COVID-19 & Household Disinfectants: What Science Really Says (Updated April 2020)
As more and more positive COVID-19 cases are reported daily, many communities have started taking strict safety precautions, including social distancing and self-quarantine. People are advised to stay in their homes, take measures to boost their immunity, maintain proper personal hygiene, and use appropriate household disinfectants to prevent the spread of the virus.
However, as with any type of viral disease, it’s important to understand at least a few crucial details about the virus to effectively avoid it. In this article, we will tackle what the scientific community has found out so far about COVID-19, including the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions related to its spread as well as home hygiene that people can and should implement.
What We Know About COVID-19
The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by what is called the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). This coronavirus strain alerted public health authorities and the general public in December 2019, when it was identified for the first time to have caused infections in humans.
In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO), after assessing the COVID-19 outbreak, declared the disease as a pandemic. This was then followed by many countries, including the United States of America, declaring a state of national emergency due to the rising number of both suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases.
1. Source & Spread
COVID-19 and its causative virus SARS-CoV-2 were first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. The virus was found to have originated in bats, similar to SARS and MERS coronaviruses, which affected parts of the world during the early 2000s and early 2010s respectively.
Coronaviruses are commonly found in humans and certain animal species. However, what isn’t common is for a coronavirus strain to infect an animal and then be spread to humans. According to conducted investigations, the SARS-CoV-2 started through an animal-to-human spread and then turned into a pandemic through a widespread person-to-person infection.
The disease is spread primarily through airborne respiratory droplets. Similar to other coronavirus strains, SARS-CoV-2 can be easily transmitted if you are within a 6-foot distance from a person carrying the virus.
Some investigations also point to the possibility of contracting the disease by touching surfaces touched by an infected individual and then transferring the virus to one’s mouth, nose, or eyes. Although this has not been well documented yet, people are advised to be cautious of all possible modes of transmission. This is especially important given the very limited knowledge currently available about this new coronavirus.
2. Epidemic Turned Global Pandemic
As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an epidemic is an “increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” The WHO referred to COVID-19 as an epidemic when it started to spread across various parts of China and a few other countries.
However, on 11 March 2020, the WHO officially characterized the disease as a global pandemic, with a growing number of cases being detected worldwide. A pandemic, as defined by the CDC, is the spread of an epidemic over several countries and continents.
While the world isn’t new to pandemics, COVID-19 is the very first pandemic caused by a new coronavirus.
3. Symptoms and Risks
As reported by public health authorities, the symptoms of COVID-19 may appear within 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus. The symptoms include fever, cough, cold, and shortness of breath.
However, recent findings also show that some patients may not show any symptoms at all. What this means is that people can be carrying and transmitting the disease without them knowing. Also, this points out that people must still take safety precautions even if no one around them manifests the known COVID-19 symptoms.
On a brighter note, it appears that the severity of COVID-19 is different from people to people. Patients with no serious health issues usually show very mild symptoms, and there has been a number of patients that have completely recovered.
According to some reports, only about 16% of COVID-19 cases have high severity. People at high risk are identified as people of old age and those with pre-existing chronic conditions, such as heart disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes. With this, people with these risk factors, including those who live with them, must take extra safety precautions to protect themselves.
A doable safety precaution is making sure to disinfect one’s home both thoroughly and frequently with potent household disinfectants. Below are some facts about disinfection and why it works.
Why Disinfection Works
Disinfection is a procedure for preventing the spread of pathogenic microorganisms. It involves the use of chemical agents, particularly those with tested and proven active ingredients that can kill or deactivate a large percentage of pathogens upon contact or within a certain contact time.
Disinfection is frequently confused with cleaning, but there are stark differences between the two.
1. Cleaning versus Disinfecting
Cleaning is defined as the removal of dirt and germs from surfaces. It is usually a necessary procedure before disinfection. It doesn’t kill germs, but it reduces their number and consequently lowers the risk of the germs to spread infections
On the other hand, disinfecting is meant to kill or deactivate germs. When done after cleaning, it can dramatically lower the risk of infections, and, therefore, prevent widespread transmission of diseases. Disinfecting is a regular and commonsense maintenance procedure for every home, workplace, and for some public spaces--even more so during times of a health crisis.
