By now you’ve probably heard that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can linger on surfaces for hours or even days. And you may be wondering what that means for your health — and your home cleaning routine.
First, it’s important to note that the virus is much more easily passed from person to person via aerosol droplets, aka drops of spit or snot from the sick person that enter the air and get into your nose or mouth.
Is it technically possible for someone to get sick from an infected surface? Yes, if they touch the surface then touch their face or put their hands in their mouth without washing their hands first. But it’s less likely.
“With some infections, like MRSA (a staph bacteria on the skin), contaminated surfaces can cause people to get infected, but that’s not the case with this virus, where it’s usually person-to-person spread,” says Marilyn Roberts, a microbiologist and UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences who studies antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Still, it’s important to keep your home — and your hands — clean. We asked Roberts for tips on how often you should be cleaning and sanitizing high-touch surfaces.
Clean daily, but don’t obsess
“Keeping things clean is not a bad thing. You might prevent other viruses or foodborne illnesses. But getting obsessive about it isn’t necessary,” Roberts says.
By “keeping things clean” she means wiping down high-use surfaces once or twice a day: Think things like kitchen countertops and toilet bowls or other surfaces that get dirty.
If you want to, go ahead and wipe down door handles and light switches, too.
Clean more often if someone’s sick
The whole “no obsessive cleaning” thing changes dramatically if you’re taking care of someone in your house who is sick. Maybe they don’t have COVID-19 (or you don’t know), but unless you want to catch what they have, you need to clean pretty thoroughly.
Roberts recommends isolating the sick person and staying 6 feet away from them at all times. Have them use a separate bathroom, if possible, and definitely don’t share things. Even sharing a tube of toothpaste is a way for germs to spread.
Serve their food using disposable plates and cutlery, if possible. If that’s not an option and you need to clean dishes, do so on the hottest setting in the dishwasher. Likewise, wash their clothes in hot water.
And, of course, wash your hands after you come in contact with them or anything they touched.
Disinfect after cleaning
Think you can just spray disinfectant on everything and call it good? Not so fast.
“If you’ve got food particles, bodily fluids or dirt and you throw a disinfectant on it, the disinfectant will be inactivated by the organic material,” Roberts explains.
To prevent this, wash with a regular cleaning solution — or soap and water — first to remove any mess, then disinfect.
No need to disinfect packages
You’ve probably seen countless articles in the news about whether or not it’s safe to get packages. And you’re getting a lot of mail and takeout now that you’re staying home. Does that mean you should disinfect every piece of mail you get?
No, that’s completely unnecessary, says Roberts. The likelihood of packages being contaminated with the new coronavirus, much less actually getting sick from handling mail, is very low.
As mentioned above, the coronavirus (COVID-19) can linger on surfaces, but often at low concentrations of the virus. If someone were to get infected this way, they’d have to touch the object then touch their face and get it into the mouth or eye.
“If you’re worried about it, open it outside, take the contents out, then put the boxes in the recycle bin,” Roberts says.
Gloves aren’t necessary
Some people like to clean with gloves on, others don’t. Do whatever works best for you, but keep in mind that now isn’t the time to hoard latex or other single-use gloves: healthcare workers need those (same for surgical masks).
Make sure to wash your hands after cleaning. If you like to clean using those yellow rubber gloves, that’s fine; just give them a rinse when you’re done and then wash your hands.
Paper versus reusable towels
If you want to use paper towels to clean so you can toss the used towels when you’re done, go for it. But using reusable towels or sponges is fine as long as you can clean them using either the dishwasher or washing machine on the highest temperature.
Roberts likes cleaning with microfiber cloths that she then throws in the washing machine on high heat. If you use sponges to clean dishes, throw the sponge in with the dishwasher cycle.
What to do if you run out of disinfectant
Disinfectant wipes and sprays have been hard to come by these days, seemingly flying off the shelves before you even step inside the store.
If you run out of disinfectant, there are a few DIY concoctions you can make that still get the job done.
To disinfect your phone or other tech, use 70% rubbing alcohol or a 1:1 mixture of alcohol and water. For hardier things like sinks or toilets, mix a 1% solution of bleach with water.
Alcohol and bleach can be corrosive on certain surfaces, however, so do some online research to find out what you should and shouldn’t clean.
And, when all else fails, use good old soap and water, which is safe for everything except electronics.
Hand-washing and social distancing are more important
Ultimately, what you clean and how often you clean it is less important than two other things: washing your hands and social distancing.
Since COVID-19 is primarily spread by aerosol droplets, it’s key to stay away from others — it protects not just you, but them and the community as a whole.