How to Clean and Kill COVID-19, But Avoid Harsh Chemicals
- SARS-CoV-2 and other potentially life-threatening pathogens can invade your living spaces remarkably easily.
– A recent study found that SARS-CoV-2 can persist on plastic or stainless steel surfaces for 2 to 3 days.
– According to the American Lung Association, there are cleaning agents and household products that can irritate the eyes or throat, or cause health problems that include cancer.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is believed to spread primarily when a person with the virus coughs or sneezes in close proximity to someone who is healthy — underscoring the current emphasis on social distancing.
However, the possibility that healthy people can contract the virus by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching their mouth or eyes hasn’t been ruled out. This is why we’re constantly being reminded to wash our hands and wipe down surfaces during the current pandemic.
But proper cleaning and disinfecting means using the right products. Some popular cleaning products won’t stop COVID-19, while others contain harsh ingredients that carry health risks of their own. And constant hand washing may damage skin if precautions aren’t taken.
Let’s look at the safest ways to clean and disinfect to reduce your risk of COVID-19.
Where you need to clean in the home
Perhaps you return home from shopping and drop your reusable bags on the dining table. Maybe you took the kids for a walk in the neighborhood and forgot to wash everyone’s hands upon returning. These are just a couple of ways that surfaces in the home can become contaminated — drastically increasing the risk of infection.
SARS-CoV-2 and other potentially life threatening pathogens can invade your living spaces remarkably easily, so it’s critical to up the disinfecting and cleaning efforts to stop the spread of the virus.
A new study, as yet unpublished, by scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and other institutions finds that SARS-CoV-2 can persist for 2 to 3 days on plastic or stainless steel surfaces. This means that forgetting to wipe down surfaces can have consequences even days later.
And if someone in your household is already ill, then the need to disinfect and clean high-contact surfaces in your home is especially important. It’s critical that you consider all objects that have a particularly high chance of carrying a bug.
Besides targets like doorknobs, handles, drawers, counter tops, and light switches, you need to consider surfaces you rarely, if ever, wipe down.
“It’s important to look first at high-touch surfaces and how many people are in contact with those surfaces — think of tables and counters, doorknobs and handles, phones, remotes, keyboards, steering wheels, and light switches. The number of high-touch surfaces is greater than people tend to think it is,” said Brian Hedlund, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in a statement.
Handwashing is necessary, but chemicals can damage skin
“Repeatedly washing hands and using hand sanitizer can cause skin irritation and fissures,” said Dr. Suzanne Friedler, board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology and clinical instructor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center.
To prevent skin damage, Friedler recommends we avoid washing with hot water and use soap for sensitive skin.
“When using hand sanitizer, try to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer,” Friedler said.
This is because ethanol (alcohol) seems to be less irritating than n-propanol or isopropanol, she explained.
Friedler also recommends applying hand cream often, and if you’re putting on gloves, make sure your hands are dry beforehand to decrease irritation. “You can also wear cotton gloves underneath rubber ones,” she said.
Cleaning is not the same as disinfecting or sanitizing
The CDCTrusted Source says that cleaning frequently touched surfaces isn’t the same as disinfecting or sanitizing them.
The CDC advises that cleaning only removes germs, along with dirt and other impurities, from surfaces. But using soap and water to physically remove germs from surfaces doesn’t necessarily kill germs.
Disinfecting does kill germs on surfaces and objects, but this process doesn’t always clean surfaces or remove germs. However, by killing germs on a surface after cleaning, you can lower the risk of spreading infection.
Sanitizing works by either cleaning or disinfecting surfaces to lower the number of germs on surfaces or objects to safe levels.
For outbreaks like the new coronavirus, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has what’s called an Emerging Viral Pathogens policy.
“That policy allows companies who have already passed EPA registration on so-called ‘harder-to-kill’ viruses to say that their products can be used against that emerging viral pathogen,” said Dr. Jeanne Breen, infectious disease physician and researcher. “The EPA triggered this policy for SARS-CoV-2 on January 29. So a product already effective against norovirus or rhinovirus, which are harder to kill than SARS-CoV-2, is expected to be effective against SARS-CoV-2.”
Breen cautioned that all disinfectants have specific dwell times (the amount of time they’re required to remain on a surface) that must be met in order for the germs to be killed at the 99.9 percent level.
Some cleaners release dangerous chemicals
The products used to kill viruses and other germs can also contain harsh chemicals that can cause health issues.
According to the American Lung Association (ALA), there are cleaning agents and household products that can irritate the eyes or throat, or cause health problems that include cancer.
The ALA cautions that some products release dangerous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds. The association adds that other potentially dangerous substances include ammonia and bleach.
The Environmental Working Group warns that cleaning product labels often don’t provide consumers enough information about ingredients to allow people to make informed decisions on which ones might harm their health.
Reliable guidance is offered by the EPA. The agency provides consumers a list of products that meet their Safer Choice requirements for cleaning your home — including products for your vehicle, another high-traffic area.
Best cleaners are easily available
“[SARS-CoV-2] is an enveloped virus. This means that the virus has an outer protective lipid coat. Anything that effectively disrupts this outer membrane, in turn, can kill the virus,” Brendaliz Santiago-Narvaez, PhD, an assistant professor of biology at Rollins College in Florida, told Healthline.
Santiago-Narvaez pointed out several good options for disinfecting your home.
Her first recommendation is also the simplest: “Soap and water — no antibacterial soap needed. Soap and water alone are sufficient to disrupt this outer layer that the virus needs in order to infect. This is why I would recommend cleaning surfaces with water and soap first.”
According to Santiago-Narvaez, one common household product easily disinfects the screens of electronic devices: “isopropyl alcohol, minimum 70 percent alcohol. Alcohol disrupts membranes, hence why it can kill the virus. This option is great for touchscreens, computer monitors, etc.”
She added that “traditional laundry detergents are sufficient to wash clothing.” But she emphasized that we should “try to use warmest possible water in the wash cycle.”
The bottom line
Although SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is primarily spread when a person with the virus coughs or sneezes close to others — it’s believed to survive on surfaces for a significant time.
Experts say the virus is probably here to stay, which means cleaning and disinfecting high traffic objects and surfaces in our homes is important to reduce the risk of infection.
Many store-bought cleaners can contain potentially harmful ingredients. Experts emphasize that there are safe cleaning and disinfecting agents already available to us in our homes that are effective and carry little risk of harming health.