
While vinegar may be a TreeHugger favorite, there is no evidence that it is effective in killing the coronavirus.
Hydrogen peroxideSantanachote reports that as per the CDC, household hydrogen peroxide (3 percent) can kill rhinovirus (the dreaded virus that causes the common cold). “Rhinovirus is more difficult to destroy than coronaviruses, so hydrogen peroxide should be able to break down coronavirus in less time,” he writes, recommending that it can be poured undiluted in a spray bottle and used from there; just be sure to let it sit on the surface for one minute before wiping. It should be OK on metal surfaces, but can discolor fabric.
“It’s great for getting into hard-to-reach crevices,” Sachleben says. “You can pour it on the area and you don’t have to wipe it off because it essentially decomposes into oxygen and water.”
Common commercial disinfectantsThe CDS has a list of products with EPA-approved emerging viral pathogens claims that are expected to be effective against COVID-19. They have not specifically been tested against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, but they are expected to be effective based on demonstrated efficacy against harder-to-kill viruses.
Some of these look pretty intense and would be my last resort, but then again, I am not living in a household with someone who is infected. As always, use caution and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products.
BleachYou may have a no-bleach household, like many of us TreeHuggers, but if there were a time to break the no-bleach rules, this might be it for some. The CDC notes that “unexpired household bleach will be effective against coronaviruses when properly diluted.”
As per CDC instructions, make a bleach solution by mixing five tablespoons (1/3 cup) bleach per gallon of water or four teaspoons bleach per quart of water. Keep in mind:
- Follow manufacturer’s instructions for application and proper ventilation.
- Check to ensure the product is not past its expiration date.
- Never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser.
- Do not keep the solution for longer than a day.
Precautions when using bleachThe federally funded clinical and educational center, Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at UC San Francisco, has a great information sheet on using bleach. Among other things, they note:
- Bleach can irritate the skin and eyes.
- Exposure to bleach can make asthma worse in people who already have asthma.
- Mixing bleach with other chemicals containing ammonia, quaternary ammonium compounds (found in other disinfectants), vinegar or other acids can create a toxic gas.
- Bleach corrodes many metals. It should never be used on stainless steel, aluminum, copper, brass, marble, or granite.
- Bleach is neutralized by dirt and other organic material, so it isn’t very effective when used on a surface that hasn’t been cleaned.
A note on wearing glovesAnd lastly, make sure you are following good glove protocol. The CDC recommends wearing disposable gloves when cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, and to discard them after each cleaning. But since disposable things break our TreeHugger hearts, we will also note that the CDC gives advice for reusable gloves, recommending that they "should be dedicated for cleaning and disinfection of surfaces for COVID-19 and should not be used for other purposes." And always remember to clean hands immediately after gloves are removed.
Also see: Laundry in a time of COVID-19
See more on cleaning and disinfecting from the CDC here, and for more COVID-19 coverage, see related stories below.