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Should we be wearing face masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic? Can a cloth mask protect you against COVID-19?

by May 18, 2020

ABC Health & Wellbeing / By health reporter Olivia Willis and technology reporter Ariel Bogle
Posted 9th April 2020, updated 9th April 2020

Four emoji faces wearing facemasks.

We’re staying at home and washing our hands, but should we wear a face mask when we go to the supermarket?

This is a common question from the ABC audience, while YouTube is awash in DIY-mask videos and the subject has become a focus for misinformation and even conspiracy theories online.

We’ll try to sort fact from fiction and provide some practical advice about face masks in Australia.

Have we been ordered to wear masks in Australia?
While some social media posts claim otherwise, at this point the Australian Government has not recommended all Australians wear face masks

The official advice remains that you only need to wear a mask if you are sick with COVID-19 symptoms, or if you are looking after someone who may have COVID-19.

If you are well, according to the Department of Health, you do not need to wear a face mask.

The most effective way to protect yourself and others against COVID-19 is to frequently and thoroughly wash your hands, cover your coughs and sneezes, and maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres from others.

Coronavirus update: Follow all the latest news in our daily wrap.

What do masks do?

Face masks are used primarily by people in the community to prevent sick people from spreading infection.

COVID-19 is mostly spread via respiratory droplets — the little secretions we generate when we sneeze or cough — and face masks can help to catch some of these fluid splashes.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidelines to recommend all Americans wear cloth or fabric face coverings when they’re in a public place.

This is to reduce the spread of infection by asymptomatic people (meaning they’re sick with COVID-19 but show no symptoms), according to Abrar Chughtai, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales.

“Those asymptomatic cases can transmit infection, so due to that reason, the CDC is recommending everyone use masks, because … we don’t know who is sick and who is healthy,” Dr Chughtai said.

While there are likely to be asymptomatic cases in Australia, Dr Chughtai said community transmission levels were still “very low” (especially compared to the US), meaning widespread face mask use isn’t necessary.

“If the number of cases surge here at some stage, like in the US or China, probably then the Australian Government would also recommend everyone use masks,” he said.

Is wearing a mask enough to protect me against COVID-19?


Associate professor Craig Lockwood at the University of Adelaide’s Joanna Briggs Institute said if people in the community did wear face masks, they must think of “masks, plus”.

Research shows protection from COVID-19 requires social distancing and practising regular hand hygiene.

Not to mention, you need a mask that fits, that provides good filtration, and you must know how to take it on and off without accidental contamination.

How to remove it only touching the mask’s strings, for example, and remember to wash your hands before putting it on and after taking it off.

“If people just wear a mask and think ‘ok I’m alright now, I’m wearing a mask’, they’re wrong,” he said.

Is any mask a good mask?

Not all masks are created equal.

To begin with, there are two main types of medical-grade masks: surgical masks and respirators.

Surgical masks — the ones you typically see in public — are disposable and loose-fitting, and create a physical barrier between the mouth of the wearer and their immediate environment.

They also help to protect the wearer against large droplets and splashes of fluid from others.

Respirators (such as the P2 masks recommended for bushfire smoke) also protect against large droplets, however, they reduce the wearer’s exposure to much smaller particles, including aerosols.

To effectively wear any kind of mask, it must fit snug around the face and mouth, Dr Lockwood said.

Coronavirus questions answered
An illustration of a cell on an orange background with the word ‘coronacast’ overlayed.
Breaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC’s Coronacast podcast.

Read more
The disposable surgical masks available at pharmacies may have good filtration properties, but they are unlikely to fit tightly like a respirator.

The material structure of a mask is also a factor in its effectiveness. A proper surgical face mask has a multi-layered barrier, for example.

Dr Lockwood described it as a “three-dimensional maze” that airborne particles must weave through before they can reach the nose or mouth.

Homemade masks are not tested or standardised, so may not have that same structure.

But Dr Chughtai said cloth masks could be a solution in countries where supplies of medical grade masks had to be reserved for healthcare workers.

“Cloth masks provide less protection compared to medical masks, but they still provide some protection,” he said.

Is it OK to make a mask at home?

Many ABC readers have asked whether they should make masks at home, but it’s not so simple.

As mentioned above, surgical masks have a maze-like structure that may be difficult for people to recreate.

