The CDC relaxed its rules on cleaning to prevent COVID-19, saying intense disinfectants are likely doing us more harm than good

By Hilary Brueck

If you're still disinfecting just about everything you own to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it's time to stop. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance Monday for how to clean and disinfect surfaces properly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at home and in facilities.

The agency now says, by and large, good old fashioned cleaning with soap and water or detergent can protect against COVID-19 infections just fine.

You don't need to waste time trying to completely obliterate this virus on surfaces using sprays and disinfectant. 

"In most situations, regular cleaning of surfaces with soap and detergent — not necessarily disinfecting those surfaces — is enough to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Monday during the White House's COVID-19 briefing. 

A growing body of research shows that regular soap and water cleaning is usually enough to wash away this virus and prevent infections. It's more important to worry about wearing a mask in public and avoiding person to person spread of COVID-19 through close contact. 

"People can be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces, but I mean, really the risk is low, based on the science," a CDC spokesperson who helped develop the agency's new guidance told Insider. 

The risk of contracting COVID-19 from surfaces is low

Effective cleaning removes germs from surfaces. Disinfecting goes a step further, by killing them on the spot.

But disinfection for the coronavirus, which is a respiratory virus that is most often spread through person to person contact, is not really necessary most of the time. 

Former Florida state toxicologist David Krause, an independent expert who used to chair the American Industrial Hygiene Association's indoor environmental quality committee, generally agrees with the CDC's new stance on cleaning and disinfecting.

"I'm a full advocate of soap and water effective cleaning," he told Insider. "You're better off trying to physically capture [the coronavirus] and remove it than you are trying to destroy its genetic capabilities."

Applying disinfectant without properly cleaning surfaces first "consumes most of the disinfectant," Krause said, and just spreads germs around.

The CDC raised doubts about high-tech UV disinfectants

What's more, the CDC says that there's no good evidence that "alternative" disinfection methods, like UV radiation, LED blue lights, or sanitizing "tunnels" really work to kill the virus.

Many so-called "disinfectants" made specifically for electronics aren't fully effective against the coronavirus either, since they contain alcohol to dry quickly. (Disinfectants usually need to stay wet for several minutes to take full effect.)

If you are going to disinfect, the CDC says read the product label first, follow the manufacturer's instructions for safe use, and wear gloves. 

Disinfection without proper ventilation is bad for our health

Fogging, fumigation, and other such theatrical performances of industrial cleanliness can easily do more harm than good, when it comes to human health. 

"Fogging disinfectants willy-nilly in a building is usually ineffective," Krause said. 

That's because most foggers are designed to work in very specific (high) concentrations, and on very specific surfaces. Fogging at the levels needed to truly nix viruses from a space can make it difficult for people to breathe.

"Disinfectants can trigger an asthma attack," the US Environmental Protection Agency says on its website.

Calls to poison control centers nationwide from exposure to disinfectants have been on the rise during the pandemic, as people have tried to improvise their own ways to get rid of the virus, often using their cleaning products in ways that are not recommended.

Disinfection should exclusively target high-touch surfaces and common spaces where strangers meet 

The CDC said that disinfection of shared spaces may be beneficial if it's in an area where COVID-19 case rates are high, it's not easy to wash your hands, or there are vulnerable populations using a space. 

"If people are caring for people who are sick, that's constant exposure to infectious virus," a CDC spokesperson said. "People should be cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces and things that that person has touched."

Krause recommends taking special care with high-touch surfaces including TV remotes, doorknobs, kitchen counters, and shared bathrooms. 

"Hopefully, there's less burden on facility managers and teachers and just people trying to follow our guidance," the CDC spokesperson said. "They'll realize 'OK, essentially in most cases, routine or daily cleaning is enough.'"

How to safely use disinfectant products if you have to

According to Krause, "most cleaning and disinfecting products are very safe, if used in accordance with the label."

Still, he stresses that if you are disinfecting at home, you should: 

  1. Make sure to properly clean the surfaces you're disinfecting first. (So the disinfectant can then actually do its work).
  2. Read the product instructions in full, so that you know how the disinfectant works (most will need to stay wet for at least a few minutes).
  3. And finally, "open up the windows, open up the doors" to ventilate the space as you're cleaning and disinfecting, Krause said.