Anxiety about the spread of the COVID-19 virus has led households to significantly increase their use of cleaning and disinfecting chemicals throughout the pandemic. Though well-intentioned, these habits can expose households to toxic chemicals, ultimately causing more harm than good.
Since the virus primarily spreads via person-to-person transmission, covering the surfaces in your home with chemicals won’t necessarily help prevent the spread of COVID; however, it could lead to significant health risks for your family. By learning how to choose safer products and understanding when disinfecting is appropriate, you can guard against viruses and other germs while also protecting your home’s indoor air quality and the health and safety of your family.
Cleaning Your House is Usually Enough
The science has long been clear that coronaviruses, including the COVID-19 virus, are relatively easy to kill on surfaces because they are surrounded by a protective lipid envelope that easily breaks apart with plain soap and water.
Now, we also know that the risk of surface-to-person transmission of COVID is extremely low. In fact, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found there is less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of being infected with COVID-19 from touching a contaminated surface.
When to Disinfect Your Home
While regular cleaning is typically effective at removing most virus particles on surfaces, targeted disinfection is sometimes appropriate — such as when someone confirmed or suspected to be infected with COVID has been in your house within the past 24 hours. Otherwise, cleaning regularly is sufficient, so you don’t have to worry about cleaning every time you touch a surface in your home.
Importantly, even when disinfecting is appropriate, you should always clean first. Cleaning removes dirt and grime that viruses can hide under.
Choosing Safer Cleaning Products and Disinfectants
Only a few hundred of the 80,000-plus chemicals registered for use in the U.S. have been evaluated for health and environmental effects — so the chemicals inside your cleaning products matter more than you might initially think.
Much like cleaning products, some disinfectants are safer for human and environmental health than others. Unfortunately, disinfectants often contain hazardous ingredients such as quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, which are linked to asthma, cancer, and endocrine disruption. Repeated exposure to these harmful ingredients can increase the risk of serious respiratory disease, especially for vulnerable populations including children and those with asthma.
US EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus provides a list of products effective against the COVID-19 virus. However, this list does not identify which products use safer disinfecting ingredients. Green Seal recommends choosing approved disinfectants with the following, safer active ingredients:
- hydrogen peroxide*
- citric acid
- lactic acid
- ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol or just alcohol)
- isopropyl alcohol
- peroxyacetic acid*
- hypochlorous acid
*Avoid products containing both hydrogen peroxide and peroxyacetic acid (also called peracetic acid) as that combination is an asthmagen.
While EPA does not allow third-party certifications for disinfecting solutions, Green Seal has curated EPA’s List N to help you identify safer ones.
How to Avoid Over-Disinfecting Your Home
The science surrounding the COVID-19 virus indicates that we ought to avoid a dangerous reliance on disinfectants. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize exposure to cleaning chemicals, regardless of the types of products at hand.
Follow the instructions on product labels
Product-specific information on the disinfectant’s label — such as the duration a surface needs to remain wet with disinfectant to kill specific pathogens — helps ensure safe and correct use. For instance, when it comes to contact times, it’s not always a quick spray and wipe; contact times can range from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.
Avoid accidental exposure
To minimize the quantity of chemicals that become airborne, choose a disinfectant wipe, or spray the product into a microfiber towel before wiping household surfaces. It’s also best to keep kids and pets in a different room while cleaning to further reduce exposure.
Open windows or run fans, when possible, to reduce the buildup of pollutants released during cleaning and disinfecting. Without proper ventilation, this chemical buildup can lead to poor indoor air quality.
Because of the nature of the COVID-19 virus, masking, vaccines and regular handwashing are the most effective precautions against its spread. However, cleaning and disinfecting are among several precautions that can help protect you. By choosing safer disinfectants for your home, following science-based guidance on disinfecting frequency, and taking precautions when cleaning, you can help protect yourself and your loved ones from both COVID-19 and negative health effects from exposure to harmful chemicals.