A doubled-over tea towel could provide filtration, for example, but it would also be hard to breathe through.

“You have to breathe in and out harder, and that causes more air flow around the sides of a homemade mask,” Dr Lockwood said.

After all, one major problem with homemade masks is the fit.

Have you seen something about coronavirus that doesn’t seem right?
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The benefit of a N95 mask is not just its filtration, but how closely it hugs the face.

“It’s got a good seal all the way around the mouth and nose, and that’s the extra bit that makes it effective compared to a homemade mask,” he said.

And while a DIY cloth mask may provide some filtration, it may not prevent the accumulation of moisture.

“Once it becomes permeable due to moisture, it loses a lot of its effectiveness,” Dr Lockwood said.

When it comes to fashioning face masks out of fabrics, Dr Chughtai said cotton blends (like cotton–polyester) are probably better than pure cotton.

But, he said, they have to be used very carefully, changed frequently (after single use or whenever they got wet), and ideally made out of multi-layered, non-porous fabrics.

Does washing a mask work?

Spraying the outside of a surgical mask with disinfectant may reduce its protective properties and make it less effective, Dr Lockwood said.

“Surgical masks are designed to be hydrophobic or repel liquid.”

Cloth or homemade masks need to be washed after every use, Dr Chughtai said.

“Don’t touch the outer surface of the mask, remove the mask from the strings, and then put it in a bag before cleaning, or directly put it into the laundry,” he added.

Can single-use masks be ‘quarantined’ and reused?

A lot of protective medical wear is designed to be disposable.

Even six hours is considered an extended lifespan for a surgical mask, according to Dr Lockwood.

“As soon as someone touches the outside of their mask, then their hands are contaminated as well,” he said.

As for quarantining, there is no evidence putting a mask in a cupboard for 14 days would eradicate the presence of the virus.

“The virus seems to be able to survive quite well on different fabrics for seven or more days, and that end point is not yet fully known,” Dr Lockwood said.

Are we being told to not wear masks to keep them for medical workers?

There is currently a worldwide shortage of face masks, and in Australia, healthcare workers are under increasing pressure due to limited supplies.

It is important medical-grade masks and other personal protective equipment are preserved for healthcare workers who face a much higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 and becoming ill.

However, limited supplies are not the only reason healthy members of the general public are not advised to wear masks, according to the WHO.

WHO’s epidemic chief Mike Ryan recently said there was no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the general population has any particular benefit.

“In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite,” he said, noting there are risks posed by improperly fitted masks or improperly putting one on or taking one off.

NSW coronavirus social-distancing rules introduced on public transport as authorities confirm one new death

by May 18, 2020

Busy train stations in NSW could be closed and a maximum of 12 people will be allowed on busses under new coronavirus social-distancing rules introduced by the State Government.

Key points:
Health authorities in NSW confirmed one new coronavirus fatality last night
It takes Australia’s death toll to 99
Sydney siders are being warned to stay off public transport at peak periods due to the virus
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said, despite a massive reduction in patronage amid the coronavirus pandemic, Sydney’s public transport network was already at capacity in peak periods, when social-distancing was taken into account.

On Friday, it’s estimated about 570,000 commuters had used public transport in the Harbour City — down from the usual 2.2 million daily users pre-pandemic.

But as the state’s coronavirus shutdown is eased, the number of people on busses, trains, light rail, metros and ferries is increasing.

In response, the State Government announced it would cap the number of people permitted on the network at any one time.

A maximum of 12 people will be allowed on busses, while only 32 passengers will be allowed on each train carriage.

Ferries will be allowed to carry 45 commuters at a time.

Coronavirus update: Follow all the latest news in our daily wrap.
NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance said he would like people to “self-regulate first and foremost”, but that transport police would also be enforcing the new caps.

“In terms of policing measures that we can put in place, we do have the capacity to look at the numbers of people who are on train platforms and entering stations,” he said.

“If we have to close the station for 15 to 20 minutes, we got that option.”

Mr Constance warned busses which were at capacity would drive past stops with waiting passengers.

The new restrictions come as health authorities in NSW confirmed one new coronavirus death, taking Australia’s total to 99.

NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant said the man in his 60s had underlying health conditions and died in hospital.

She said the man was a close contact of a known case.

In the 24 hours to 8:00pm yesterday NSW confirmed one new coronavirus case — a returning overseas traveller — from almost 6,000 tests.

