Probably one of the most disturbing details to recently emerge about COVID-19 is just how long the virus can live on surfaces. Another scary thought? The fact that an estimated 42% of us aren’t even cleaning those surfaces properly.
This is all particularly unsettling considering that highly trafficked places like grocery stores and gas stations are teeming with germs, and now you run the danger of bringing it all home with you—on your clothing, your bags, your phone, and more.
We wanted to find out just how long the virus can survive on various household surfaces, and how to stop it from spreading throughout your home. So we called on several seasoned experts for advice. Here’s everything you need to know about keeping your home virus-free at the height of the outbreak.
How long the virus survives—and where it thrives
The novel coronavirus can survive on surfaces anywhere from hours to days.
The latest information is that it can last 24 hours on cardboard, 48 to 72 hours on plastic, and 48 to 72 hours on stainless steel, says Dr. Reuben Elovitz, internist and CEO at Private Health Dallas, who cited a recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine.
The duration also depends on a few other factors, like temperature and whether a surface is prone to holding moisture.
“Wooden handles, for example, are more likely to be damp than metal under normal conditions—and damp conditions can enable many infectious agents to thrive,” explains molecular biologist Dr. Tracey Evans. “Furthermore, a warm room is more favorable for many pathogens than a cold one.”
Regardless of what kinds of temperatures and surfaces you have in your home, there are things you can do to keep these dangerous pathogens at bay.
Ditch germs at the door
Unwanted germs are getting into your home the same way you are: through the front door. By taking a few precautions in your entryway, you can prevent them from spreading farther.
“Disinfect things immediately after they come into the home,” says immunologist and telemedicine expert Dr. Tania Elliott. “Especially if you’ve gone outside or brought in any food or packages.”
Kick off dirty shoes at the door, wipe down any bags, and add a trash bin near your entryway for paper or plastic packaging that may have been exposed.
Remove dirty clothes immediately
Ditching dirty packaging isn’t the only thing you should shed at the door. After all, you wouldn’t want to forget about the germs you might be wearing.
“We recommend putting clothes directly into the hamper immediately upon entering the home, since the coronavirus lives on fabrics and porous surfaces,” says Vanesa Levine, chief marketing officer for HCH Management. “Do not shake dirty laundry before washing—to avoid self-contamination—and wash it in the warmest possible water.”
Start a clean-hands routine in the entryway
You’ll also want to get in the habit of disinfecting your hands (and phone) whenever you get home.
“I created a station by my front door with a little table and a Lazy Susan that has homemade hand sanitizer and lotion, alcohol wipes for phones, and a small garbage can,” says Katy Winter of Katy’s Organized Home. “When my kids walk in the house, they know the protocol before they start touching everything.”
Trap particles before they spread
Another way to keep germs from getting in? Use doormats in high-traffic areas—and vacuum them frequently.
“Many people think that bare floors are cleaner than carpet, but dust, allergens, and dirt particles settle on hard surfaces and get stirred back into the air more easily the next time there’s activity in the room,” explains Jotham Hatch, vice president of training and business development for Chem-Dry. “Rugs placed on these surfaces act as filters, trapping particles until it is time to vacuum.”
Focus on cleaning high-touch surfaces
Before you go to town cleaning every last surface in your home, take a moment to assess which ones need it most. According to the experts, you’ll want to focus on high-touch surfaces above all else—since keeping those clean will stop the transmission of germs to other areas of the home.
High-touch surfaces include all the things you touch the most—like doorknobs, light switches, cabinet pulls and handles, railings, faucets, remote controls, and even tabletops.
Use effective cleaning products
When it comes to actually cleaning these areas properly, make sure you’re using the right products.
“When killing surface germs or viruses is your goal, look for products that contain a disinfectant,” says Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the American Cleaning Institute.
Some of the more frequently used active ingredients are sodium hypochlorite, ethanol, pine oil, hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, and quaternary ammonium compounds.
Still not sure what to use? Check out this list from the EPA.
Disinfect things the right way
You’ll want to follow these cleaning guidelines: Pre-clean any hard surfaces, such as countertops, prior to disinfecting to remove excess dirt or grime, Sansoni says. Then disinfect following the instructions on the product label.
But this next part is key.
“After using a disinfectant spray or a disinfecting wipe on a surface, you will need to wait anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes for the product to effectively kill a germ or virus,” Sansoni says. “The key is to check the product label, because the wait times can vary.”
If you’re cleaning something that belongs to young children or comes in direct contact with food, rinse with water after the product dries, Sansoni recommends.
A final note: Be sure to read labels before you start cleaning.
“The reality is some surfaces are just not made for true disinfection,” says Melissa Homer, chief cleaning officer for MaidPro. “Fine wood tables, antiques, and furniture with nonwashable paint can’t be soaked in disinfectant. For those items, your best option is to keep them as clean as you can—after all, plain old soap removes 97% of germs—and to not touch them unless you are sure you have washed your hands recently.”
Set up a cleaning schedule
Once you’re armed with the right cleaning products, you’ll want to set up a cleaning schedule that makes sense for your family.
“Obviously, cleaning frequency depends on household members’ work and lifestyle,” says Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of health science for Ball State University. “If you have someone who’s a healthcare worker or still working outside, aggressive measures will be needed.”
Khubchandani recommends doing laundry and vacuuming at least two to three times per week, and disinfecting cellphones three to four times per day. And then for everything else?
“At the very minimum, clean surfaces every six to eight hours,” Evans says. “But keep in mind, this may not be nearly enough if multiple people have contact.”