Yes, There's a Difference Between Cleaning & Disinfecting

A handy guide to keep your home coronavirus-free.

March 24, 2020
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.

Our new reality goes something like this: Manically check your temperature one minute, save a recipe on Instagram the next, figure out how to manage your kid’s Google Hangout date (and incessant need for snacks) … and manage the fact that you’re doing this all on a conference call.

These are unprecedented times, but there are a few things we can do to fight the fight. Number one: Stay at least six feet apart from other people in order to flatten the coronavirus curve. Two: Wash your hands, and wash them often to the 30-second jingle of your choice. Three: Protect your home from COVID-19.

There’s new information coming out every day about the novel coronavirus, which can definitely feel overwhelming. So to make things a little easier, we’ve put together this guide on the proper way to disinfect your home of coronavirus germs. Grab your gloves, get a playlist queued up, and fight on.

Why Clean?

While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the coronavirus mainly spreads through respiratory droplets, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that COVID-19 can live on surfaces like plastic and stainless steel for up to three days. This means it’s possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching an infected surface and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes. It’s for this reason the CDC says, “cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.”

Cleaning vs. Disinfecting: What You Need to Know

When it comes to home maintenance, there’s a big difference between wiping up coffee stains on your countertops and destroying a nasty pandemic-causing virus. In the case of the flu, or now coronavirus, the end goal is to disinfect the surface—that's what kills viruses. But here’s the catch: You can’t really disinfect without cleaning first.

“Cleaning is removing dirt from a surface. It’s what you’re doing when washing with soap and water or a detergent,” explains Brian Sansoni, senior vice president of communications at the American Cleaning Institute, “it may not kill bacteria or viruses, but it sends them down the drain, or wiped off on a paper towel or cloth that gets thrown away or washed.”

To actually kill surface germs or viruses, you need products that contain a disinfectant, Sansoni emphasizes. The easiest way to find out if a product is a disinfectant? Read the label. Some of the more frequently used active ingredients are sodium hypochlorite, ethanol, pine oil, hydrogen peroxide, citric acid and quats (quaternary ammonium compounds).

Choose a Disinfectant That Really Kills

When shopping for a coronavirus-level disinfectant, any ol’ bottle won’t do, as certain disinfectants are formulated to be more effective against specific germs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has compiled a list of products specifically qualified for use against COVID-19. These products have met all government requirements for effectiveness, and will contain an EPA Registration Number on the label.

Just spraying on the right products isn’t enough to get the job done either. “You must follow the product label instructions exactly for the disinfectant to be effective,” says Sansoni. For example, certain products might need to stay wet and be left on the surface for ten minutes in order to kill the germs.

For a disinfectant you likely already have, the CDC says “unexpired household bleach will be effective when properly diluted” for certain items like toys and dishes. To make a bleach cleaning solution, mix 5 tablespoons (⅓ cup) bleach per gallon of water; or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. Since bleach is a harsh chemical, make sure you’re following the manufacturer's directions, properly ventilating the area, and keeping the kiddos away. Rubbing alcohol is another product you probably have sitting in your stash of medical supplies. In order for alcohol to be effective against the coronavirus, it has to be 70 percent alcohol.

Leave these homemade solutions on as long as noted in the following sections, and let the surface air-dry, making sure it stays wet for as long as recommended on the product label. This is critical in ensuring that the proper germ or virus kill takes place as intended.

High-Touch Areas

“Common sense cleaning of surfaces around the house is key,” says Sansoni. “You don’t have to ‘panic clean’—just use the products as directed on the label.” He recommends paying daily attention to anything that is touched frequently. This includes doorknobs, light switches, faucet handles, tables, hard-backed chairs, stair rails, remotes, desks, toilets, and sinks.

