Household Disinfectants 3/20/20

A Bit of Science with Richard Bleil

Although it may come as a surprise to some, America is facing a challenge with a new viral infection called Corvid-19, which is sometimes called the “Coronavirus”. What may also strike you as surprising is that, as a result, the US is facing an issue of hoarding.

Okay, clearly, I’m being sarcastic here. If you have been out at all you have seen the ramifications of the panic we are in. A friend of mine sent pictures from a megastore of empty shelves, telling me that it’s just plain creepy. And it is.

Some of the things being hoarded makes no sense to me at all. People are hoarding toilet paper. I mean, seriously? How many rolls of toilet paper do people go through in a month? I have one of those large Toilet paper packs, with twenty-four triple rolls (don’t mug me for it), but I didn’t buy it before the virus hit. Heck, I bought it, literally, last year and the only reason it’s still unopened is because I haven’t needed it. Why would I panic and buy eight more packs?

Okay, on to more important hoarding problems. One of the things being hoarded are disinfectants and hand sanitizers. Because of this, people who were not fast enough are having a hard time finding it. The irony, of course, is that they are hoarding these products because they want to remain safe, but since these are not spread out evenly, it actually puts everybody at more risk. If everybody stayed calm and just went on with life as normal, ironically, everybody would be safer.

But, here’s the practical part of this post. If, indeed, you are out of sanitizers, what can you use? As a chemist, I think I can help you out with some common household products.

First of all, let’s distinguish between disinfecting on your person, versus disinfecting around the home. To disinfect yourself, just use soap and water. Yup, plain old soap and water with appropriate washing techniques. You, no doubt, have seen many sources on proper technique, but here are a few additional healthy hints:

1. Don’t use hot (or cold) water. The first thought many people have is that hot water will help kill the microbes, but studies have shown that hot water actually kills fewer germs than warm comfortable water. That’s because when water is too hot, we don’t wash our hands as long, and for the time that we do wash our hands, the higher temperature water really doesn’t harm germs. So, a nice, comfortable warm temperature is best.

2. Be sure to rub your hands together when washing. Studies have shown that this mechanical action actually goes far in killing and removing germs, probably as much as or more than the use of soap.

3. Speaking of soap, use soap. Use bar soap, in fact. Pump soap is watered down to make it liquid, and you get germs from other users from, you guessed it, the pump itself. Germs have never been shown to transfer from one user to another through bar soap, because soap kills any germs on it. And avoid anti-bacterial soap; just plain old bar soap. Anti-bacterial soap has no benefits at all beyond soap except as an advertising gimmick and excuse to charge more for the soap. Plain old soap and water is just as effective.

4. Don’t bother with antimicrobial gels after you wash your hands. This gel isn’t as effective as just a good hand washing, and you get germs from the container. It’s actually an expensive, ineffective and redundant step even in the best of days.

Okay, around the home. I’ve seen things that do and do not work in other posts so there are a few things to keep in mind. First, understand that most antimicrobial hand gels are actually just a gel form of alcohol. Yes, the same alcohol in alcoholic beverages. Other products, like bleach, are rather more harsh. Here are a few things that can be used to clean surfaces around the home.

1. Bleach oxidizes microbes. It’s superb at, frankly, just burning them up. You’ll want to dilute it because pure bleach is very corrosive to your hands and will destroy colors. There has been some bad things said by people pushing their own products, but when bleach acts, it just turns into harmless dilute salt water. The biggest danger is if you mix it with other household products which can produce highly dangerous side products such as chlorine gas, so use it diluted in water with no additional chemicals. Trust me; it’s effective enough as it is.

2. If you’re out of bleach, try hydrogen peroxide. It’s far more expensive than bleach, and far more dilute, so I would use hydrogen peroxide full strength. Even if you have hydrogen peroxide around the house, it’s probably only in small quantities, so this would not work for large scale jobs. By the way, hydrogen peroxide breaks down over time, so if it’s old, it’s probably no longer effective.

3. Alcohol. Yup, drinking alcohol, so while this crisis continues, try cutting back on drinking at home. Go with the stronger liquors, and I recommend something like vodka or whiskey that will not leave a sticky film behind. I think you could probably safely dilute vodka or whiskey a little bit, but personally I wouldn’t dilute it more than by half.

4. Rubbing alcohol. I use rubbing alcohol as my aftershave (it burns a little bit, but it is fragrance free and the active ingredient in regular aftershaves). Rubbing alcohol is typically 70%, so I would not dilute it much further if at all.

All of these can be put into a spray bottle, and they are most effective if you let them sit on the surface long enough to do their things (a few minutes).

I have seen the following suggestions, but THESE ARE NOT EFFECTIVE:

1. Do NOT use vinegar, dilute or full strength, as an antimicrobial. Vinegar’s active ingredient is acetic acid, which is an organic acid. While the lower pH might effect some microbes, most are not bothered by the very slightly acidic nature of vinegar. It is a very good cleaning agent when diluted, but it does not disinfect.

2. Do NOT use a mixture of baking soda and vinegar. This is a cool demonstration for kids (and safe to perform at home) because it’ gets all fizzy and cool, but honestly, all it’s doing is neutralizing the acetic acid. If vinegar has any effect on microbes at all, mixing it with baking soda will destroy what little effectiveness it already has. Highly concentrated salt solutions will disinfect (heck, even pure honey will disinfect), but it will leave a mess behind that has to be cleaned back up. Don’t waste your time or money.

I hope this helps.

2 thoughts on “Household Disinfectants 3/20/20

  1. “Anti-bacterial soap has no benefits at all beyond soap except as an advertising gimmick and excuse to charge more for the soap.”
    I believe you’re wrong on this one. I had a skin infection a few years back. The doctor instructed me to use an anti-bacterial soap to assist with the killing of the infection.


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