A Complete Guide to Non-Toxic Cleaning and Disinfecting During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Protect yourself from the novel coronavirus in the most non-toxic way possible
Updated May 21, 2020
We don't know about you, but the outbreak of the new coronavirus this year has us doing a lot of cleaning. And it seems like we're going to be doing this for quite a while. Having cleaning on the brain makes us wonder: What's the best "natural" or "green" way to clean that still gets rid of the coronavirus causing the pandemic? What's the difference between cleaning and disinfecting? What products are safe to use but also effective at preventing transmission and infection? Are there non-toxic disinfectants? We answer all of your novel coronavirus cleaning and disinfecting related questions below.
Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) Basics
While it's always good to routinely clean and disinfect, it's especially important during this pandemic. COVID-19 is highly transmissible and can spread quickly through a community. The best and easiest way to keep yourself protected is to up your hand washing game (20 seconds and lots of scrubbing), practice social distancing, and staying home as much as possible. The importance of these three things can't be overemphasized, so we're saying it one more time!
Cleaning household surfaces is also really important, especially if a family member is sick, you're receiving packages or groceries that others touch, or you leave the house for work or errands. The virus SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted in droplets when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or even shouts or breathes. These droplets may fall onto surfaces, and if you touch them, you could then touch your face and then become infected. The new coronavirus has been shown to remain on surfaces for an extended length of time. In general, the smoother the surface the longer the virus will remain active. Additionally, viruses tend to live longer with lower temperatures and when it's dry. There have been two recent studies and they have found that the novel coronavirus could survive on plastic and stainless steel for up to 7 days, wood and cloth for 2 days, cardboard for 24 hours, and paper and tissues for 3 hours (1, 2). That's why as people are leaving their houses more and more after sheltering in place, it's important to increase the amount of times you clean and disinfect household surfaces in order to decrease transmission in every way possible.
Cleaning vs. Disinfecting
It's really important to know the difference between cleaning and disinfecting. Cleaning gets rid of germs and dirt from surfaces or objects. Cleaning doesn't necessarily kill germs; it reduces their numbers and the risk of infection by just washing germs down the drain. Cleaning can involve washing your hands, using a laundry machine, or using an all purpose cleaner on a surface or object. Soap is a necessary part of cleaning because it helps to carry away the germs. Many people think antimicrobial soap is better for cleaning but that's just not true. There is no evidence that it helps prevent infections over plain old soap and water. In fact, with the new coronavirus, soap and water is very effective at breaking down a fatty layer that surrounds the virus. When you're cleaning, the goal is to remove the germs, not kill them. So when you scrub a surface or your hands with soap, the friction helps lift away any germs and dirt.
Disinfecting, on the other hand, actually kills germs on surfaces or objects by using chemicals. Disinfecting doesn't physically remove germs, but kills them in place. Disinfecting chemicals work by attacking certain parts of the germs and breaking them down. While killing germs sounds appealing, you can't only disinfect. In fact, the CDC recommends cleaning a surface before disinfecting; this combination is the best way to reduce the risk of infection. It's important to note that some disinfecting chemicals can have harmful health effects. Bleach (sodium hypochlorite) and quaternary ammonia (quats) irritate the skin and airways and through prolonged use can cause long term damage like asthma (3, 4). Additionally, new research is showing that quats are linked to reproductive harm, including infertility and birth defects (5, 6). You can check if a cleaning product has a quat in it by looking for ingredients usually say benzalkonium chloride or *fill in the blank* ammonium chloride (like Alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride).
If you only have disinfectants like bleach or quats (or can only find those in stores now), then the safer way to use these disinfectants is to make sure to ventilate well and wear gloves when cleaning. Then after the disinfectant has sat for the requisite contact time (info should be on the label) you can go back over the areas with plain water and a washcloth. This will help remove some of the residual chemicals and fragrances. If you have kids, don't let them handle the disinfectants and try to have them in a separate room when disinfecting and make sure to safely store them out of reach. Also, please NEVER mix disinfectants with other cleaning products as some combinations can be really dangerous.
Fortunately, there are relatively safer disinfecting chemicals that don't have the same harmful health side effects! But remember that even products with safer active ingredients should be used with care and that it's really important to have good ventilation when using them. The EPA has evaluated disinfectant active ingredients and determined that they are unlikely to be carcinogenic or cause hormone disruption. Safe disinfectant ingredients that are effective against COVID-19 include:
- Alcohol, ethanol, isopropyl
- Hydrogen peroxide
- L- Lactic acid
- Citric acid
- Peroxyacetic acid
- Sodium Bisulfate
A lot of cleaning products are sold out right now, but as more of them come back in stock, you can look for products with these active ingredients that are on the EPA List of Disinfectants for Use Against COVID-19. We went over the list and pulled together some products that you might find on store shelves (when they are in stock!) or with popular online retailers that use these safer active ingredients. Please make sure to let them sit for the proper amount of contact time listed on the label or on the EPA list.
