It’s hard enough to keep a house clean, but spring cleaning has a whole new meaning during a worldwide pandemic. While the coronavirus is said to be most effectively passed through airborne respiratory droplets transferred from person to person via coughing and sneezing, the virus is also capable of living on hard surfaces like glass and counters for up to 72 hours and on cardboard or fabrics for up to 24 hours. The likelihood of transmitting the virus from inanimate objects to humans is low, but it is possible.
The good news is that the strength of the virus decreases over time, and by the time the virus is touched its potency is less dangerous. Surface-to-person infection would also require someone to transfer a potent level of the virus from a surface directly into their nose or breathe it into their mouth. The most important ways to keep ourselves safe is to limit contact with others, stay home if you are sick, and wash your hands frequently. The CDC and EPA also provide suggestions for ways to clean and disinfect your home.
There is a difference between cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing. Cleaning removes dirt and grime. Sanitizing kills 99% of germs and reduces contamination of germs to safe levels. Disinfecting kills all germs on a surface. Not all cleaning products disinfect all types of germs, but you need to clean before you can disinfect, otherwise you are not getting to the surface (or root) of the problem.
Common EPA-registered disinfectants that are capable of destroying hard-to-kill viruses like rhinovirus and norovirus will also kill coronavirus. But it’s important to remember that you need to follow manufacturer instructions for the disinfectant to be effective. You may need to spray the disinfectant onto the surface and let is stand for up to ten minutes to truly do its job. And DO NOT mix chemicals, especially with ammonia; wear gloves and open doors or windows for proper ventilation.
Then why is simple soap and water all I need to clean my hands, then? Not to get too geeky, but the coronavirus is essentially what Palli Thordarson, a chemistry professor at the University of New South Wales, calls “nano-sized grease balls.” The virus is surrounded by fat and protein, which is broken down by soap. Once the virus’ outside layer is pulled apart, it becomes soluble in water and washes down the drain. But to do this effectively, folks need to take the full 20 seconds to scrub their hands. The CDC recommends washing hands first if the option is available. If hand sanitizer is the only option, it must contain at least 60% alcohol to do the trick.
Back to your kitchen and bathrooms.
A basic soap and water or vinegar and water spray will effectively clean most non-porous surfaces. While vinegar is capable of killing bacteria, it will not kill coronavirus. Nor will most of our green cleaners. Companies like 7th Generation and Mrs. Myers do offer disinfecting sprays, but they are not listed in EPA’s Emerging Viral Pathogen list. And before you get any ideas, tea tree oil, essential oils, nor vodka will kill COVID-19 either. Use these products to clean, but not disinfect, your home.
The CDC recommends frequently cleaning and disinfecting high contact surfaces. These are door knobs, light switches, faucets, desks, keyboards, remote controls, and phones. Electronics should not be doused in liquid, but a disinfecting wipe or damp cloth soaked in 70% alcohol solution can do the trick; dry with a soft cloth. Wipe down counters, sinks, toilets, and bathrooms often. Multi-purpose cleaners from Lysol, Clorox, and Purell will kill the coronavirus if used properly. However, these solutions can cause skin and lung irritation — so again, use gloves and open a window if you can while using the products.
Thankfully we do have DIY options that are less harsh. There are common household items that can be used to disinfect your home that contain fewer chemicals and could be less toxic to our bodies. This is great news for other reasons: it’s hard to find Lysol and Clorox products on the shelves these days and Amazon is struggling to keep up with delivering the essentials.
The CDC recommends diluting bleach to make a bleach solution. They suggest 1/3 cup of bleach for every gallon of water. Alcohol solutions that are made up of at least 70% alcohol will do the job too; most rubbing alcohols are 70% isopropyl alcohol, but be sure to check the label. Don’t be shy about soaking the surface and leaving it wet for 30-60 seconds. If the bleach or alcohol solution is not left on long enough, it won’t kill harmful bacteria and viruses left on surfaces. Hydrogen peroxide — most are 3% solutions — is also an effective disinfectant, and can be used directly out of the container.
Some folks are nervous about bringing packages, mail, and bags into the house from delivery services. The United States Postal Service, with the CDC and WHO, have not found evidence of coronavirus being transmitted via mail. It can live on porous materials for up to 24 hours, so if you are worried about a package, keep it in the garage or porch for a day or wipe it down with a disinfecting wipe. Or remove what you need from the package, recycle or throw away the waste, and then wash your hands and disinfect the floor or counter that held the package.
Your reusable bags should be washed regularly, and clothing can be washed according to manufacturer’s suggestions. For laundry you think may be contaminated, the CDC recommends washing it in the warmest possible setting that is appropriate for the material. Don’t shake dirty laundry, wash your hands after starting a load, and disinfect laundry bins and bags.
Our homes are still the safest place to be. We just need to be more thorough and vigilant about cleaning and disinfecting high-traffic areas. No need to dip everything in bleach, but you should wash your hands more often than you think is necessary. Hopefully, that’s something you’re already doing anyway.