If you've been to any big-box retailer lately, you know that cleaning products can be hard to come by these days. In the midst of the new coronavirus outbreak, the cleaning aisle at my local Target was almost completely wiped out of disinfectant sprays, wipes, and other cleaners. These empty shelves left me wondering: What should you do if you run out of disinfectant? Are homemade cleaning solutions (such as vinegar or rubbing alcohol) just as effective at killing germs and viruses as the store-bought stuff? Before I started wiping down my doorknobs and light switches with distilled white vinegar, I sought out some expert advice to learn more.
Jill Grimes, M.D., a family physician and author, outlines one key distinction that can determine whether a product is actually effective. "This coronavirus is thought to stay viable on surfaces for hours to days, so it's important to understand the difference of disinfecting versus cleaning," Grimes says. Cleaning refers to using soaps, sponges, or cloths to physically remove dirt and debris to make the surface appear clean. She says this process likely decreases the number of germs in the area but doesn't necessarily eliminate them completely. On the other hand, "disinfecting means using the chemicals known to actually destroy this virus," she says.
This coronavirus is thought to stay viable on surfaces for hours to days, so it's important to understand the difference of disinfecting versus cleaning.
—Jill Grimes, M.D.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most commercial household disinfectants, such as Clorox and Lysol, provide a solid defense against COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Before shopping for cleaners, refer to the Environmental Protection Agency's list of registered cleaning products that meet the criteria for eliminating this type of virus.
However, there are some alternative homemade cleaning solutions that come recommended by the CDC for use against the coronavirus. Before you swap in a DIY cleaner for a store-bought disinfectant, here's what you should know about which ingredients are thought to be most effective.
More than a first-aid kit supply, rubbing alcohol can also be used as a disinfectant around the house. You can dilute alcohol with water, but the CDC recommends a solution that's at least 70% alcohol for the most effective coronavirus-killing capabilities. Avoid using alcohol solutions on painted, lacquered, or varnished surfaces (including wood), as it could damage the finish. Alcohol is highly flammable, so keep it away from heat sources, and always work in a well-ventilated area while cleaning.
A diluted bleach solution is another at-home alternative recommended by the CDC. Create a solution by mixing 1/3 cup bleach with one gallon of water, and use it to clean hard surfaces such as sinks, countertops, toilets, floors, and kitchen appliance handles. When working with bleach, make sure the area is well-ventilated by opening a window or turning on an exhaust fan. Protect your skin by wearing rubber gloves, and dispose of the gloves (or wash your hands with soap and water while still wearing them) immediately after cleaning surfaces for COVID-19. Never mix bleach with ammonia or other cleaners; this can create a toxic gas.
Although tea tree oil has some antibacterial and antiviral properties, it has not been approved by the CDC or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use against the coronavirus. You can remove dirt and grime from surfaces with solutions containing essential oils, but be sure to follow up with an approved disinfectant for the most effective clean.
Household hydrogen peroxide (usually a 3% concentration) can be used to kill a variety of microorganisms, including some viruses, bacteria, and fungi, according to the CDC. Although it has not been explicitly recommended for use against the coronavirus, hydrogen peroxide can be effective against rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. Use 3% hydrogen peroxide straight from the bottle or dilute it to a 0.5% concentration by combining one part hydrogen peroxide with five parts water. Leave the solution on the surface for at least one minute (longer for more diluted solutions) before wiping off or letting dry completely.
It works great for cutting through soap scum in your shower, but does vinegar kill germs and viruses? According to one study in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, vinegar is less effective against pathogens including bacteria and viruses when compared to cleaners like Lysol and Clorox. Only these commercial disinfectants, not the vinegar, were effective against viral pathogens in the test. Vinegar is not listed by the CDC as a recommended cleaner for the coronavirus, so it's best to combine this cleaner with an additional disinfecting step for the most effective sanitizing.
Until we have more time and research to find out what other ingredients may be effective, my recommendation is to cleanse first with your favorite product, but follow that with an approved disinfectant like a homemade or name-brand bleach solution, such as Clorox or Lysol.
—Jill Grimes, M.D.
Overall, the best coronavirus cleaning strategy is to cleanse then disinfect. "Until we have more time and research to find out what other ingredients may be effective, my recommendation is to cleanse first with your favorite product, but follow that with an approved disinfectant like a homemade or name-brand bleach solution, such as Clorox or Lysol," Grimes says. Always follow the instructions for safe and effective use, and disinfect high-touch surfaces regularly to help keep yourself and your family healthy.