If you’re trying to stay safe and healthy during the coronavirus pandemic, you’re probably doing more chores now than you did two months ago. When it comes to disinfecting your space, bleach is a great option—it’s inexpensive, tried and true, and gets the job done.
If you have long considered yourself kind of a dirtbag, you might be looking at bleach with trepidation—like, Isn't it poison? On the other end of the spectrum, there are some alarming signs of perhaps somewhat… misguided confidence, based in the idea that bleach is so basic, you definitely don’t need to bother reading the instructions carefully. Neither point of view is anything to be ashamed of. I’m a generally clean person who wears a ton of white clothing, and even I find bleach intimidating and also sometimes do not totally respect its power.
If you’ve spent the last month kind of wondering what, exactly, bleach even is, or suspect you don’t know, exactly, how to use it safely and responsibly, you’ve come to the right place. Here is your ultimate guide to the very basic-feeling, very complex-feeling, cleaning agent that can serve as something of a saving grace right now—once you come to truly understand it.
(First, a quick note: If you or someone you live with is even a little bit sick, or if you have to go out into the world regularly, you should use the CDC’s guidelines for disinfecting households with people isolated in home care as your main resource.)
Learn the bleach basics.
When disinfecting your home, you’re likely going to be dealing with chlorine bleach, which is often referred to as household bleach. The active ingredient in chlorine bleach is sodium hypochlorite, usually at a concentration of 5.25 or 6 percent. (“Oxygen bleach,” on the other hand, contains sodium percarbonate. It often shows up as a “bleach alternative,” “color-safe bleach,” or stain remover by brands like OxiClean and Tide. And FYI, you should not use any sodium percarbonate laundry products for disinfecting surfaces during this pandemic, or ever.)
If you’re using chlorine bleach—like a straight-up, old-school bottle of Clorox—you need to prepare a bleach solution by diluting the bleach in water. The specific ratio will be on the product label, but, in general, you can expect to add ⅓-cup (or five tablespoons) of bleach to every gallon of water. (If you want to make less solution, you can do four teaspoons of bleach for each quart of water.) The Clorox website advises making a fresh bleach solution every day, so if you don’t have a lot of chores to do, you might want to go with the quart mixture. Once you’ve made the bleach solution, you can transfer it to a spray bottle that you label, very clearly and unmistakably, “BLEACH SOLUTION,” then spray it on surfaces to disinfect them. You can also pour a little bit of the bleach solution into a bowl or empty Tupperware container, dip a rag or cloth into it to get it wet, then use that to wipe surfaces. If you go that route, make a point to refill the smaller container with fresh bleach solution and get a new rag when going between different surfaces (like, say, the bathroom toilet to the bathroom sink).
You can buy premixed bleach solutions that are ready to use and don’t need to be diluted further. Those will typically come in a spray bottle and have something like “multi-purpose cleaner with bleach” in the name.
It’s really, really not OK to mix bleach with any other cleaning products.
I’m sorry to give you another chore at a time like this, but reading the fine print of the ingredients lists on all of your cleaning products is an extremely wise move. Ammonia is public enemy #1 here—when mixed with bleach, it produces a toxic gas that can make you very sick and possibly kill you. You probably know this, but you might not know just how common ammonia is. It shows up in a lot of products, including window and glass cleaners, toilet-bowl cleaners, and all-purpose cleaners.
Ammonia is also the main ingredient in a lot of disinfecting wipes. All of the Lysol, Clorox, and generic wipes I’ve used over the past month are actually ammonia-based, which was… a surprise to me. Make a point to read labels carefully, and look up the specific product on the manufacturer’s website if you’re not sure what’s in it.
Do not, under any circumstances, wash your produce with bleach—not even “a little.”
Cleaning fruits and vegetables with bleach is unequivocally a bad idea—it’s neither necessary nor safe. This is an instance where “I know it’s probably overkill, but I’m just doing it for my own peace of mind!!!” does not apply. Bleach isn’t a placebo. it’s literal poison. Do not do this.
It’s also not safe (or necessary!!!) to wash produce with soap and water. Do not do this, either. I hesitate to go into further detail, because it should seem obvious, but don't eat soap.
You should wash all produce before eating it, even if you plan to peel it first. (And that’s true even in non-pandemic times!) According to Cheryl Mendelson, author of the exhaustive housekeeping encyclopedia Home Comforts, all you need is running water, patience, and your own (clean!) hands. Here’s how to safely and properly get the job done:
- Remove any outer leaves.
- Wash hard-skinned produce, like apples and cucumbers, by scrubbing them vigorously under a strong stream of cold water from the tap.
- If you have a clean vegetable brush, use that (along with a hard stream of cold water) to scrub root vegetables, like potatoes and carrots. The brush will help you get all of the dirt out of the little ridges.
- Wash soft produce, like berries and lettuce, in the strongest stream of cold water they can handle. (If the produce is beginning to get mashed or torn, turn the water down a bit.) You can also put them in a colander and run cold water over them while gently agitating them or turning them over.