A total of 48 people have died from coronavirus in NSW.

How fast is coronavirus growing around the world?

Charted growth in key countries, on a logarithmic scale.

This chart uses a logarithmic scale to highlight coronavirus growth rates. Read our explainer to understand what that means — and how COVID-19 cases are spreading around the world.

Meanwhile, Anglicare chief executive Grant Millard said if he had his time again, he would have insisted residents at Newmarch House with coronavirus be treated in hospital.

The Western Sydney nursing home has been the centre of a COVID-19 cluster, with 71 cases and 18 deaths.

Mr Millard said the decision to care for infected residents inside the home was made to try and contain the spread of the virus, and was taken after consultation with NSW Health and Federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck.

He defended the medical care given to residents inside the facility, but said “in hindsight” hospital care would have been better.

“Infection control practices … it’s a sort of a bread and butter business in a hospital setting, trying to do that in a residential aged care setting is complex,” he said.

Dr Chant said there were about 100 people being treated for COVID-19 by NSW Health.


How to keep your home clean and free from Coronavirus

by May 18, 2020

As households prepare to bunker down across Australia, attention has turned to the best ways of protecting homes from coronavirus.

Key points:
Households are a new frontier in the fight against coronavirus
Experts advise detergent and disinfectant are needed to clean surfaces
They say to target high traffic areas like doorknobs, handles and benches
Health experts have recommended a series of practical steps for maintaining good hygiene at home.

UNSW virologist Dr Sacha Stelzer-Braid is confident households can minimise their exposure if the right procedures are followed.

How do I stop COVID-19 spreading to my home?
Take off your shoes at the front door.
“We just need to be really quite vigilant and strict,” she said.

“It’s not a bad idea to take your shoes off before you enter the house, especially for children who like to jump on beds,” she said.

A woman washing her hands.

Hand washing is one of the key ways to prevent bringing coronavirus home.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
“Definitely don’t put your shoes anywhere you would touch with your hands like your coffee table.”

Wipe down items brought into the house.
Non-porous items like takeaway containers can be wiped down with detergent or soapy water and fresh produce should be washed.

What the experts are saying about coronavirus:
Economic recovery committee looks set to push for a gas-fired future
Immunity passports might create a perverse incentive for individuals to seek out infection
Wash your hands, thoroughly.
Once inside, a thorough hand wash with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds is essential.

“While the risk of transmission from anything you buy at the shops is low it’s still a good idea. We can’t hand-wash enough right now,” Dr Stelzer-Braid said.

What cleaning products work best?
Hand sanitisers and disinfectants are not enough.
Scientists have shown that COVID-19 can survive outside the body on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to 72 hours.

Coronavirus questions answered
An illustration of a cell on an orange background with the word ‘coronacast’ overlayed.
Breaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC’s Coronacast podcast.

Read more
Professor Brett Mitchell told ABC Radio Sydney that highly sought after products like hand sanitiser and disinfectant sprays were not enough to kill the virus on their own.

“Disinfectants don’t work by just splashing them about,” Professor Mitchell said.

“They can’t break through dirt and organic material that’s left on surfaces, so you need to clean that first and then use the disinfectant.”

Detergents are the key to breaking down the layers of dirt and dust to allow disinfectants to work.

Target ‘high-touch’ surfaces

A man wipes a bench top wearing gloves.

High traffic surfaces should be wiped down with disinfectant and detergent.(ABC Radio Sydney: Matt Bamford)
Wipe down doorknobs, switches, and mobile phones twice a day with detergent.
As the virus is commonly transferred by hand-to-face touching, experts recommend wiping down all surfaces that are regularly handled.

Cleaning house
If you just want to clean, then hot, soapy water is generally enough
If you want to disinfect, clean first, then disinfect with the least toxic, most biodegradable product that does the job
Make sure that whichever product you use, you don’t damage the surface you’re working on
Different advice might apply if there’s someone at home with an open wound or a poor immune system
Source: Does vinegar really kill household germs?

Dr Stelzer-Braid said those in a healthy household should be wiping down high-touch surfaces at least twice a day.

Diluted bleach and products with an

 content above 70 per cent are also effective products.

What if someone falls ill?
Quarantine sick house members for 14 days, increase cleaning.
If a member of the house is feeling unwell, Professor Mitchell said cleaning around areas they frequented needed to be more thorough.

