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Rutgers Expert Discusses the Dangers of Homemade Cleaning and Disinfecting Products Amid Coronavirus Crisis

Homemade cleaning supplies
Common DIY cleaning or disinfecting products have not been demonstrated to be effective against viruses such as COVID-19.

With cleaning and disinfecting products running out of stock due to the coronavirus outbreak, many people have resorted to trying to make their own. But mixing chemicals in the wrong way can at best create an ineffective product – and at worst result in poisoning. 

Robert Laumbach, a Rutgers occupational and an environmental medicine expert, and associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI), discusses the dangers of DIY cleaning products and how the public can safely make their own.

How safe are DIY cleaning or disinfecting products?

Many people, either facing a scarcity of commercial cleaning products or acting in the belief that homemade products are better, have turned to DIY alternatives made from ingredients such as vinegar, essential oils and baking soda.  

Many DIY cleaning products are safe to use, though one should avoid prolonged skin contact and breathing of vapors. 

But for those concerned with controlling infectious disease, the most significant concern about DIY disinfectants is their lack of demonstrated effectiveness at killing viruses and bacteria.

Should people make their own cleaning or disinfecting products to reduce the risk of infection with COVID-19?

It is essential to make a distinction between cleaning and disinfecting products. Cleaners remove dirt and some, but not all germs. Disinfectants kill germs, including bacteria and viruses.

The effectiveness of cleaners is usually readily apparent to the user. In contrast, verification of the ability of disinfectants to kill particular viruses and bacteria depends on laboratory tests such as those conducted by commercial product manufacturers.  

The only DIY disinfectant that the CDC recommends for killing COVID-19 on frequently-contacted surfaces is a dilute solution of 1/3 cup (5 tablespoons) of bleach per gallon of water.  

Because COVID-19 is a type of virus that is more easily killed by disinfectants, the CDC concluded that most common EPA-registered (commercial) household disinfectants should be effective against COVID-19.  

What products or chemicals can put one’s health at risk of poisoning if they decide to make their cleaners or disinfectants?

There are two ways that people may put their health at risk by creating their cleaners or disinfectants.  

First, mixing some chemicals may create new toxic chemicals. For example, bleach should not be combined with other chemicals, especially ammonia, which can be found in glass, window, and toilet bowl cleaners, and can produce toxic chlorine gases. Second, a commercial disinfectant may lose its effectiveness when mixed with other products, including DIY cleaning products.   

What else should the public know about DIY cleaning products?

Common DIY cleaning or disinfecting products have not been demonstrated to be effective against viruses such as COVID-19.  

DIY products other than dilute bleach solutions are not recommended for disinfection to reduce the risk of exposure to viruses or bacteria on most hard surfaces in households.

Care should be taken when handling and using chemical products, including DIY ones. Avoid exposure by using chemical resistant gloves, and avoid breathing vapors. 

Some individuals, such as those with asthma or other respiratory conditions, may be especially affected by irritating vapors from cleaners and disinfectants, whether DIY or commercial products. Individuals with such conditions must be extra careful if they attempt to make and use their cleaning products.