Disinfect, sanitize, clean: What works for COVID-19?
There are many unknowns when it comes to how COVID-19 is spread. What we do know is that the virus is more commonly spread by person-to-person contact (within about 6 feet). 1 This is why physical distancing and sheltering in place is encouraged at this time.
But what about COVID-19 and surfaces? Is it possible the coronavirus might be living on your groceries, shoes, or the front doorknob of your home?
While you may be more likely to catch COVID-19 through close contact with other people, there’s still some evidence that suggests the virus may remain active for hours or days on certain surfaces.1 This is why it’s important to make sure you’re properly disinfecting, cleaning, and/or sanitizing.
But what’s the difference between disinfecting, cleaning, and sanitizing? Let’s take a look:
Cleaning physically removes dirt, grime, and germs from surfaces or objects by using water and soap or detergent. This doesn’t necessarily kill things like bacteria or viruses that may be living on a surface, but it does lower the number of those germs by washing them away.
Disinfecting kills germs on surfaces or objects. It works by using certain cleaning chemicals intended to kill bacteria and viruses.
Sanitizing is the process of both cleaning and disinfecting a surface or object. When something is sanitized, you’ve lowered the amount of virus or bacteria present by physically removing germs and then killing anything that’s left.
While sanitizing may seem like the best way to remove the virus from surfaces, it may not always be appropriate for every situation. For example, if you sanitize your hands too often, it could result in irritation. In cases like this, it’s best to choose the right method for the object in question.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the most important surfaces you should disinfect, clean, or sanitize to protect yourself from exposure to COVID-19.
Hands: Clean or sanitize
One of the most important ways to limit your exposure to a virus is by regularly washing or sanitizing your hands.
According to the CDC, washing your hands with soap and water is one of the best ways to get rid of germs.2 To properly wash your hands, you’ll need to wet, lather, and scrub them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. However, if you don’t have access to soap and water, then use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% to 95% alcohol.
Home: Clean, then disinfect
If the surfaces in your home are dirty, you’ll want to clean them first and then disinfect. Focus on the areas that get touched the most or collect the most germs. Some areas you’ll want to keep regularly disinfected include:
- Door handles and knobs
- Light switches
- Bathroom and kitchen counters and surfaces
- Faucets and sinks
- Mobile phones and devices
The CDC also recommends wearing gloves while cleaning and disinfecting and throwing them away when you’re done.
Keep in mind, not all cleaning products will kill the coronavirus. Here is a list of some of the CDC-approved disinfectants:
- Products on the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s list of registered disinfectants for use against the coronavirus.
- Diluted bleach on certain surfaces (check the product label for instructions on how much water you should use when diluting the bleach). Important: Bleach can stain fabrics and certain surfaces. You should also never mix bleach with anything other than water — especially other cleaning products like ammonia. Mixing bleach and ammonia can produce a toxic gas that can be deadly. Be sure to only use bleach in a well-ventilated area (the fumes can irritate the lungs) and to follow the instructions on the label first. Also, never ingest or drink bleach, detergents, or cleaning agents.
- Alcohol solutions containing at least 60% alcohol. Important: Avoid using liquor or alcohol intended for drinking. Vodka, for example, typically only contains 40% alcohol so it does not meet the CDC requirement of at least 60% alcohol content, which is needed to kill bacteria and viruses.
Groceries: Cleaning not needed
According to the CDC, there’s currently “no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”3 The coronavirus is mainly thought to be spread by person-to-person contact, which is why practicing physical distancing is so important. And while you may not need to clean your grocery bags or food packaging, it’s still important to practice common food safety guidelines — which includes washing your hands and keeping counters and food preparation spaces clean.
Wash your clothes and cloth face masks regularly with detergent and use the warmest water setting possible (check the clothing labels for details). Be sure to dry everything completely. You’ll also want to clean and disinfect your clothes hamper according to the guidelines for that surface while your clothes are being washed.
When it comes to your shoes, take them off either before entering your home or in the entryway to prevent bringing dirt and germs into your home. You can also spray your shoes from top to bottom with a non-staining disinfectant like a 70% alcohol solution.
When in doubt, check the CDC guidelines
Because the coronavirus situation is changing all the time, it’s a good idea to regularly check the CDC website for the most current information.
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cleaning and Disinfection for Households, accessed July 24, 2020.
2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, When and How to Wash Your Hands, accessed July 24, 2020.
3Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), accessed June 25, 2020.