So fresh and so clean

5 tips to clean your home for coronavirus, from a microbiologist

A science-backed guide to keep your home clean without also encouraging antibiotic resistance.

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We now know that the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, can likely survive on some surfaces for days and be spread by people who aren't showing any symptoms of COVID-19. These early scientific results underscore the need to keep adequate levels of hygiene — both outside and inside your home.

But cleaning your house to a COVID-19 proof level is not so simple as breaking out the bleach.

These five tips can help protect your home from coronavirus, and safeguard your long-term health.

Inverse spoke to Erica Hartmann, an expert on how microbial communities respond to human-made chemicals, and assistant professor of Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.

“At this very moment in time, coronavirus is at the forefront of everybody's minds, but antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest global public health challenges right now,” Hartmann tells Inverse. She explains that thinking twice about what types of products we use in our homes to fight off COVID-19 is easy, and important.

“You have like a microbial aura around you, so independent of coronavirus, most of these microbes are not bad,” Hartmann says. “And in fact, some of them are quite good.”

"I think a lot of people just sort of assume that they can wipe and go."

“There is a danger that if you go overboard and use too many antimicrobial chemicals in the quest to get rid of the coronavirus, that we're unintentionally exposing all of the other microbes that were already there to these chemicals, which allows them the chance to develop resistance.”

"We need to think critically about how to limit the exposure of bacteria to these things that can help them to become antibiotic resistant," she says.

Here are her 5 top tips to follow to clean your house for coronavirus without causing problems down the line:

5. Know what you are using
4. Follow the instructions
3. Don't mix and match
2. Pick your battles
1. Learn to love microbes

COVID-19 antibacterial cleaning guide

5. Know what you are using

What you use to clean your home can make all the difference, Hartmann explains.

Using your average soap detergent is probably the best option, but if that’s not available because of hoarding, try using products based on alcohol and bleach, such as sodium hypochlorite.

Alcohol and bleach are really strong cleaning products, but they do their job well, and they disappear quickly. Unlike other products, they don't leave long-lasting residue, which can expose any surface bacteria to man-made chemicals for longer, providing them with more opportunities to evolve resistance to the chemical's killer effects.

In practice, that means avoiding products containing chemicals like quaternary ammonium compounds, which are most-commonly found in industrial-strength disinfectants.

“There are other chemicals out there that are supposed to leave a residue on a surface. That in theory protects the surface a little bit longer,” Hartmann says. That might be helpful in certain environments, like hospitals.

“But in practice, I think the concerns about antibiotic resistance outweigh the benefits at this particular time.”

If you want to make your own cleaning solution using bleach, the Boston Public Health Commission recommends mixing 1 tablespoon of bleach per 4 cups of water. Use the solution within 20 minutes of mixing.

4. Follow the instructions

Disinfection is not instantaneous, and different products require different methods of application. You need to give the product enough time to actually kill the virus or bacteria on a surface before you wipe it off.

For example: Household bleach needs to sit on a surface for 10 minutes to actually kill whatever is on there before you wipe it off.

“I think a lot of people just sort of assume that they can wipe and go,” Hartmann says.

“But in the same way that you have to wash your hands for 20 seconds, you have to think about the actual time that it takes for things to work.”

And make sure you’re ventilating your home appropriately, using gloves, and keeping your hands away from your eyes.

3. Don’t mix and match

“The third, very critical step is don't mix cleaning products, because that can lead to some really nasty chemical reactions,” Hartmann says.

Mixing cleaning products can lead to poisonous gasses. Stick to bleach and alcohol, and avoid trying to overcompensate for coronavirus anxiety by using fancy products you don’t know much about. You can also contact the “1-800” number on the product label for its effectiveness against coronaviruses.

But remember: If surfaces are so dirty that they are soiled, you should clean them using a detergent or soap and water before disinfecting them. Just like hand sanitizer on soiled hands, disinfectant does not work well on soiled surfaces.

2. Pick your battles

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends daily disinfection of the surfaces you are touching often. That might include tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.

But using a disinfectant on some surfaces isn’t always necessary, rather, you can just opt for soap.

Hartmann points out that there’s probably no need to be disinfecting floors more than you already do, because they don’t pose a large risk for transmitting infection. The same goes for the top of shelves.

It really depends on what you are doing and where, Hartmann says.

“With your kitchen counter, for example, if you're handling raw chicken, you might want to use a disinfectant afterwards to clean up your counter. But if you're slicing bread, you might just want to sweep the crumbs away,” Hartmann says.

“We can think the same way about the rest of our homes. If you're sick, and you are coughing and sneezing on everything, and you sneezed into your hand and then touched a doorknob, then you should probably disinfect that doorknob, but you probably don't have to disinfect the tops of your cabinets that you've never touched in your life.”

The CDC also suggests not to shake your dirty laundry before you clean it, to minimize the possibility of the virus shedding into the air.

1. Learn to love microbes

Although coronavirus is a worry for everybody right now, you don’t want to be overreacting and undermining other health issues in your lives.

“A thing to keep in the background is this idea that not all microbes are bad,” Hartmann says.

“There are a lot of microbes that we do want to keep around. So we should be mindful of ensuring that we don't inadvertently affect them," she says.

Ultimately, it is about balancing the need to cultivate a healthy microbial environment, with staying safe at the same time. Striking that delicate balance could make the difference not only to your health and well-being now, but in the longer-term, too. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem — one that has been going on for decades and will likely continue, experts say.

For more information on how to protect your home from viruses, including the novel coronavirus, the CDC has more guidelines that you can incorporate into your home routine.

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