- Arm & Hammer Essentials™ Disinfecting Wipes (5 mins)
- Lysol Bathroom Cleaner (5 mins)
- CleanCide Wipes (5 mins)
- Comet Disinfecting Bathroom Cleaner (10 mins)
- Bona STL Disinfecting Cleaner (10 mins)
- Proxi Home General Disinfectant Cleaner Spray (10 mins)
- Clorox Pet Solutions Advanced Formula Disinfecting Stain & Odor Remover (5 mins)
- Clorox Commercial Solutions® Hydrogen Peroxide Cleaner Disinfectant (1 min)
- Clorox Commercial Solutions® Hydrogen Peroxide Cleaner Disinfectant Wipes (2 mins)
- Clorox Commercial Solutions® Clorox® Disinfecting Biostain & Odor Remover (5 mins)
- Oxivir™ Wipes (1 min)
- Oxivir™ HC Disinfectant Cleaner (1 min)
- PURELL Professional Surface Disinfectant Wipes (5 mins)
- PURELL Multi-Surface Disinfectant and Professional Surface Disinfectant, registered under Urthpro (1 min)
- Lysol Neutra Air® 2 in 1 (30 sec)
- Windex Disinfectant Cleaner (5 mins)
- Sodium chloride (contact time 10 minutes)- Force of Nature Activator Capsule
- Thymol (contact time 10 minutes)- CleanWell Daily Cleaner Disinfectant Spray and Towelettes
We know that even DIY ingredients are hard to find at the moment, but it's worth checking your medicine cabinet to see if you have any rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide laying around. You can use either of these ingredients to make a DIY disinfectant in a spray bottle! Most trigger spray tops will screw right onto a bottle. Alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol are effective on hard surfaces with a contact time of at least 30 seconds. This should be safe to use on most surfaces and objects around the home and can be really useful for disinfecting electronics like your cellphone or keyboard. 3% Hydrogen peroxide is effective against other viruses that are harder to kill than coronaviruses, so you can spray and let sit for a 3-5 minutes. In fact there's no need to wipe off. Just spray and let it dry. Hydrogen peroxide can change the color of fabrics and painted surfaces though, so be careful while using it on these materials.
Complete Guide to Cleaning Your Home During COVID-19
- Washing your hands is still the #1 thing to do! Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food, eating, or snacking. Wash your hands after using the bathroom. Wash your hands when you're coming back from anywhere outside the house. Wash your hands after touching any object from out of your house, like packages.
- Clean surfaces and objects that can get wet with an all purpose cleaner. Here is a roundup of safe and effective all purpose cleaners and you can even DIY an all purpose cleaner with vinegar and water or liquid soap and water. We like to regularly clean floors, counters, tables, cabinet surfaces and handles, doors and door handles, windows, window sills, toilets, vanities, tubs and showers, and appliances. Using a wet cloth and wet mopping are a great way to get rid of germs and dust, as opposed to a feather duster that just spreads them around. If you want a comprehensive cleaning checklist, check out our guide.
- Routinely disinfect high touch objects and surfaces. Frequently touched objects in the house include things like door handles or knobs, locks, light switches, tables, cabinet and appliance handles, toilet flushers, faucets, cell phones, laptops and keyboards/mouse, and remote controls.
- Wash bedding, towels, and laundry regularly on the warmest possible setting that won't ruin the fabrics and dry in the dryer.
- When you leave the home to get groceries or other essentials, try to not bring any unnecessary objects, especially things that are hard to wash like a leather wallet or leather purse. If you need to bring a bag to bring some things in, bring a washable tote bag. When you return home, wash your hands and clean and/or disinfect everything that you brought with you and may have touched (this includes your phone!). You should also wash your reusable face mask after every use. You can also wash your clothes and any bags you may have taken with you.
- Groceries and deliveries are mostly likely a low risk source for transmission. But you can clean or disinfect everything coming into the house if you would like. You can now ask for contact-free delivery with most packages, food, and grocery delivery services. Wipe down boxes or bags with a disinfectant, or let them sit in a space where no one will touch them for 3 days if the goods are not perishable. For objects that are in plastic or that can get wet, you can save your disinfectant and wash them with soap and water. Viruses can survive in the freezer and in the refrigerator, so it is still important to wash or disinfect items that are going in the fridge since you might touch them later.
When Someone in the Home is Sick
The CDC has good guidance on what to do when caring for someone who is sick. Since COVID-19 is easily transmissible, it's important to clean when someone is suspected of being sick or is actually sick. You should try to create a separate quarantine area (including a bathroom) within your home that only the sick person will use. If no one else will enter this area, it does not need to be cleaned unless necessary. But we know a separate area is not always possible, so here are some important areas to clean when someone is sick:
- Wash dishes, cups, and utensils that the sick person uses separately with hot water and soap.
- Wash bedding, towels, and clothing regularly with the warmest setting possible. Wear disposable gloves when putting in the laundry or wash your hands immediately after.
- Clean and disinfect the bathroom after the sick person uses it before it is used by another person.
- Clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects that the sick person may have touched, such as counters or appliance handles.
- Use a lined trash can that is reserved for things that the sick person has used or touched, like tissues.
- Open windows to let fresh air in.
1) van Doremalen, Neeltje, et al. "Aerosol and surface stability of SARS-CoV-2 as compared with SARS-CoV- 1." New England Journal of Medicine 382.16 (2020): 1564-1567.
2) Chin, Alex WH, et al. "Stability of SARS-CoV-2 in different environmental conditions." The Lancet Microbe 1.1 (2020): e10.
3) Gonzalez, M., et al. "Asthma among workers in healthcare settings: role of disinfection with quaternary ammonium compounds." Clinical & Experimental Allergy 44.3 (2014): 393-406.
4) Matulonga, Bobette, et al. "Women using bleach for home cleaning are at increased risk of non-allergic asthma." Respiratory medicine 117 (2016): 264-271.
5) Melin, Vanessa E., et al. "Quaternary ammonium disinfectants cause subfertility in mice by targeting both male and female reproductive processes." Reproductive Toxicology 59 (2016): 159-166.
6) Hrubec, Terry C., et al. "Ambient and dosed exposure to quaternary ammonium disinfectants causes neural tube defects in rodents." Birth defects research 109.14 (2017): 1166-1178.
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