Day number…okay, you’ve probably lost count of how long the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent quarantine has been going on—and odds are you’re getting frighteningly close to the bottom of your container of Clorox wipes. And so, you’ve pressed pause on your puzzle (or some other new hobby) and started scrounging around for alternative cleaning solutions. (P.S. Here’s what you need to know about vinegar and steam in regards to their ability to kill viruses.)
That’s when you spot it: a promising packet of miscellaneous wipes lodged in the back of your cabinet. But wait, are generic disinfectant wipes even effective against the coronavirus? What about other viruses and bacteria? And how are those different than an antibacterial wipe, if at all?
Here’s what you need to know about different types of cleaning wipes and the best ways to use them, particularly when it comes to the coronavirus COVID-19.
Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sanitizing All Mean Different Things
First, it’s important to point out that there are distinct differences between some of the words you might be using interchangeably when it comes to household products. “‘Cleaning’ removes dirt, debris, and some germs while ‘sanitizing’ and ‘disinfecting’ specifically address germs,” explains Donald W. Schaffner, Ph.D., a professor at Rutgers University who researches quantitative microbial risk assessment and cross-contamination. “Sanitizing” lowers the number of germs to safe levels but doesn’t necessarily kill them, while “disinfecting” calls upon chemicals to kill the majority of germs present, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cleaning and sanitizing are two things you should be doing regularly to keep your home generally clean and free of dirt, allergens, and day-to-day germs. Disinfecting, on the other hand, is something you should do if you think COVID-19 or another virus is present, he adds.
“Disinfectant claims are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because they’re actually considered to be pesticides,” says Schaffner. Now, don’t freak out, okay? Sure the p-word might conjure images of chemical-ridden grass, but it actually just refers to “any substance or mixture of substances intended to prevent, destroy, repel, or mitigate any pest (including microorganisms but excluding those in or on living humans or animals),” according to the EPA. In order to be approved and available for purchase, a disinfectant must undergo rigorous laboratory testing that proves safety and effectiveness and includes its ingredients and intended uses on the label. Once it gets the green light, the product receives a specific EPA registration number, which is also included on the label.
What Are Disinfectant Wipes, Exactly?
Simply put, these are disposable, single-use wipes pre-soaked in a solution that contains a disinfecting ingredient such as quaternary ammonium, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium hypochlorite. A few brands and products you’ve probably seen on store shelves: Lysol Disinfecting Wipes (Buy It, $5, target.com), Clorox Disinfecting Wipes (Buy It, $6 for 3-pack, target.com), Mr. Clean Power Multi-Surface Disinfecting Wipes.
Whether or not disinfecting wipes are ultimately more effective than using a disinfectant spray (which would include some of the same common ingredients) and paper towel hasn’t been studied, though Schaffner notes they’re likely equivalent when it comes to protecting against viruses. The big distinction here is that disinfectant wipes (and sprays!) are intended for use on hard surfaces, such as counters and doorknobs, only, and not on the skin or food (more on that to come).
Another important takeaway: Disinfectant wipes are different than those considered all-around or all-purpose cleaning wipes, such as Mrs. Meyer’s Surface Wipes (Buy It, $4, grove.co) or Better Life All-Natural All-Purpose Cleaner Wipes (Buy It, $7, thrivemarket.com).
So remember that if a product (wipe or otherwise) wants to call itself a disinfectant, it must be able to kill viruses and bacteria according to the EPA, but does that include the coronavirus? The answer is still TBD, but it’s looking likely, says Schaffner. There are currently 392 products on the EPA’s list of registered disinfectants for use against the novel coronavirus—some of which are, in fact, disinfectant wipes. Here’s the catch: “These products have not been tested against the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, but because of their activity against related viruses [they] are believed to be effective here,” explains Schaffner.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Products
The primary difference between how you use these various kinds of wipes? Contact time—aka how long the surface you’re wiping down needs to remain wet to be effective, according to the EPA.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, you might’ve had a pack of disinfectant wipes on hand to quickly wipe down the kitchen counter, bathroom sink, or toilet—and that’s totally fine. But a swift swipe across the surface is considered cleaning, not disinfecting.
To reap the disinfecting benefits of these wipes, the surface needs to stay wet for much longer than a few seconds. For example, the instructions for Lysol Disinfecting Wipes state that the surface needs to remain wet for four minutes after application to truly disinfect the area. That means, for full effectiveness, you’re going to have to wipe down the counter and then may even need to use another cloth if you notice the area is starting to dry out before those four minutes are up, says Schaffner.
The instructions for many disinfectant wipes also say to rinse any surface that might touch food with water afterward. This is especially important if you’re using these in your kitchen, as it implies that there may be some disinfectant residue leftover that you don’t want to get into your food, says Schaffner. (Despite what anyone may have said on the topic, you should NEVER ingest disinfectants—or use them on your groceries—so best to rinse the area thoroughly before you start cooking dinner.)
Sounds like you have little room for error here, right? Well, good news: going through the disinfecting process isn’t always necessary. If your household doesn’t have a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case or someone isn’t sick in general, “these strong measures are not needed, and you can just continue to clean your house the way you usually do,” says Schaffner. Any kind of multi-purpose spray cleaner, cleaning wipes, or soap and water will do the trick, so no need to stress over finding those coveted Clorox Disinfecting Wipes.
What About Antibacterial Wipes?
In general, disinfectant wipes are used on hard surfaces and antibacterial wipes (such as Wet Ones) are for cleaning your skin. Common active ingredients in these include benzethonium chloride, benzalkonium chloride, and alcohol. Antibacterial wipes, as well as antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers, are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because they’re classified as a drug, explains Schaffner. Like the EPA, the FDA also makes sure the product is safe and effective before allowing it to hit the market.
As for COVID-19? Well, the jury is out whether or not antibacterial wipes or antibacterial hand soap are effective against the coronavirus. “A product that claims to be antibacterial means only that it’s tested against bacteria. It may or may not be effective against viruses,” says Schaffner.
That being said, washing your hands with soap and H20 is still considered one of the best ways to protect against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). (A hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is recommended if washing your hands is not an option; antibacterial wipes, however, are not currently included in the CDC’s recommendations.) While you definitely don’t want to use any kind of disinfectant wipe on your skin (the ingredients are way too harsh), you could, in theory [and] if you were really in a crunch, use an antibacterial wipe on a hard surface, says Schaffner. Still, you’re better off saving it for personal use, he adds, and relying on plain old soap and water or, if necessary, an EPA-certified disinfectant for household purposes.
“Remember that your single biggest risk of contracting COVID-19 is personal contact with an infected individual,” says Schaffner. Which is why, unless there is a confirmed or suspected case of coronavirus in your home, practicing social distancing and good personal hygiene (handwashing, not touching your face, wearing a mask in public) is more important than what you use to wipe down your counters.