“Think about cleaning the area within their room a little more often, using disinfectant after washing hands, and giving the taps a clean,” he said.

Should a member of the household show symptoms of COVID-19, Dr Stelzer-Braid said they should be quarantined to one room, preferably with their own bathroom.

Contact with others should be at a minimum for a fortnight and cleaning should increase to several times a day.

If possible, clothes and bed sheets — handled with gloves and surgical masks — should be washed more frequently to minimise the risk of transmission.

“It’s also always a good idea to try to flush clean air through the house so open the windows and doors,” Dr Stelzer-Braid said.

Keep clothing, cutlery separate
The clothing and cutlery used by an infected person can also spread the virus so they should be kept separate.

“A dishwasher is great, it will kill the virus. But if you don’t have one use hot water — as hot as you can handle it,” she said.

A sign in front of empty shelves at a supermarket

Disinfectants like hand sanitiser have been in high demand but can be less effective on dirty surfaces.(ABC Radio Adelaide: Spence Denny)
Coronavirus update: Follow all the latest news in our daily wrap.
Technique matters
Wiping in an ‘S’ shaped pattern prevents re-contamination and will ensure the surface area is well-covered.
Cleaning techniques can also make a difference to the risk of infection.

Disposable gloves should also be worn.

Dr Stelzer-Braid said the key was not waiting until it was too late to implement good habits.

“Getting on top of it early and having a good routine is really important,” she said.

“If [infection] does happen, and it probably will happen to someone in the household, then it’s an easier transition.”

While these measures might not guarantee freedom from infection, Dr Stelzer-Braid said they help ensure the chances of the virus entering a home are minimised.

The Most Effective Ways to Kill Coronavirus in Your Home

by May 14, 2020

By Robert Preidt
HealthDay Reporter
WEDNESDAY, March 18, 2020 (HealthDay News) — A number of home cleaning supplies may be effective against the new coronavirus, experts say.

“Not many scientific studies have asked which are the most effective disinfecting agents to use against [the new coronavirus] because it was discovered so recently,” said Siobain Duffy, an associate professor of ecology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., with expertise in emerging viruses. “So scientists are assuming that what works against other coronaviruses can work against this one.”

But each disinfecting chemical has specific instructions, another expert in microbial risk assessment pointed out.

“An important general rule is that you shouldn’t immediately wipe a cleaning solution off as soon as you’ve applied it to a surface. Let it sit there long enough to kill viruses first,” Donald Schaffner said in a university news release. He’s a professor and food microbiologist at Rutgers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends daily disinfection of often-touched surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, counter tops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks, as well as the use of detergent or soap and water on dirty surfaces prior to disinfection.

If someone in your household has flu-like symptoms, consider regularly disinfecting objects in your home, since the new coronavirus has been shown to survive for 16 hours on plastics.

Never use different cleaning agents at the same time. Some household chemicals, if mixed, can create dangerous and poisonous gases.

If you use bleach, use one-quarter cup of bleach per 1 gallon of cold water, but be sure to follow directions on the product label. Make the diluted bleach solution as needed and use within 24 hours, as its disinfecting power fades with time, Duffy and Schaffner said.

Nonporous items like plastic toys can be dipped in bleach for 30 seconds. Household surfaces that won’t be damaged by bleach should get 10 or more minutes of exposure.

Bleach solutions are hard on the skin, so don’t use them as a substitute for hand-washing and/or hand sanitizer.

The New Coronavirus Can Live On Surfaces For 2-3 Days — Here’s How To Clean Them

by May 8, 2020

When an infected person touches a surface, like a door handle, there’s a risk they leave viruses stuck there that can live on for two to three days.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
How long can the new coronavirus live on a surface, like say, a door handle, after someone infected touches it with dirty fingers? A study out this week finds that the virus can survive on hard surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours.

“This virus has the capability for remaining viable for days,” says study author, James Lloyd-Smith, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches how pathogens emerge.

Although the World Health Organization had previously estimated the survival time on surfaces to be a “few hours to a few days” based on research on other coronaviruses, this is the first study by scientists at a federal laboratory to test the actual virus causing the current pandemic, SARS-CoV-2.

The study is out in preprint form and expected to be published.

Interestingly, some surfaces are less hospitable to SARS-CoV-2. For instance, the virus remained viable on copper for only about four hours.

