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By Nina Hwang
The products you use to keep your home clean and safe may actually be harming your family’s health instead of protecting it. Certified green cleaners are proven to be just as effective at removing dirt and grime as harsher cleaning products, while being safer than conventional alternatives. Healthier and more environmentally friendly, these eco cleaning and disinfecting solutions are highly effective at killing the COVID-19 virus and other germs.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all having anxiety about the spread of the virus. This led many of us to increase the use of cleaning and disinfecting chemicals at home. While well-intentioned, these habits can cause more harm than good!
Because of the way the virus spreads, covering the surfaces in your home with chemicals won’t necessarily help prevent the spread of COVID-19—but could instead lead to significant health risks for your family. The people who clean your home and vulnerable populations like children and persons with asthma are particularly at risk. By learning how to choose safer, eco cleaning products—and by understanding when, where, and how disinfecting is appropriate—you can protect against viruses and other germs while also protecting the health, safety, and indoor air quality of your home.
Cleaning Is Usually Enough
The science has long been clear: coronaviruses in general, including the COVID-19 virus, are relatively easy to kill on surfaces. These types of viruses are surrounded by a protective lipid (fatty) envelope that breaks apart easily with plain soap and water, or regular cleaning solution.
What’s more, we know now that the risk of surface-to-person transmission of COVID-19 is extremely low. This virus spreads primarily through person-to-person and airborne transmission, making masking and vaccines the most effective precautions against its spread. In fact, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found there is only a 1 in 10,000 chance of being infected with COVID-19 from touching a contaminated surface.
This means, in most situations, cleaning alone removes most virus particles on surfaces. Even in cases where disinfecting is suggested, it’s essential to clean surfaces first with a regular cleaning solution in order for disinfectants to work properly.
Choosing Safer Cleaning Products
The chemicals inside your cleaning products matter more than you might think. Only a few hundred of the 80,000-plus chemicals registered for use in the US have been truly investigated for their health and environmental effects. The US EPA has banned only 14 chemicals to date, largely leaving it up to product manufacturers to pave the path toward safer ingredients.
But select eco cleaning product manufacturers are moving the industry forward by
- disclosing all ingredients
- publicly committing to phase out hazardous chemicals
- strongly investing in green chemistry innovations
However, too many household products contain toxic ingredients. They remain easily available on store shelves and in cabinets in homes across the US.
For instance, many routine cleaning products contain chemicals that disrupt our endocrine systems. The endocrine system is like your body’s conductor—setting the rhythm for metabolism, growth, mood, and sleep patterns. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates, BPA, and glycol ethers cause hormone changes, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, and thyroid irregularities, along with contributing to lower sperm counts, reduced immune function, and reduced vaccine response.
Certified eco cleaning products
Choosing products that have been independently certified for healthier, more sustainable ingredients helps protect your household from these potentially harmful ingredients. Look for products with the badge of a reputable organization like Green Seal. The Green Seal logo marks eco-friendly cleaners that make your household cleaning safer and more environmentally friendly.
Certified green cleaners are proven to be just as effective on household dirt and grime as harsher cleaning products while being safer than conventional alternatives. These products also come with additional eco-friendly cleaning benefits such as preventing packaging waste and water pollution. If you’re shopping online, look for eco cleaning products with the Climate Pledge Friendly badge on Amazon, developed in cooperation with Green Seal and other trusted, third-party organizations. Green Seal also maintains its own list of certified eco cleaning products, suitable for your household.
Sometimes we need to disinfect
Even though regular cleaning is typically effective against the COVID-19 virus and most other germs, some circumstances require targeted disinfecting. For instance, if someone with a confirmed COVID-19 infection—or suspected to be infected with COVID-19—has been in your house within the past 24 hours. Otherwise, regular cleaning once a day with soap and water or an eco cleaning solution is sufficient, even in multi-family buildings and offices. So don’t worry about cleaning every time you touch a surface in your home. (But remember to wash your hands well and often.)
Importantly, even when disinfecting is appropriate, you should always use soap and water or an eco cleaning product first. Cleaning removes dirt and grime that viruses can hide under.
Yes, you can find safer disinfectants
Much like cleaning products, some disinfectants are safer for humans and the environment than others. Unfortunately, disinfectants often contain hazardous ingredients like quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, which are linked to asthma, cancer, and endocrine disruption. Repeated exposure to these harmful ingredients can increase the risk of serious respiratory disease, especially for vulnerable populations like children and persons with asthma.
US EPA’s List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus provides a list of disinfecting products effective against the COVID-19 virus. However, this list does not identify which products use safer disinfecting ingredients. Green Seal recommends choosing List N disinfectants that use the following, more eco-friendly active ingredients:
- hydrogen peroxide*
- citric acid
- lactic acid
- ethyl alcohol (also called ethanol or just alcohol)
- isopropyl alcohol
- peroxyacetic acid*
- hypochlorous acid
*Avoid products containing both hydrogen peroxide and peroxyacetic acid (also called peracetic acid) because that combination can cause asthma in exposed people.
While EPA does not allow third-party certifications for disinfecting solutions, Green Seal has curated its own list (using the EPA’s List N) to help you identify safer ones. Unlike the active ingredients commonly found in disinfectants, the active ingredients in these are deemed safe by the EPA’s Design for the Environment program: i.e, these products are not linked to asthma, cancer, endocrine disruption, or DNA damage. Green Seal lists a variety of wipes, sprays, and sanitizers to suit your disinfecting needs, including the multipurpose cleaner system from Force of Nature.
Avoid Over-Disinfecting Your Home
Our natural instincts may have us reaching toward the most powerful, harshest chemicals available to wipe out germs and viruses. But the science around the COVID-19 virus indicates that we ought to avoid a dangerous reliance on disinfectants, because cleaning with less-harmful chemicals is just as effective. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize our exposure to cleaning chemicals, regardless of the types of products at hand.
Always follow the instructions on product labels (including eco cleaning solutions) to ensure safe and correct use. This includes critical information such as the contact time; that is, the duration that the surface needs to remain wet with disinfecting solution in order to kill specific pathogens. It’s not always a quick spray and wipe. Contact times can be longer than expected, ranging from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. It’s best to keep kids and pets in a different room to avoid accidental exposure to these products.
Chemicals released into the air during cleaning and disinfecting can lead to poor indoor air quality without proper ventilation. Opening windows or running fans whenever possible will reduce buildups of these pollutants. To minimize the chemicals in the air in the first place, choose an environmentally friendly disinfecting wipe. Alternatively, spray the product into a lint-free microfiber towel, rather than directly on to the surface, and then wipe the towel across the surface.
Steps to Eco Cleaning and Disinfecting
Cleaning and disinfecting are among several proven precautions that can reduce the risks of COVID-19. Choose safer, certified, eco cleaning products; follow science-based guidance on when and where to disinfect; and take precautions when cleaning. These steps will help you protect yourself and your loved ones from both COVID-19 and the negative health effects of exposure to harmful chemicals
About the author:
Nina Hwang is the lead environmental scientist for Green Seal, a global non-profit organization and leading ecolabel.