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Rutgers experts explain how to sanitize homes during coronavirus outbreak

Sanitizing surfaces once a day should be enough if you are not sick, said Donald Schaffner, an extension specialist and distinguished professor in the Department of Food Science.  – Photo by Courtesy of Joanne Chung

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak has resulted in questions on how to clean your home to prevent the spread of the virus. Frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected daily, but which chemical you use and how you use it make all the difference, said Rutgers University experts. 

Relevant surfaces include tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Siobain Duffy, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources, said she would start with doorknobs and faucet taps due to recent evidence that the virus can survive up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel.

“Unfortunately, not all of the cleaning tips we learned from family members are helpful for sanitizing in a pandemic,” Duffy said. “If you are putting in the effort to clean and disinfect your frequently touched surfaces, you need to make sure you are using effective chemicals.”

Vinegar is not as effective as bleach, alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, Duffy said. Tea tree oil and other natural products also lack evidence of effectiveness, according to an article by Rutgers Today.

The CDC recommends first cleaning surfaces, then disinfecting them. Any commercial cleaner you own likely does both, Duffy said. Plain soap and water also clean well, she said. Alcohol diluted to approximately 70 percent concentration, hydrogen peroxide used as is or diluted to 0.5 percent concentration or bleach diluted according to label instructions disinfects surfaces well.

Hydrogen peroxide is among the approved substances listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website for use against COVID-19.

Alcohol solution should be left on surfaces for 30 seconds before wiping, hydrogen peroxide for 1 minute and bleach for at least 10 minutes, according to the Rutgers Today article. Diluted bleach only lasts a day, while alcohol solution remains potent if sealed in a container between uses, Duffy said.

“It is also important to never, ever mix these sanitizing chemicals together,” Duffy said. “They can generate poisonous, deadly gases. Stick with one disinfectant each day, and you can use a different disinfectant the next day.”  

Sanitizing surfaces once a day should be enough if you are not sick, said Donald Schaffner, an extension specialist and distinguished professor in the Department of Food Science. 

Schaffner said most cases of COVID-19 are due to close contact with someone who is infected, not from food or surfaces. He said smartphones are likely the surface that we touch the most often in our homes, but the amount of time the virus can last on the phone surface depends on various factors.

“Bacteria and viruses are not able to grow and multiply on our smartphones. Bacteria need food and water to multiply, and viruses need a suitable host (in this case humans)," Schaffner said. "The amount of time these organisms last on our phones depends upon the starting concentration and environmental conditions. They tend to survive best at low temperature and low humidity."

Schaffner said smartphones can be cleaned but consumers should follow guidelines from the phone manufacturers. For example, Apple recommends iPhones should be cleaned with Clorox wipes or 70 percent ethanol. Chemicals like chlorine and ammonia should not be used on phones, he said.

The best way to keep your phone clean, Schaffner said, is to regularly wash or sanitize your hands. 

“Also, if you are not sick, the way (COVID-19) is likely to come into your house is on your hands, so one best practice would be to wash your hands with soap and or alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you arrive back home,” he said.


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