It’s useful to know how long it can stay alive of course, because the virus can contaminate surfaces when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Virus-laden respiratory droplets can land on doorknobs, elevator buttons, handrails or countertops — and spread the virus to anyone who then touches these surfaces.

To test the survival time of the virus, scientists at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, part of the National Institutes of Health, conducted a series of experiments comparing the novel coronavirus with the SARS virus (a similar coronavirus that led to an outbreak back in 2003).

In the lab, “they’d pick up the virus from the surfaces that had been contaminated and then put [the virus] into cell cultures,” he explains. Then the researchers documented whether the virus could infect those cells in the dish. They did this multiple times, for both the viruses, at various time points.

“Big picture, the [two viruses] look very similar to each other in terms of their stability in these environments,” Lloyd-Smith says.

Lloyd-Smith says these findings establish a good ballpark estimate for the survivability of the virus on these surfaces. “In a laboratory experiment, the conditions are pretty carefully controlled and constant,” he says. By comparison, “in the real world, conditions fluctuate” — conditions like temperature, humidity and light. So the survivability may vary, too.

For instance, if the virus contaminates a sunny windowsill or countertop, it may not last as long.

“Ultraviolet light can be a really powerful disinfectant and we get a lot of UVA light from the sun,” says Daniel Kuritzkes an infectious disease expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Direct sunlight can help rapidly diminish infectivity of viruses on surfaces,” he says. He was not involved in the new research.

Much is still unknown about the virus’s survivability on other types of surfaces like clothing, or carpeting. Kuritzkes says that based on prior research, it seems that “flat surfaces and hard surfaces are more friendly to viruses than cloth or rough surfaces.”

And how about food? “Food is probably not a major risk factor here,” Kuritzkes says. That’s because most infection from the new coronavirus starts with the respiratory system, not the digestive tract. So infection comes from getting the virus on your hands and then touching your own eyes, nose and mouth. “Of more concern would be utensils, and plates and cups that might be handled by a large number of people in a cafeteria setting, for example,” he says.

So, what can you do to protect yourself? Well, you’ve likely already heard this. Wash your hands. And wipe down shared surfaces.

Follow these tips for cleaning surfaces — your own and public ones.

Wipe right: Use ammonia or alcohol-based products. Skip the baby wipes

Maintaining awareness of the many surfaces you touch during the day and cleaning them with approved products will help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Max Posner/NPR
“The good thing about COVID-19 is that it does not require any unique cleaning chemicals to disinfect hands and surfaces,” says Andrew Janowski, an infectious disease expert at Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the current coronavirus.

Good old-fashioned soap and water does the trick.

You can also use a wipe, but make sure you use an alcohol-based wipe, not baby wipes, which may not be effective, Janowski says.

And given that wipes are hard to come by at many stores at the moment, you can instead buy an EPA-registered disinfecting spray, such as one on this list from the Center for Biocide Chemistries, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by Dr. David Warren, an infectious disease specialist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Or make a bleach-based spray yourself. You can make a DIY cleaning spray by mixing 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water, according to the CDC.

Wash. Your. Hands. (Seriously!)

Yes, you’ve heard it a hundred times. So do it, already! Especially after you’ve been out in public, touching a lot of surfaces. Lather up with soap and scrub for 20 seconds. (Two times the “Happy Birthday” song, or sing “Baby Shark” — you’ll get midway through Daddy Shark).

And be thorough. Spend some time rubbing the backs of your hands as well as the front, interlace your fingers and pull them through, soap up each thumb with the opposite hand and, finally, to keep your fingernails virus-free, lightly scratch them against your palm. (For more detail, listen to NPR Short Wave’s Maddie Sofia give a lesson here.)

Hand-washing is so important that if everyone followed good hand-washing hygiene, it could prevent an estimated 1 in 5 respiratory infections, according to the CDC — that’s the equivalent of about 6 million cases of the flu this year.

Hand sanitizer: DIY in a pinch?

Hand sanitizer is effective at killing viruses, too, although hand-washing is preferred, according to the CDC. If you can’t get to a sink, hand sanitizer is a good backup plan — just make sure it’s at least 60% alcohol.

Given the shortage of hand sanitizers in some stores and reports of price-gouging online, there’s lots of interest in DIY hand sanitizer. We’ve seen lots of recipes calling for a combination of rubbing alcohol and aloe vera gel, like this one from Wired.

