7 coronavirus cleaning questions, answered by an expert

7 coronavirus cleaning questions, answered by an expert

First, here is the general advice I have to offer: Keep it simple and be diligent. Wash your hands frequently, clean and disinfect high-touch areas daily, and be aware of your information and news sources.

Keep it simple and be diligent

These are the sources that I trust and will refer you to: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) are the best, most trustworthy sources of information about all matters related to the coronavirus, including cleaning and disinfecting protocols. To interpret these sometimes confusing directives, look to Consumer ReportsWirecutter, major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and, of course, Vox. Additionally, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (USCPSC) maintains a lively and active Twitter account with information about the safe and correct use of all kinds of products, including cleaning agents.

Steer clear of advice you see on Facebook, or receive via text message or email from sites that offer “life hacks” — the tips can range from ineffective and wasteful to potentially deadly.

In a time when people are consumed with cleaning, sanitation, and germs in a way that is new for many, there has been a tremendous amount of confusion around which cleaning products to use, and for what. Vox staffers put together some of the questions they have and asked me to answer them.

In these days of increased levels of sanitization plus shortages of cleaning products, it occurs to me to wonder about cross-uses. Can you wash your hands with dish soap? Can you disinfect a grocery card with tile cleaning spray?

This is a very “yes and no” answer, unfortunately. One of the reasons that experts typically steer people away from cross-uses of cleaning products is that oftentimes doing so, in ascending order of seriousness, can be ineffective and wasteful, can damage the thing you’re attempting to clean, and/or can sicken or even kill you. Another side effect of using cleaning products for non-intended purposes is that it can encourage a mindset of mixing products, and that also can be dangerous to the point of being deadly. This is not alarmist, either: Improper use of cleaning products — especially ones that contain bleach, alcohol, or ammonia — really does kill people.

But these are, obviously, not typical times, so I can offer some help for people who are wondering about using things like dish soap for hand-washing (fine!) or tile cleaner for disinfecting plastic (probably fine!):

There are three sources of information to consult before using a product, full stop, but especially if you’re considering using it for a non-stated purpose:

  1. The manufacturer’s usage and safety instructions
  2. The ingredients list
  3. The product’s safety data sheet (SDS)

Usage and safety instructions, along with ingredients, can be found on the product’s packaging. It can, however, be hard to read because of the small print. That same information can also be found online by Googling the product name plus “ingredients,” “usage,” and/or “directions” or by searching for product information on SmartLabel. A product’s SDS can be found by Googling the product name + SDS.

The SDS is especially helpful because it provides all the information you could possibly want — ingredients, usage, hazards, and warnings — in one document. Here, for example, is the SDS for Lysol disinfectant spray, which lays out first-aid measures, fire hazard warnings, handling and storage instructions, and so on. It is very helpful! Please learn to love SDS. Also, remember the Lysol SDS because we’re going to come back to it.

Some cleaning commandments, to help guide you:

  • If a product contains bleach (sodium hypochlorite), you must NOT mix it with any chemicals other than water. You also need to be aware that it can cause color loss and so generally should not be used on fabrics.
  • If a product contains isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol, commonly called rubbing alcohol), it can be safely used to disinfect hard surfaces and is generally safe on skin, though it can cause drying and irritation. However, isopropyl alcohol should be used carefully, as it is flammable.
  • If a product contains hydrogen peroxide, it must NOT be mixed with vinegar. The combination creates a corrosive acid that can be severely irritating to the eyes, skin, and respiratory system.

Generally, however, err on the side of caution; don’t use a product if you’re unsure it’s safe, avoid mixing cleaning products, and, if you are going to use a product for a non-designated use, spot-test it on a small, inconspicuous area to determine if it will cause damage. Which is to say: Don’t dip your driver’s license in bleach and then act all surprised when it’s unreadable.

I need to clean my phone, light switches, and doorknobs, but I can’t get alcohol wipes, alcohol in a bottle, Clorox Wipes, or disposable gloves right now, so … what do I do?

Fortunately, there are a great number of cleaning products beyond isopropyl alcohol and Clorox Wipes* that are effective at disinfecting for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the disease Covid-19, and the Environmental Protection Agency has a sortable and easily searchable list that you can refer to.

One product well worth talking about is chlorine bleach — on ingredient listings it will turn up as sodium hypochlorite, and you should commit that name to memory because when you see it, it will tell you four things:

  1. The product in question contains bleach, and will work as a disinfectant on coronavirus.
  2. The product in question contains bleach, and can cause color loss on fabrics.
  3. The product in question contains bleach, and can cause skin irritation, and will be harmful if ingested or gotten in the eyes.
  4. The product in question contains bleach, and therefore should not be mixed with ANY chemicals other than water.

