As health officials ease some COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and stay-at-home orders, they say the cautions to physically distance, mask, wash your hands, avoid touching your face and disinfect surfaces become even more important.
Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, however, may not be as simple as it sounds. That’s because many people are unclear about what products to use and how to use them, an infectious disease expert said – especially the need for most cleaners to remain in contact with surfaces a minute or more.
“A lot of us give something a quick swipe and think we’ve disinfected it,” said Natascha Tuznik, a UC Davis Health assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases. “I don’t know of any products that you can use that gets it done with just a swipe.”
So how long should household cleaning products stay wet on a surface before you wipe?
“It depends,” Tuznik said, “but it’s almost always going to be at least one minute.”
And some require a longer wait.
“Most people would never think you have to leave something on for 10 minutes,” she said. “But some everyday products require that.”
How to learn if your cleaner disinfects
So how do you find out the contact time? The Environmental Protection Agency offers help with its List N Tool: COVID-19 Disinfectants. It allows people to search by product name, ingredients or registration number for contact time and whether the product works against the SARS CoV-2 virus. (Household cleaners that are approved as a disinfectant have an EPA registration number – it’s very small on most labels.)
Beyond contact time, Tuznik has a number of tips for cleaning around the house and when you go out:
- Don’t use vinegar. Household vinegar has not been proven effective against COVID-19.
- Be careful with household cleaners. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that 40% of people are misusing cleaning products – and 25% are having adverse reactions.
- Do not use these cleaning products on your skin.
- Do not use cleaners on any food. “Just use water,” Tuznik said. “There is no evidence the virus is transmitted through food. Just wash your food as you always did.”
- Do not ingest any of these chemicals. “No matter what anyone says,” she said. “They can kill you.”
Some cleaners can still be hard to find, and Tuznik has a formula to make an effective and safe-to-use home cleaner: Add four teaspoons of bleach per quart of room temperature water, or 1/3 cup of bleach per gallon of room temperature water. Keep the surface wet at least one minute, then wipe it dry. The solution will stay effective for 24 hours.
“This is mild enough that it won’t burn your hands, but it’s still been found effective in disinfection against the virus,” she said. “Remember, there’s a difference between cleaning something and disinfecting something.”
Cleaning surfaces outside your house
Now that people are out and about more, Tuznik has some advice for wiping down surfaces and which ones to clean. For starters, she recommends carrying hand sanitizer that is 60% alcohol minimum – and to use it effectively, keep rubbing your hand with it until they’re dry.
“I see people shaking their hands and trying to air dry them,” she said. “That doesn’t do the trick. Rub until dry. It’s doesn’t take much time.”
She suggested sanitizing your hands every time you enter or leave any establishment.
Tuznik also suggests carrying sanitizing wipes (which can be hard to get) or paper towels and a small bottle of cleaner for all high touch areas you encounter. Hand sanitizing gel on a paper towel can also work to clean a surface.
She said try to clean chairs and tables at restaurants or bars if you go, or movie theater armrests if the theater is not using disposable seat covers.
“Think about how we pull out a chair from the top, then keep our hands on the arms. Those places are where you clean,” she said. “If we watch our own hands, that’s probably where everyone else’s hands are going, too.”
Some things, like a gas station handle are too hard to clean, so wear gloves, if you have them.
“Gloves are hard to find, too, but paper towels will work as a barrier,” Tuznik said. “We also have to be realistic. Nobody can clean their house or places outside from top to bottom. But what we can do is keep washing and sanitizing our hands when we’re out.”