As U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated in a press release, “Using the correct disinfectant is an important part of preventing and reducing the spread of illnesses, along with other critical aspects such as hand washing.”
2. Virus Structures & Their Response to Disinfectants
Viruses can be classified according to their structure. By knowing the structure of a virus, one can also know how difficult or easy it might be to kill or deactivate that virus.
Enveloped Viruses - These viruses have a proteinaceous outer wrapping that is relatively sensitive to alcohol and virucidal agents. As such, enveloped viruses are the easiest to kill.
Large, Non-Enveloped Viruses - These viruses have no outer wrapping but have an exposed central capsid. They are highly resistant to physical, environmental, and chemical influences and so are more difficult to kill.
Small, Non-Enveloped Viruses - These viruses have a protein capsid that resists both lipophilic disinfectants and alcohol-based solvents. Among the three virus structures, this one is the hardest to kill.
All known coronaviruses, including the SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19, are enveloped viruses. Thus, they are relatively easy to kill when an appropriate disinfectant is used.
3. SARS-CoV-2 & Harder-to-Kill Viruses
Although coronaviruses are enveloped and are less resistant to common household disinfectants, it isn’t advisable to take the novel coronavirus lightly. As mentioned previously, little is known about the SARS-CoV-2, so it must be treated the way emerging viral pathogens must be treated.
There is currently no disinfectant labeled to have the capacity to kill SARS-CoV-2, particularly because this virus has just emerged and there hasn’t been enough time to prove that a product can effectively kill the virus 100% of the time.
With that, it is still best to use test-proven disinfectants for harder-to-kill viruses or those that are EPA-registered and have emerging pathogen claims.
How to Choose a Household Disinfectant
Given the current conditions of many communities--the closure of stores, lockdown of major roads, and shortage of supplies--choosing and actually purchasing a good household disinfectant might not be too simple. However, if there are still viable products that you can buy in your local stores, it’s advisable to buy them while the store is still accessible and while the supplies last.
If possible, it is highly recommended to use products that are promoted by relevant agencies like the EPA. Below are some guidelines you can follow in choosing a disinfectant to combat the threat brought about by COVID-19.
1. Consider EPA-Registered Disinfectants
The EPA, USA’s lead agency for protecting human health and the environment, has released what is called the List N. This list consists of EPA-registered products that meet EPA’s criteria for fighting COVID-19, including the products’ demonstrated efficacy against harder-to-kill viruses and other human coronavirus types that have similarities with SARS-CoV-2.
Some products included in the List N are:
- Maquat 128-PD by Mason Chemical Company
- DisCide Ultra Disinfecting Spray by Palmero Healthcare, LCC
- Clorox QS by The Clorox Company
- A-1 Ultra Disinfecting Bleach by James Austin Company
- OSA Oxonia Active by Ecolab Inc.
Note that these products have not been tested yet against SARS-CoV-2 specifically, but they have been tested against harder-to-kill viruses and so are the best to use for emerging pathogens.
2. Check for Emerging Viral Pathogens & Human Coronavirus Claim
The emergence of viral pathogens is both uncommon and unpredictable. However, when they do emerge, they almost always threaten public health, similar to what’s happening now with SARS-CoV-2.
As health experts would say, the emergence of new viruses is not a question of if but of when, which is why various agencies have already put measures in place to prepare for possible outbreaks.
It was in 2016 when the EPA developed the Emerging Viral Pathogen (EVP) program. This program provided a process and guideline for companies to register their disinfectants to the agency as products that are effective against harder-to-kill-viruses and will most likely be effective against newly discovered pathogens. The EPA also put up a process to handle the registrations they receive and evaluate the products against defined eligibility criteria.
Early this March 2020, the EPA released for the first time its list of registered products, providing guidance to health professionals, households, and the entire public. If you are looking for products you can disinfect your house with, consider checking out the registered products and ordering straight from the manufacturing companies’ websites.
3. Check for Alcohol Content
Of course, there are alternatives to using EPA-registered products. One of the most commonly used alternatives is an alcohol solution. CDC recommends using solutions with at least 60% alcohol, not only for disinfecting surfaces but also for hand hygiene.
4. Be Ready with Alternative, Homemade Disinfectants
In the absence of the best, science-proven options, you can also opt for homemade disinfectants and sanitizers. Note that homemade household disinfectants are not officially advised nor promoted by EPA or CDC, but it wouldn’t hurt to use what we have at home when better options are unavailable or inaccessible.
