The coronavirus causing COVID-19 is a nasty bug, but like other members of the coronavirus family, it’s no match for good disinfecting products, health experts say.
“There are many bad things about the coronavirus, but there is one good thing: It is not very hardy,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, an expert on infectious diseases and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. “It is easily destroyed by most disinfectants.”
Experts at Consumer Reports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations have weighed in with advice on the products that can help protect us — and our homes — against the coronavirus.
“Regular cleaning with normal cleaning supplies does a great job of removing all kinds of germs, not just coronavirus, from surfaces,” said Catherine Roberts, associate health editor at Consumer Reports. “Focus on high-touch areas — that’s faucet handles, doorknobs, stair rails and countertops — the things that you have your hands on all the time.”
Best practice is to disinfect these surfaces several times a day. Roberts suggests making a checklist of all the places you want to clean, so you don’t forget any of them. But commercial disinfecting products contain “pretty serious chemicals,” she warned. “They're actually EPA registered pesticides, so as much as you can, try to use them when kids are not around because they can trigger asthma.”
The demand for disinfecting wipes may be outstripping supply right now, but there are many other products you can use. In fact, you may already have some of them at home.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of those that meet its criteria for use against the novel coronavirus. The CDC website also has recommendations for households with suspected or confirmed coronavirus cases.
Here’s what you need to know about what will and won’t work against the coronavirus — according to experts.
Soap and water
It’s not fancy, but soap and water work. The soap removes the viral particles that have attached themselves to surfaces — whether it’s your hands, face or countertops — and suspends them in the water, so they can be washed away.
Richard Sachleben, an organic chemist and a member of the American Chemical Society, said most of the cleaning products we call soap are actually detergents that not only remove the germs from surfaces, but also kill them.
“The virus has an outside coating, and the stuff inside — DNA or RNA — is what actually causes the disease. It's kind of like the casing on a bomb or torpedo,” Sachleben explained. “For a virus, that coating is a protein, and the soap or detergent break up that coating, so the virus spills its guts and falls apart.”
“Bleach is very effective at killing the coronavirus, as well as virtually every other germ on the face of the planet,” said Dr. Paul Pottinger, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington Medical Center. “The problem is, it’s stinky, it’s hard to use and it can damage what you’re trying to clean.”
To protect your skin, you should wear gloves when using bleach — and don’t mix the bleach with anything but water. Here’s the CDC formula for making a diluted bleach solution: Use 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) of bleach in one gallon of water or 4 teaspoons of bleach in one quart of water. This solution will lose its effectiveness in about 24 hours, so you’ll have to make a new batch every day.
Keep in mind that bleach is a harsh cleaner. So if you go this route, do a little test before you clean an entire surface with your homemade bleach solution. Be careful not to let it splash onto anything else. Bleach can also damage some paint, and over time, it can corrode metal. So be cautious if you use it, Sachleben told NBC News BETTER.
Hydrogen peroxide is not as strong as bleach, so it’s less likely to cause damage, but it can discolor some fabrics, Sachleben said. Don’t dilute it, use it straight. Hydrogen peroxide decomposes into water and oxygen.
Rubbing alcohol products that are at least 70 percent alcohol will kill the coronavirus with less potential for damage than bleach. When using rubbing alcohol, don’t dilute it. Consumer Reports says rubbing alcohol is safe for all surfaces, but can discolor some plastics.
Don’t count on distilled white vinegar or vodka
Many people clean with vinegar. It’s cheap and natural. Cleaning recommendations are easy to find online, but Consumer Reports cautions: “There is no evidence that they are effective against coronavirus.”
Despite what you may have seen on social media, vodka is not effective at sanitizing, nor are any other types of distilled spirits.
“Please, do not use vodka to clean your surfaces,” Roberts said. “The concentration of alcohol in vodka is not high enough to kill viruses.”
Tito’s Handmade Vodka tweeted a warning that its vodka is only 40 percent alcohol, and therefore, “does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC” that hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60 percent alcohol.
Proper technique: A quick swipe isn’t good enough
“To decontaminate a surface, you can’t just swipe it, you’ve got to scrub it, really scrub it until the entire surface is wet, and then let it dry on its own,” Pottinger said. “The elbow grease and force that you put into the cleaning process can really pay dividends. You've got to physically wipe away the grime. The antiseptic agent is the additional measure of security that any virus left behind will be killed.”
It’s critically important to use enough of the disinfectant and give it time to work. Here’s how Clorox says to disinfect hard, nonporous surfaces with its wipes: “Use enough wipes for treated surface to remain visibly wet for 4 minutes. Let surface dry.”
Beware of hucksters selling bogus products
There is no treatment or cure for COVID-19, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to sell them.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to seven companies for selling “fraudulent” COVID-19 products. The companies were told their products are “unapproved drugs that pose significant risks to patient health and violate federal law.”
One of those warning letters was sent to “The Jim Bakker Show.” In mid-February, the disgraced televangelist promoted a potential cure called “Silver Solution” that contained colloidal silver. The FDA had previously warned that colloidal silver “is not safe or effective for treating any disease or condition.”
Should you consider making your own hand sanitizer?
It’s easy to go online and find advice about how to make your own hand sanitizer. So, is this a good idea? Opinions vary. The World Health Organization and Consumer Reports advises against it.
“Most of the experts that we've talked to have said this is not the best idea,” Roberts said. “You may not get the concentrations right. And if your solution doesn't have a high enough concentration of alcohol, it won't be doing you any good.”
Sachleben also has concerns about DIY hand sanitizer recipes. He’s a chemist and even he said he doesn’t mix his own disinfectant products at home. “You’ll never know what you’re doing is as good as what you can buy at the store,” he said. “If you buy it, you know it'll work.”
Swartzberg believes that doing something is ultimately better than doing nothing, but he worries that DIY hand sanitizers might give people a false sense of security. “I’m concerned people will not prepare it with the correct percentage of alcohol,” he said. “People may be fooling themselves into thinking that they’re using something that will help, when it won’t.”
Remember: Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not as effective when our hands are visibly dirty or greasy. That's why it's important to wash with soap and water.
Moisturize your hands
With increased handwashing and sanitizing, your hands may get dry and start to crack. Those cracks give germs a place to hide. It’s important to use a good moisturizer to prevent that from happening.
Consumer Reports recommends products that contain ceramides (oils), dimethicone (a type of silicone) and shea butter, which help provide a good seal on the skin. “The thicker the better,” they say. Greasy ointments, such as petroleum jelly, form a stronger barrier than creams and lotions.
MORE CLEANING TIPS
- BETTER's How to clean everything guide
- How often you should clean your home, according to science
- The best cleaning products, according to the pros
- Why the 20/10 method can change the way you clean
- How often to replace everything in your bathroom, bedroom and kitchen