Take your time when washing fruits and veggies. Much like proper hand washing can’t be done in five seconds, neither can proper produce washing.
If you’re trying to disinfect a dirty surface, you need to thoroughly clean it with soap and water before you hit it with bleach.
*pushes glasses up nose* I apologize for being pedantic, but there is a difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting, and the distinction matters.
According to the CDC and EPA, “cleaning” refers to removing germs, dirt, grease, and other impurities from surfaces. Cleaning doesn’t kill germs—it simply removes them, thus lowering their overall numbers and the risk of infection. “Sanitizing” and “disinfecting” both refer to using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces. Sanitizing means killing most germs, while disinfecting means killing basically all of them. Disinfecting is what we're aiming for in the context of the coronavirus, and what the bleach is for.
The thing is, disinfecting isn’t really going to be possible if the surface itself is still dirty. Let’s say you want to kill any gross stuff that may be clinging to the Crocs you wore when you took your dog outside this morning. If there’s a big chunk of mud on the sole, you need to clean that off first (e.g., hit the shoe with a wet, soapy paper towel and rinse it with water). Once the mud is gone, then you can clean the shoe with a bleach cleaner or other disinfectant. Remember: If you use a cleaning product other than soap and water before disinfecting, make absolutely sure it doesn’t have any ingredients that could mix with the bleach and become lethal.
By the way: Mendelson says that a bleach solution (so, bleach dissolved in water) is the best option for food-contact surfaces, like utensils, plates, or cutting boards. For surfaces that won’t touch food directly, any EPA-registered disinfectant is fine. If a product is EPA-registered, that registration number will likely appear on the bottle somewhere (next to the letters “EPA”).
Make note of the contact time listed on the bleach label.
To properly disinfect something, a bleach cleaner needs to sit on the surface you’re working with for a set amount of time; it might be as short as one minute, but, in my experience, five minutes is the most common guidance on product labels. Once again, the product label will be your guide here; read it and then do what it says. While you’re there, also pay attention to any information about how much product to use (a lot of wipes will say something like “use enough wipes so the surface remains visibly wet for four minutes”) and note whether you’re supposed to rinse the surface with water and then dry it after you’ve disinfected.
Put on grungy clothes you don’t care about while you’re cleaning with bleach.
Bleach products can, unsurprisingly, remove the color from your clothes.
Open a window and/or turn on a fan when using any chemical cleaners.
Chemical fumes are no joke. They can leave you with a sore throat or headache, something you definitely don’t need right now (or… ever). So open windows when you’re cleaning (if you get cold, put on an old hoodie) and leave the room or area for the five-ish minutes that the bleach is sitting on the surface, doing its thing.
It’s also a good idea to blast fans (including the one above many stoves, which is easy to forget about). If the chemical smell is really strong, avoid using air fresheners or lighting candles in an attempt to cover the smell; scented products can emit irritants that compound the problem. Instead, just keep the fresh air flowing, and try to keep your distance from the source.
Wear gloves and take other available precautions to save your skin when using disinfectants.
Ideally, you’d put on a fresh pair of disposable gloves (like nitrile gloves) every time you do a bleach chore—and that’s true even if you’re cleaning inside a home where you’ve been hunkered for several weeks, and have strong reason to believe is COVID-19-free. The gloves are there to protect your skin, first and foremost.
If you only have non-disposable gloves, wash your gloved hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds between chores to avoid cross-contamination, and fully disinfect them after you’re done. If you happen to have goggles, put those on, too. Bleach (and ammonia) can irritate and damage your eyes and cause vision loss.
If you don’t have any gloves, be extra conscious of how bleach and other disinfecting products can damage your skin, and make a point to use a light touch when handling bleach solution–soaked rags, paper towels, etc. And, of course, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after you’re done.
On that note… do not apply any bleach or other disinfecting products directly to your skin.
Instead of trying to bleach everything in sight, prioritize cleaning your hands—and even surfaces—with soap and water.
Jane Greatorex, a virologist at Cambridge University, told National Geographic that using bleach “is like using a bludgeon to swat a fly.” According to the experts interviewed, a milder soap, like dish soap, plus water is very effective on surfaces, so you might want to go that route for some of your chores. All of the experts emphasized the role of frequent, proper hand washing in preventing the spread of the virus, and stressed that soap is really effective against SARS-CoV-2.
Disinfect your cleaning tools.
According to Mendelson, reusable cleaning implements (like dishcloths or rags) should be cleaned after a single use—so, laundered in hot water with detergent and chlorine bleach. If you don’t have a washing machine, she says to wash them by hand in hot, soapy water; rinse them; and then soak them in a fresh bleach solution for five minutes. Then rinse and air dry.
Know that bleach can actually go bad.
If you happened upon a dusty jug of Clorox under your sink last week and thought, Score!!! be sure to look for its expiration date, and don’t use any bleach that is past its date—it might not actually be effective.
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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.