“On paper, if a recipe can maintain the alcohol concentration above 60%, it should be effective against SARS-COV-2,” says Janowski, but he says getting it just right might be trickier than you think. If in doubt when making these homemade sanitizers, soap and water are still effective against the virus.

Your smartphone is like a third hand. Wipe it down

One way to fend off germs: Clean your phone. Your phone is your “third hand”; one that harbors the multitude of germs and bacteria we come into contact with each day.
Photo Illustration by Max Posner/NPR
So you’ve just washed your hands and you’re feeling squeaky clean. Then you pick up your cellphone, and guess what? It’s covered with potential pathogens.

“Studies have shown that smartphones surfaces are covered in bacteria, including bacteria that can cause serious infections like Staphylococcus species,” says Judy Guzman-Cottrill, an infectious disease expert at Oregon Health & Science University.

And phones are often held close to the eyes, nose and mouth, where germs can enter the body. So wipe it down often.

And you don’t have to rub down your phone for long if you’re using an alcohol-based sanitizer. “Just a few seconds should be sufficient to disinfect,” says Janowski.

Try this stinky trick to stop touching your face

Your face offers multiple entry points for the virus. So every time you touch your eyes, nose and mouth with grubby hands, you risk infection.

“If you have touched a table or a doorknob or some surface contaminated [with the virus] and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you have a chance of inoculating yourself with the virus,” Kuritzkes says.

But, as a matter of habit, most of us touch our faces multiple times an hour without even realizing it.

So, here’s an idea. “After you wash your hands really well, touch a piece of raw onion,” says Catherine Belling of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. With this strong smell on your fingers, “you’ll notice when you touch your face,” she says. Sure, it may make you a tad antisocial, but it could be a good way to train yourself to touch less.

Do Disinfectant Wipes Kill Viruses?

by February 27, 2018

Scouring the house (or the internet) for cleaning solutions as quarantine continues? Before you start wiping surfaces with just any disinfectant or antibacterial wipe make sure they’re the real deal.

By Melanie Rud April 29, 2020
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

Day number…okay, you’ve probably lost count of how long the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent quarantine has been going on—and odds are you’re getting frighteningly close to the bottom of your container of Clorox wipes. And so, you’ve pressed pause on your puzzle (or some other new hobby) and started scrounging around for alternative cleaning solutions. (P.S. Here’s what you need to know about vinegar and steam in regards to their ability to kill viruses.)

That’s when you spot it: a promising packet of miscellaneous wipes lodged in the back of your cabinet. But wait, are generic disinfectant wipes even effective against the coronavirus? What about other viruses and bacteria? And how are those different than an antibacterial wipe, if at all?

Here’s what you need to know about different types of cleaning wipes and the best ways to use them, particularly when it comes to the coronavirus COVID-19.

Cleaning, Disinfecting, and Sanitizing All Mean Different Things

First, it’s important to point out that there are distinct differences between some of the words you might be using interchangeably when it comes to household products. “‘Cleaning’ removes dirt, debris, and some germs while ‘sanitizing’ and ‘disinfecting’ specifically address germs,” explains Donald W. Schaffner, Ph.D., a professor at Rutgers University who researches quantitative microbial risk assessment and cross-contamination. “Sanitizing” lowers the number of germs to safe levels but doesn’t necessarily kill them, while “disinfecting” calls upon chemicals to kill the majority of germs present, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Cleaning and sanitizing are two things you should be doing regularly to keep your home generally clean and free of dirt, allergens, and day-to-day germs. Disinfecting, on the other hand, is something you should do if you think COVID-19 or another virus is present, he adds. (Related: How to Keep Your Home Clean and Healthy if You’re Self-Quarantined Because of Coronavirus.)

“Disinfectant claims are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because they’re actually considered to be pesticides,” says Schaffner. Now, don’t freak out, okay? Sure the p-word might conjure images of chemical-ridden grass, but it actually just refers to “any substance or mixture of substances intended to prevent, destroy, repel, or mitigate any pest (including microorganisms but excluding those in or on living humans or animals),” according to the EPA. In order to be approved and available for purchase, a disinfectant must undergo rigorous laboratory testing that proves safety and effectiveness and includes its ingredients and intended uses on the label. Once it gets the green light, the product receives a specific EPA registration number, which is also included on the label.