Bleach will be a smart choice for most people right now, because it is widely available, inexpensive, and less wasteful than pre-moistened cleaning wipes. But it is very (very, very, very) important to use bleach carefully and responsibly.

Here is what the CDC says about using bleach (emphasis mine):

Diluted household bleach solutions can be used if appropriate for the surface. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for application and proper ventilation. Check to ensure the product is not past its expiration date. Never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser. Unexpired household bleach will be effective against coronaviruses when properly diluted.

The CDC recommends preparing a bleach solution by mixing 5 tablespoons (one-third cup) bleach per gallon of water or, for a smaller batch, 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. When working with bleach solution, wear household gloves to protect skin and ensure that there is proper ventilation.

*A note on Clorox Wipes: They do not contain chlorine bleach. Because of the brand name Clorox, many people assume that they are bleach-based, which they are not — the active ingredients are hexoxyethanol and isopropanol. Also, Apple has reversed its cleaning instructions for iPhones and now says Clorox Wipes and other similar products can be used to clean phones — this also applies to other cellphones. Chlorine bleach, however, should not be used to clean phone screens; it may be used to clean the back of phones and/or cases, though color loss may occur.

What do I do about leather goods like wallets, purses, and phone cases? It feels like I shouldn’t be dousing them with alcohol — do I just need to switch to silicone cases and ditch my usual wallet/bag/etc.?

This one often freaks people out, but it tells the exact story I need it to: Leather is a hide, and porous, and you should think of caring for it the same way you care for your own hide, since it’s just the skin of a different animal. See? It’s weird! But … you get it, right?

This is all to say you can and very much should clean leather goods with an agent known to be effective on coronavirus, but after that, you should moisturize to prevent drying and cracking.

You may absolutely use your rubbing alcohol or Clorox Wipes (which, remember, do not contain chlorine bleach) to clean a leather wallet or handbag, but after cleaning, treat the leather to a bit of leather conditioner.

Here’s how to use it: Put a very small amount — a pea-size or dime-size amount because a little goes a long way — on a soft cloth like an old T-shirt or a sock. Apply the conditioner to the leather, working it into the hide in a circular motion. Repeat, adding more conditioner to the cloth as needed, and then, using a clean section of the cloth, buff the leather dry, again working in a circular motion.

Can I use bubble mix as soap? I bought a ton of bubble mix.

Bubble mix — the stuff used with bubble wands and machines — is generally a mixture of dish soap, glycerine (and sometimes corn syrup), and water. The mixture is not as viscous as plain dish soap, so pouring it directly onto a sponge to wash a coffee mug would probably not be the best use of it. But because it’s essentially pre-diluted dish soap, it could be used as a substitute for dish soap solution — use it to soak pots and pans, use it as a floor mopping solution, use it to wash a car*, etc.

Unless you’re truly out of all other cleaning supplies, I would stick with using bubble mix for its intended purpose

However, the glycerine and/or corn syrup is likely to leave a slightly sticky residue that may also create a dull appearance. So unless you’re truly out of all other cleaning supplies, I would stick with using bubble mix for its intended purpose.

*Sidebar on washing cars: While dish soap is a common car wash solution, it is really much, much better for your car to use car wash soap, as dish soap can strip a car’s clear coat. Remember that your car has high-touch areas — like door handles — that should be cleaned and disinfected regularly.

Is liquid soap better than bar soap?

They are both good! Liquid soap is more popular these days, but washing your hands with bar soap is no more or less effective. Proper hand-washing technique is more important than the type of soap you use — liquid, foaming, and bar soaps are all effective when used to scrub hands for 20 seconds.

My mom legit asked me yesterday if it is safe to Lysol herself when she comes in the door. It seems like a fine line between good idea and crop dusting.

Do not do this. There is no fine line — it is a bad idea.

Do not spray Lysol on yourself or on other people. Lysol is not meant to be used as a disinfectant for skin, and is dangerous if inhaled or ingested, or if it comes into contact with eyes and skin. Do not Lysol yourself.

I read the Wirecutter’s piece on packages and basically I feel like I want to disinfect the cardboard. (This is the opposite of the conclusion I was supposed to make, I think.) Do I Lysol the box? Wipe it down? They say cardboard doesn’t really hold the virus. But what about shiny cardboard? Or a plastic envelope bag thing?

Okay, this is a tough message to have to relay, but tough times, etc. You’re right that you’re drawing the exact opposite conclusion from this very good Wirecutter article about handling packages during the coronavirus pandemic. And that’s frustrating (but understandable!) because what you’re doing here is, essentially, going to Dad after Mom didn’t give you the answer you want. And I, Dad, am not falling for it! Tough love time: Base your actions on facts and the advice of experts, not on feelings.

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