Because the kitchen and bathroom are particularly busy areas of the home, pay extra attention to these zones. The CDC recommends either wearing disposable gloves that can be tossed after cleaning and disinfecting, or dedicating a pair of gloves for use during this time period. “For hard surfaces, pre-clean prior to disinfecting to remove any excess dirt or grime,” says Sansoni. “Then disinfect following the instructions on the product label, which usually include leaving the surface wet for a few minutes to properly kill germs. When disinfecting food contact surfaces or toys, rinse with water afterwards, they dry.” Once done, clean the gloves while your hands are still inside, and wash your hands immediately after the gloves come off.


Cleaning your dishes with dish soap by hand or in a dishwasher will continue to remove most germs, Sansoni says, but “to fully disinfect, wash dishes as you normally would, then soak them in a solution of 2 teaspoons of bleach per gallon of water for about two minutes, then let air dry.” Bleach shouldn't be used on non-stainless steel, silver, or aluminum.

Clothing & Linens

For towels, sheets, clothing, and other linens, the CDC again recommends using gloves. To minimize spreading the virus through the air, resist the temptation to shake out dirty laundry. And, if you’re not using gloves, wash your hands after transferring clothes from the washer to the dryer.

Launder items using the warmest setting possible and fully dry them in the dryer. According to the CDC, you can, in fact, launder items from a sick person with everyone else’s stuff, since the soap and heat will kill the germs. Once done, clean and disinfect clothing hampers, and if using a bag liner, throw that in the laundry, as well. Another option, says Sansoni, is to also use regular bleach or color-safe bleach.

Kids’ Toys

It’s no secret your little ones tend to be germ magnets, and by extension, so are their toys. Give the toys a preliminary clean, then disinfect with either hydrogen peroxide or bleach. According to Clorox, prep toys by wiping them with a wet sponge, then mix 1/2 cup of Clorox regular bleach with 1 gallon of water. Soak colorfast plastic toys in the solution for 5 minutes, then rinse off well with warm water.


Let’s face it. The items we touch the most are our smartphones, airpods, tablets, and laptops. When it comes to cleaning these devices, you don’t need to splurge on any fancy UV light sanitizers—alcohol wipes do the trick. According to recently updated messaging from Apple, “using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, you may gently wipe the exterior surfaces of your iPhone.” This advice applies to most non-porous tech products as well; however, the company stresses not to use bleach or submerge your iPhone in any cleaning agents. Noted.

How are you tackling the germs in your home? Let us know in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Tina Chadha

Written by: Tina Chadha


BreeW September 10, 2020
How long do you let it soak??! On the phone screen to kill the virus when using 70% isopropyl
Lisa D. March 29, 2020
Over and over in articles and discussion with experts and on the CDC site the information on Covid 19 say that this virus has a lipid layer that is penetrated by soap and and that is the reason why soap and water is so effective in disabling it on our hands and surfaces--the reason for example that we do not need to use antibacterial soap on our hands, which is harsher when regular soap. I have also heard doctors warning folks repeatedly about over doing on bleach which is very harsh on the lungs and could be causing damage to lungs of folks over using it. Given that this is a respiratory disease we ant to keep our lungs healthy. Cleaning for a bacteria, is different than cleaning and disinfecting for a virus of this type. I wonder if the recommendation for soaking the dishes after washing in a bleach solution is the writer conflating recommendations for several different situations. I have not seen that recommendation anywhere for Covid 19, nor does it seem to make sense given the other information that I have read myself on the CDC and other reliable sites.
Heather M. March 29, 2020
If we're not going out anywhere, then why do we need to be disinfecting our homes? This doesn't make much sense
Parrish N. April 3, 2020
If you are not going out at all then you dont you have no worries.
Kt4 March 24, 2020
You lost the formula for properly diluting bleach but you don't say how long the surface needs to stay wet. It's like that in every article I've read about disinfecting and is very frustrating. Please add that information to this article.
Jessica G. March 25, 2020
Yes, but if you are making your own cleaning solution there are no directions! Thank you Caroline M. for pursuing this - it is frustrating! We count on you Food52❤️