What Are Disinfectant Wipes, Exactly?

Simply put, these are disposable, single-use wipes pre-soaked in a solution that contains a disinfecting ingredient such as quaternary ammonium, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium hypochlorite. A few brands and products you’ve probably seen on store shelves: Lysol Disinfecting Wipes (Buy It, $5,, Clorox Disinfecting Wipes (Buy It, $6 for 3-pack,, Mr. Clean Power Multi-Surface Disinfecting Wipes.

So remember that if a product (wipe or otherwise) wants to call itself a disinfectant, it must be able to kill viruses and bacteria according to the EPA, but does that include the coronavirus? The answer is still TBD, but it’s looking likely, says Schaffner. There are currently 392 products on the EPA’s list of registered disinfectants for use against the novel coronavirus—some of which are, in fact, disinfectant wipes. Here’s the catch: “These products have not been tested against the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, but because of their activity against related viruses [they] are believed to be effective here,” explains Schaffner.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Products

The primary difference between how you use these various kinds of wipes? Contact time—aka how long the surface you’re wiping down needs to remain wet to be effective, according to the EPA.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, you might’ve had a pack of disinfectant wipes on hand to quickly wipe down the kitchen counter, bathroom sink, or toilet—and that’s totally fine. But a swift swipe across the surface is considered cleaning, not disinfecting.

To reap the disinfecting benefits of these wipes, the surface needs to stay wet for much longer than a few seconds. For example, the instructions for Lysol Disinfecting Wipes state that the surface needs to remain wet for four minutes after application to truly disinfect the area. That means, for full effectiveness, you’re going to have to wipe down the counter and then may even need to use another cloth if you notice the area is starting to dry out before those four minutes are up, says Schaffner.

The instructions for many disinfectant wipes also say to rinse any surface that might touch food with water afterward. This is especially important if you’re using these in your kitchen, as it implies that there may be some disinfectant residue leftover that you don’t want to get into your food, says Schaffner. (Despite what anyone may have said on the topic, you should NEVER ingest disinfectants—or use them on your groceries—so best to rinse the area thoroughly before you start cooking dinner.)

Sounds like you have little room for error here, right? Well, good news: going through the disinfecting process isn’t always necessary. If your household doesn’t have a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case or someone isn’t sick in general, “these strong measures are not needed, and you can just continue to clean your house the way you usually do,” says Schaffner. Any kind of multi-purpose spray cleaner, cleaning wipes, or soap and water will do the trick, so no need to stress over finding those coveted Clorox Disinfecting Wipes. (If your household does have a case of COVID-19, here’s how to care for someone with coronavirus.)

What About Antibacterial Wipes?

In general, disinfectant wipes are used on hard surfaces and antibacterial wipes (such as Wet Ones) are for cleaning your skin. Common active ingredients in these include benzethonium chloride, benzalkonium chloride, and alcohol. Antibacterial wipes, as well as antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers, are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because they’re classified as a drug, explains Schaffner. Like the EPA, the FDA also makes sure the product is safe and effective before allowing it to hit the market.

As for COVID-19? Well, the jury is out whether or not antibacterial wipes or antibacterial hand soap are effective against the coronavirus. “A product that claims to be antibacterial means only that it’s tested against bacteria. It may or may not be effective against viruses,” says Schaffner.

That being said, washing your hands with soap and H20 is still considered one of the best ways to protect against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). (A hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is recommended if washing your hands is not an option; antibacterial wipes, however, are not currently included in the CDC’s recommendations.) While you definitely don’t want to use any kind of disinfectant wipe on your skin (the ingredients are way too harsh), you could, in theory [and] if you were really in a crunch, use an antibacterial wipe on a hard surface, says Schaffner. Still, you’re better off saving it for personal use, he adds, and relying on plain old soap and water or, if necessary, an EPA-certified disinfectant for household purposes.

“Remember that your single biggest risk of contracting COVID-19 is personal contact with an infected individual,” says Schaffner. Which is why, unless there is a confirmed or suspected case of coronavirus in your home, practicing social distancing and good personal hygiene (handwashing, not touching your face, wearing a mask in public) is more important than what you use to wipe down your counters. (Up next: Should You Wear a Face Mask for Outdoor Runs During the Coronavirus Pandemic?)

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