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News of stores running out of hand-sanitizing gels and chlorine wipes may have you worried about how to protect your family at home as COVID-19 spreads. But plain old hand soap will go a long way.
“It isn’t possible to disinfect every surface you touch throughout your day,” says Stephen Thomas, M.D., chief of infectious diseases and director of global health at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. “The planet is covered with bacteria and viruses, and we’re constantly in contact with these surfaces, so hand-washing is still your best defense against COVID-19.”
You need to amp up your typical cleaning routine only if someone in the household exhibits signs and symptoms of a respiratory infection or if you live in an area with known cases of COVID-19. In that scenario, Thomas says, “Clean high-traffic areas that get touched frequently, such as kitchen counters and bathroom faucets, three times a day with a product that kills viruses.”
The good news is that coronaviruses are some of the easiest types of viruses to kill with the appropriate product, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “It has an envelope around it that allows it to merge with other cells to infect them,” Thomas says. “If you disrupt that coating, the virus can’t do its job.”
If you can’t get your hands on hand sanitizer or Clorox wipes, see below for a number of cleaning products that you probably have around the house already, and that stores are more likely to have in stock, that are effective in deactivating the novel coronavirus. We also tell you which products don’t work and when you can expect retailers to stock back up on cleaning supplies.
Cleaning Products That Destroy Coronavirus
Soap and Water
Just the friction from scrubbing with soap (any kind of soap) and water can break the coronavirus’s protective envelope. “Scrub like you’ve got sticky stuff on the surface and you really need to get it off,” says Richard Sachleben, an organic chemist and a member of the American Chemical Society. Discard the towel or leave it in a bowl of soapy water for a while to destroy any virus particles that may have survived.
Using antibacterial soap won’t give you added protection against the coronavirus because it kills bacteria, not viruses. You can still use it as long as you scrub.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a diluted bleach solution (⅓ cup bleach per 1 gallon of water or 4 teaspoons bleach per 1 quart of water) for virus disinfection. Wear gloves while using bleach, and never mix it with ammonia—or anything, in fact—except water. (The only exception is when doing laundry with detergent.) Once mixed, don’t keep the solution for longer than a day because the bleach will lose potency and can degrade certain plastic containers.
“Always clean the surface with water and detergent first, since many materials can react with bleach and deactivate it,” Sachleben says. “Dry the surface, then apply the bleach solution and let it sit for at least 10 minutes before wiping it off.”
Bleach can corrode metal over time, so Sachleben recommends that people not get into the habit of cleaning their faucets and stainless steel products with it. Because bleach is harsh for many countertops as well, you should rinse surfaces with water after disinfecting to prevent discoloration or damage to the surface.
If you can’t find liquid bleach, you can use bleach tablets instead. You may have seen Evolve bleach tablets, which dissolve in water, at Walmart or on Amazon. Just follow the dilution instructions on the packaging (1 tablet is equal to ½ cup liquid bleach). A label on the bottle states the product is not a disinfectant, but chemically, it’s the same as liquid bleach. A company spokesperson at Custom Bottling & Packaging, which acquired Evolve three years ago, says the company hasn’t had the time or resources to put their product through the Environmental Protection Agency’s registration process that would allow them to make disinfecting and sanitizing claims. As of this update, Evolve is not experiencing any shortages and is supplying hospitals, research centers, and correctional facilities.
Alcohol solutions with at least 70 percent alcohol are effective against the coronavirus on hard surfaces. First, clean the surface with water and detergent. Apply the alcohol solution (do not dilute it) and let it sit on the surface for at least 30 seconds to disinfect. Alcohol is generally safe for all surfaces but can discolor some plastics, Sachleben says.
According to the CDC, household (3 percent) hydrogen peroxide is effective in deactivating rhinovirus, the virus that causes the common cold, within 6 to 8 minutes of exposure. Rhinovirus is more difficult to destroy than coronaviruses, so hydrogen peroxide should be able to break down the coronavirus in less time. Pour it undiluted into a spray bottle and spray it on the surface to be cleaned, but let it sit on the surface for at least 1 minute.
Hydrogen peroxide is not corrosive, so it’s okay to use it on metal surfaces. But similar to bleach, it can discolor fabrics if you accidentally get it on your clothes. “It’s great for getting into hard-to-reach crevices,” Sachleben says. “You can pour it on the area, and you don’t have to wipe it off because it essentially decomposes into oxygen and water.”
What Not to Use Against Coronavirus
Homemade Hand Sanitizer
You’re probably seeing all sorts of hand sanitizer recipes floating around your social media and the internet, but Thomas at Upstate Medical University advises against making your own. “People don’t know the right ratios to use, and the internet won’t give you the right answer,” he says. “Not only can you hurt yourself, but it could give you a false sense of security.”
Sachleben seconds that advice. “I’m a professional chemist, and I don’t mix my own disinfectant products at home,” he says. “Companies spend a bunch of time and money to pay chemists specifically to formulate hand sanitizers that work and that are safe. If you make it yourself, how can you know if it’s stable or if it works?”
There are widely circulated recipes on the internet using vodka to combat the coronavirus. A couple of vodka makers, including Tito’s, have already come out with statements telling their customers that their 80-proof product does not contain enough ethyl alcohol (40 percent compared with the 70 percent required) to kill the coronavirus.
Distilled White Vinegar
Disinfection recommendations using vinegar are popular online, but there is no evidence that they are effective against the coronavirus. (Read about the 9 things you should never clean with vinegar.)
Tea Tree Oil
While there is preliminary research that suggests tea tree oil may have an effect against the herpes simplex virus, there is no evidence that it can kill coronaviruses.
When Retailers Expect More Supplies
Wondering when you’ll be able to get your hands on hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes, Clorox sprays, etc., at your local store? CR spoke to major chains, including Costco, CVS, Kroger, Stop & Shop, Target, and Walgreens. They are still seeing temporary shortages and are restocking as quickly as their suppliers allow. Most stores have instituted purchase limits to prevent hoarding.
“The overbuying caused the supply chain to short-circuit,” says Burt Flickinger, managing director at Strategic Resource Group, a retail and consumer goods consulting firm. “It took a few weeks for the manufacturing plants to catch up, but brands such as Clorox, 3M, and Procter & Gamble will be fulfilling 75 percent of their orders in the next week.” He estimates that store shelves and Amazon should be restocked with cleaning products within the first two weeks of April.
You may still have a hard time finding hand sanitizer, however. Purell announced March 24 that shipments of hand sanitizer will be prioritized to workers deemed critical by the federal government, including healthcare workers, first responders, and grocers.
And toilet paper and paper towels will continue to be scarce. “The paper companies are struggling to meet demand,” Flickinger says. “They’re supplying about 25 percent of what retailers are ordering.” Your best bet is to ask the store manager when the trucks make their deliveries and be there when they’re unloading.
—Additional reporting by Mary Farrell
Editor’s Note: This story, originally published March 9, 2020, was updated to include additional information about bleach tablets, tea tree oil, and retailers’ inventory of disinfectants and other supplies.
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