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Consider skipping natural cleaning products during coronavirus

For many, a twin obsession with wellness and all things eco-friendly has found an outlet in the use of Goop-y, “all-natural” household cleaners. These products are commercially available, but people also tend to fall down that deep of an Internet rabbit hole to find DIY cleaner recipes, with ingredients along the lines of vinegar, lemon, baking soda, and tea tree oil.

Yes, some of these concoctions are noble and might’ve cut it pre-pandemic, now is not the time for gentle cleansers. A note from your friendly, neighborhood health journalist: It's time for the heavy duty shit.

In simplest terms, cleaning products merely remove dirt, as well as some germs, from surfaces, Robert Laumbach, an associate professor at the Rutgers Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, tells Mic. “If you really want to kill the germs, and the virus, use disinfectant” — that is, antimicrobial agents such as bleach, alcohol, and quaternary ammonium.

A note from your friendly, neighborhood health journalist: It's time for the heavy duty shit.

But first, a disclaimer: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the novel coronavirus is thought to spread primarily via respiratory droplets from an infected person. In other words, virus-contaminated surfaces pose a risk, but not the biggest risk. Evidence suggests the virus may survive anywhere from hours to days on various types of surfaces, per the CDC, but there haven’t been any documented cases of transmission occurring in this way.

That said, the CDC says folks can get into the habit of cleaning oft-touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, light switches, and tables. The agency suggests cleaning dirty surfaces with soap and water, or detergent, to start, then disinfecting them, and notes that “most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective” in killing the novel coronavirus.

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And if you want to be extra vigilant, the Environmental Protection Agency has a list of disinfectants thought to kill the virus. "The implication is that they showed evidence based on the product’s ability to kill viruses that are more resistant to disinfection,” Laumbach says. Disinfectants can kill viruses in various ways, Chemical & Engineering News explains. Bleach can degrade their vital building blocks, for example, while alcohol-based products can break down the protective lipids that encase them.

The problem with natural cleaning products is that “they haven’t been tested to show they actually kill the novel coronavirus, or any virus,” he says. “We need evidence to show that they work before we assume they would be effective for disinfection.” One small study study found that a 10% malt vinegar cleaning solution could kill the influenza virus, but we can’t generalize these findings to conclude that all natural DIY cleaners can kill germs, or even just the novel coronavirus.

The CDC recommends only one DIY disinfectant as a precaution against COVID-19 for use on hard surfaces: a one-third cup of bleach per gallon of water.

Besides being rigorously tested for their germ-killing ability, commercial disinfectants are made by following a formula, with specific quantities of ingredients at specific concentrations, so you know that each bottle of cleaner is identical. You don't have that same level controlling when mixing your own product. The CDC recommends only one DIY disinfectant as a precaution against COVID-19 for use on hard surfaces: a one-third cup of bleach per gallon of water.

That said, some disinfectants, like bleach, can be irritating to some people. Whenever you use them, try to keep the area well-ventilated, and don’t use excessive amounts of product, Laumbach says. Avoid inhalation of the vapors, as well as prolonged contact with the skin.

Natural cleaners might seem gentler (although Laumbach notes they can cause allergies). When it comes to protecting yourself from COVID-19, though, you probably want to rely on products with more solid evidence behind them. You can go back to (other forms of) saving the world soon enough.