Even as scientists were racing to determine how COVID-19 was spreading, the World Health Organization officially declared the deadly outbreak to be a global pandemic in early March. Since then, the virus has infected millions across the globe and normal daily life has ground to a halt.
Everyone is looking for ways to protect themselves, but with so many unknowns and so much misinformation, it can be a challenge to get good, actionable information. That’s why we would like to share some materials that you can use to clean and kill the COVID-19 virus without resorting to harsh chemicals.
COVID-19 and Surfaces
The virus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2. Initially, it was thought that the primary way SARS-CoV-2 spread was by respiratory droplets. A person who was infected with the virus coughed, sneezed, or breathed in close proximity (6 feet or less) to an uninfected person or people, and the virus spread.
But a study by scientists from the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA and Princeton University, and other institutions showed that a huge percentage of the spread could be caused by people touching infected surfaces and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes.
The study found that SARS-CoV-2 can survive for up to:
3 hours on most metals
4 hours on copper
24 hours on cardboard
2 to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel
Unfortunately, these numbers could be even greater. Viruses can survive far longer on surfaces when the humidity and the temperature in the surrounding environment are high. That means that viral particles in a large glob of mucus (sorry for the visual) could be infectious for several days or more.
So yes, people can acquire COVID-19 by touching contaminated objects. That’s why disinfecting surfaces has become almost as important a countermeasure as social distancing and handwashing.
How to Clean and Kill COVID-19 on Surfaces
The authors of the study we referenced above (which includes NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D) recommended cleaning and disinfecting "frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe." But many household cleaning products contain harsh chemicals that can cause health issues, especially if they are used multiple times a day for weeks or months on end.
The American Lung Association reports that some aerosol sprays, cleansers, and disinfectants not only irritate the eyes and throat but can even cause cancer. Many cleaning product labels don’t give consumers enough information about potential health impacts.
You can opt for a DIY approach and make a cleaner yourself. Popular options include bleach and water (1/3 cup per gallon), rubbing alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide (3%), all of which can kill the virus that causes the common cold, a virus that is much harder to kill than coronavirus.
But bleach, rubbing alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide fall pretty firmly into the harsh chemicals category. Below are some proven ways to clean and kill COVID-19 without using nasty chemicals.
Safe Ways to Kill COVID-19
Here’s some good news: SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and other coronaviruses are among the easiest kinds of viruses to kill.
Coronaviruses are covered in crowns or spikes, hence the “corona” in the name. Underneath these spikes is a lipid (fat) coating that protects the virus. Anything that can break down this outer membrane of protection can kill the virus. That includes old fashioned soap and water.
You know soap and water is great at breaking down fat if you’ve ever used dish soap and a little elbow grease to clean the dishes. When you take a closer look at what’s happening when soap breaks down grease, you’ll see that there’s no reason to purchase harsh, potentially dangerous chemicals cleaning chemicals.
How Soap Breaks Breaks Down COVID-19
Under a microscope, a soap molecule looks like a little creature with a head and a tail. The head can bond with water easily, but the tail rejects it, preferring instead to bond with oil and fat. That’s why soap works best when it’s mixed with water.
When you mix soap with water, the tail of the soap molecules will do anything they can to escape the water. When they come in contact with the protective fatty layer of COVID-19, the tails of the soap molecules plunge themselves in, prying the virus open like a can of sardines. The virus spills its guts into the soapy water and dies.
When it comes to killing COVID-19, any soap will do. It doesn’t need to be antibacterial.
Other Safe Ways to Disinfect COVID-19 Without Harsh Chemicals
As we mentioned before, a rag covered with soapy water should be your first line of defense against COVID-19 if you don't want to use harsh cleaning chemicals.
When it comes to cleaning your clothes, no special chemicals are needed either. Regular laundry detergent will do just fine. If you do happen to get a heavy viral load on a piece of your clothing, your best chance of killing all of it is by using the extra hot setting in your washing machine.
So what about vinegar? Likely not, according to Dr. Evans, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta. Though acids, like vinegar, can inactivate viruses, the pH of vinegar isn't low enough.
If you do need to use a more traditional cleaning product, check out this list of the EPA’s recommended Safer Choice cleaning products, which have been evaluated by the agency and deemed safer to use than conventional cleaners. Many are fragrance-free, which reduces the number of VOCs and respiratory irritants.
What Surfaces Should You Clean?
You don't need to clean and disinfect your entire house to protect yourself from COVID-19. Just focus on keeping high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, countertops, handles, drawers, light switches, steering wheel, keys, phone, remote control, keyboards, etc. clean.
And in case you feel like you can’t keep up with cleaning every surface in your home, remember this: one virus particle is not going to succeed in causing an infection. After a day or so, the number of infectious particles on most surfaces is likely to drop below the threshold required to cause infection.