Detailed advice from doctors and health policy experts
At a glance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for preventing exposure to coronavirus at home look almost simple (basically, clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces daily). But applying them to real life raises lots of practical questions about where to clean, what to use — and when to clean again.
Adding to the angst, stores across the country and even Amazon have struggled to keep disinfecting supplies in stock.
First, what we know: The research is still evolving, but public health agencies say you’re more likely to catch the virus through the air than on a surface. That’s because it’s believed to spread mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even just exhales.
What’s the most important thing in your house to clean? No question: It’s your hands.
That said, those droplets also land on objects and surfaces around the person who just coughed. Based on what we know about viral illnesses, it’s prudent to assume you can contract Covid-19 after touching those objects or surfaces and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. And a recent study indicated that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, can remain viable for up to 24 hours on cardboard, 48 hours on stainless steel, and 72 hours on plastics.
With all that in mind, here’s some nitty-gritty cleaning advice from doctors and health policy experts, including how they’re cleaning their own homes.
What’s the most important thing in your house to clean?
No question: It’s your hands, according to Paul Pottinger, MD, an infectious disease specialist in the department of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. Anytime you enter your home from outside, after using the bathroom, and after sneezing, coughing, or blowing your nose, wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Your next priority should be your phone, Pottinger says. “At my house, we clean phones first because after you wash your hands you don’t want to be grabbing a dirty phone. We have a UV sterilizing box for our phones, but you don’t need to go and buy one of those. Most phones can withstand a quick swipe with isopropyl alcohol or some kind of rubbing alcohol — the 70% alcohol you can get at the drugstore.”
The CDC guidelines recommend “routine” cleaning and disinfecting. What counts as routine?
Here’s how Lisa Latts, MD, chief medical officer with the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, is making this call: “I have 10-year-old twins, and we have not been 14 days yet without any outside human contact — there’s a different standard when you definitely don’t have it then when you potentially could have it. And right now, my daughter’s not feeling great. I don’t think she has the virus, but to be safe, I’m using Lysol wipes multiple times a day,” Latts says. “I was fortunate to snag a pack on Amazon, and I’ve been getting the remote controls, light switches, all the handles on drawers and cabinets and the toilet, as well as my kids’ electronic devices and anything else their lovely fingers might be touching. If we go outside, we wash our hands immediately upon coming in. I also wiped down my car’s inside and outside handles.”
If you’ve passed the 14-day mark and no one has been sick, you can reduce to cleaning high-touch surfaces daily. “But since we need to keep going to the grocery store and running essential errands, you may not get to that point,” she adds.
How to handle it all without running yourself ragged? Use your good judgment, Pottinger says. “If you’re bringing germs into the house, kill them. Someone who has not left the house and is spending their precious time and energy cleaning during the day without leaving the house — I’m not sure that that would be a valuable use of resources, time, and energy. Your golden opportunity is when someone’s coming in from outside.”
How does cleaning and disinfecting change if someone in the household is diagnosed with or is presumed to have Covid-19?
It’s a whole different ballgame, Latts says. “That person has to be quarantined in their own bedroom, has to use their own bathroom, and anything they touch needs to be sanitized.”
What can you do if you can’t get your hands on bleach?
Check the Environmental Protection Agency’s extensive list of products approved for use against the coronavirus, Pottinger says. If you’re unable to find any of them, consider making your own solution using hydrogen peroxide from the pharmacy aisle. It often comes in 3% strength, Pottinger notes, and at that strength can be diluted using one part hydrogen peroxide to six parts water. With a final concentration of 0.5% or greater, it will still retain power to inactivate the coronavirus, he says.
And if you have old, dried-out cleaning wipes, don’t toss them: They can be re-saturated with rubbing alcohol.
If soap and water are best for hands, will they also work for doorknobs and other surfaces?
Unfortunately, no. “For hand washing, what you’re doing is working up a good lather and you’re emulsifying and getting rid of the cell wall — you’re denaturizing the virus coat or the bacterial wall and you’re washing the remnants of the viruses and the bacteria that were on your hands down the sink,” says Will Humble, MPH, executive director at the Arizona Public Health Association. “But doorknobs, faucets, countertops, and other high-touch areas like computer keys are not something you can get under running water.”
Use your good judgment. “If you’re bringing germs into the house, kill them.”
What’s the best approach for kitchen countertops?
“This virus succumbs to the application of one of many products approved by the EPA and good old-fashioned elbow grease to make sure that product gets into every little microscopic crack,” Pottinger says. “Kitchen countertops are made of all sorts of different things, but if you look at the surface under a microscope, you’ll see that there are little microscopic ridges and cracks. In my experience, even the ones that are stain resistant and water resistant are still not perfectly smooth. So what we’re trying to do is get that germicidal agent into all those little microscopic spaces.”
How long do you need to leave the product on a surface to disinfect it?
Wipe down the surface and let it dry on its own, Latts says — no rinsing needed.
Do you need to be worried about cleaning upholstered furniture, too? What about surfaces that are more delicate and might be damaged by strong cleaning products, like antiques and wood?
A soft surface like upholstery usually has a much lower risk of transmitting the infection than a solid surface, Pottinger says. “I would only clean it if someone has sneezed on it directly, using whatever fabric cleaner you would usually rely on,” he says. In lieu of damaging your good furniture with disinfectant, consider taking it out of commission for a while. “Any solid surface touched with smooth hands is at risk of transmitting the infection until the virus dies of old age,” Pottinger says. If you’re concerned about previous touches on a specific wood piece, “I would say just leave it alone for three days and then clean per usual.”
How can you make sure your dishes are clean enough?
Some dishwashers are “high temperature” and heat the water up to 170 degrees, Humble says, but they are rare. If yours doesn’t get this hot, you can use a detergent that contains chlorine (or bleach, the words are interchangeable in this case). But, “Overall, you’re doing a pretty good job with any detergent inside that automatic dishwasher. And it does get drained a few times during the cycle,” Humble says. If you don’t have a dishwasher, Humble suggests mixing up a bleach solution (the CDC recommends 1/3 cup bleach per gallon of water) and using it as a disinfecting step after washing. Let the bleach remain on dishes for at least two minutes before rinsing, then drain and air dry. A few cautions: Wear rubber gloves and make sure you have proper ventilation when using bleach; don’t add bleach to any other cleanser, including one mixed into your dishwater; and check to make sure the bleach isn’t past its expiration date.
If you live alone, can you clean and disinfect less often?
Yes, Humble says. “If there are no visitors or people from across the hall coming in or out, then you don’t need to clean as much — maybe a couple of times a week.”
The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. To stay informed, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department for updates. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.