The guidance on how best to protect yourself from the novel coronavirus has evolved since we first published this article in March. Back then, at the beginning of the outbreak in the U.S., concerns were running high about the virus transferring from doorknobs, groceries, countertops, and even delivered packages. And while it may be possible to get COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face, there’s less concern about that scenario today.
“The importance of viral transmission from touching potentially infected items is much lower than originally proposed,” says Stephen Thomas, MD, chief of infectious diseases and director of global health at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. “That being said, it is not one thing we do which mitigates our personal or collective risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection—it is the entire bundle of infection prevention actions and initiatives.”
SARS-CoV-2 is the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. You’re most likely to get COVID-19 from respiratory droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so the most important steps you can take to protect yourself and others are to avoid crowds, practice social distancing, and wear a mask in public. You can also help prevent the spread of disease by washing your hands frequently and thoroughly, not touching your face, and wiping down high-touch surfaces.
“The good news,” Thomas says, is that “these practices will not only lower your risk of COVID, they will also lower your risk of contracting a number of other infectious diseases.”
For the surfaces in your home, you need to ramp up your cleaning routine only if someone in the household has COVID-19 or any of the related symptoms. If that’s the case, Thomas recommends cleaning high-traffic areas that get touched frequently, such as kitchen counters and bathroom faucets, three times a day with a product that kills viruses.
If you still don’t have access to disinfecting wipes and sprays in your area, don’t worry: There are other solutions. Below, you’ll find a list of cleaning products—many of which you may already have around the house—that can easily deactivate the coronavirus.
“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.” The coating doesn’t stand a chance against bleach, ethynol, and chloride-based products, but it can also be easily broken down with something as simple as soap or detergent.
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.
This is also the only product on this list that we recommend using to combat the novel coronavirus on skin. Everything else should be used only on surfaces.
As of August, the Environmental Protection Agency had certified 16 disinfectant products for being able to kill SARS-CoV-2. Among them are products from Lysol, Clorox, and Lonza, which all share the same active ingredient: quaternary ammonium.
The EPA also has a running list of hundreds of disinfectants that are effective against similar viruses. They haven’t been tested specifically for effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2, but they should work.
If you can find these cleaning products, it’s important to follow label instructions. You may need to leave the surface saturated for several minutes for it to work effectively. Many people have also dangerously misused cleaning products during the pandemic, which the CDC says has led to an uptick in calls to poison control centers across the country.
If you can’t get your hands on any EPA-registered disinfectants, you can use any of the products listed below, which are also effective against the novel coronavirus.
Sachleben explains that the EPA only has a list of products that have been shown to work because it needs to check brands’ germ-killing claims. “The things that are shown to be most effective are the basics, like bleach and alcohol,” he says. “Customers don’t find the tried-and-true to be as convenient, so that’s why we have all these products on the market.”
The CDC 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 the solution is mixed, don’t keep it 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 Amazon or Walmart. 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—Evolve hasn’t put the product through the EPA’s registration process—but, chemically speaking, it’s the same as liquid bleach.
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. Spray it on the surface to be cleaned, and 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 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’ve probably seen all sorts of hand sanitizer recipes floating around social media and elsewhere on 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.
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.
Editor’s Note: This article, first published March 9, 2020, has been updated as more commercial products have become available and as concern over transmission from hard surfaces has lessened.