Alcohol-based disinfectants are quite easy to make. Below is a recipe that should kill a significant percentage of germs on a surface within 60 seconds of contact time:
- 3/4 cup of rubbing alcohol
- 1/4 cup of aloe vera gel (for counteracting the harshness of the alcohol)
- 10 drops of essential oil or lemon juice (for fragrance)
If you have essential oils at home, do check if at least one of them has antiviral properties. There are several recipes for using essential oils for cleaning and disinfecting. Some known antimicrobial essential oils are:
You can use one or combination of these oils to formulate home-disinfecting recipes like an all-around homemade disinfectant spray. You can also make homemade sanitizers that have both antiviral essential oils and 60% alcohol content. If you want, you may also make homemade disinfectant wipes with the sanitizer you formulated.
Below are some other recipes you can try with essential oils:
Again, using essential oils for cleaning is not the best option for combating emerging pathogens like the SARS-CoV-2. However, some oils do provide a certain level of protection against germs. If you are using essential oils for your home and personal hygiene, be sure to be mindful of our guide on do’s and don’ts in using essential oils
General Guidelines for Disinfecting Households
During and after disinfecting, it is also important to be mindful of proper practices to avoid cross-contamination of surfaces or transmitting germs from a surface to one’s body. Below are a few important guidelines you should follow:
- Wear gloves when disinfecting surfaces. Ideally, you should always use a disposable pair of gloves when disinfecting, especially if there’s a patient under investigation (PUI) or person under monitoring (PUM) in your home. If you are using reusable gloves, make sure that those gloves are strictly for disinfection purposes and not for anything else.
- Follow label instructions. Whether you are using a common household cleaner or an EPA-registered product, it’s a must to read and follow the instructions on the product packaging. Adhere to the recommended dilution guidelines, if any, and stick to the recommended contact time.
Disinfect your hands after disinfecting surfaces. People’s hands are some of the best carriers of germs. With that, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water after disinfecting surfaces, even if you used gloves when you were cleaning. If your hands are not visibly soiled, you may use an alcohol-based sanitizer instead.
COVID-19 has become a global pandemic, and little is known about its causative virus SARS-CoV-2. However, knowing that the virus has an enveloped and easily destructible structure, there are doable safety precautions that people can take, especially in terms of personal hygiene and household disinfection.
The EPA has released its list of products with emerging viral pathogen claims and human coronavirus claims. Although these products have not been particularly tested against SARS-CoV-2, they are proven-effective against harder-to-kill viruses and are therefore some of the best available disinfectants for novel viruses.
If these products are inaccessible at the moment, you may also opt for homemade household disinfectants. Homemade disinfectants are not promoted by health agencies, but they can be good options, especially in the face of shortages of commercially available cleaners and disinfectants.
Homemade disinfectants can be formulated using rubbing alcohol, essential oils, and other common household items like baking soda and hydrogen peroxide.
Household disinfection must also go hand-in-hand with personal hygiene. With these two in tandem, plus compliance with the issued directives--such as social distancing and community quarantine--of health authorities, all of us can help prevent the spread of the virus and buy health experts time to develop a cure and stop the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Lesson 1: Introduction to Epidemiology, Section 11: Epidemic Disease Occurrence.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Clean & Disinfect: Interim Recommendations for US Households with Suspected/Confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019.
- Cleveland Clinic Newsroom. (2020). Frequently Asked Questions about Coronavirus Disease 2019.
- Santos, F. (2020). Aromatic & Antibacterial: 6 Best Essential Oils for Killing Germs.
- United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.). COVID-19 Control and Prevention.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2020). List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2.
- What We Know About COVID-19
- Why Disinfection Works
- Cleaning versus Disinfecting
- Virus Structures & Their Response to Disinfectants
- SARS-CoV-2 & Harder-to-Kill Viruses
- How to Choose a Household Disinfectant
- Consider EPA-Registered Disinfectants
- Check for Emerging Viral Pathogens & Human Coronavirus Claim
- Check for Alcohol Content
- Be Ready with Alternative, Homemade Disinfectants
- General Guidelines for Disinfecting Households
- Summary & Conclusion