Hold the sponge. Before you start scrubbing with a homemade disinfectant spray, here's what doctors want you to know about natural disinfectants like vinegar amid the coronavirus pandemic.

By Korin Miller
March 12, 2020
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As confirmed cases of coronavirus COVID-19 continue to rise in the U.S., so does the surrounding noise of borderline panic. People across the country are hoarding supplies, making it tough to access products like face masks, hand sanitizer, and even toilet paper. The latest product flying off shelves: disinfectants.

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If you're struggling to find disinfectants in local stores, it only makes sense that you'd consider turning to so-called natural disinfectants like vinegar, tea tree oil, and hydrogen peroxide. But just because you read about these cleaners online doesn't mean they're actually effective at killing pathogens, including the novel coronavirus. (Related: How to Keep Your Home Clean and Healthy If You're Self-Quarantined Because of the Coronavirus)

It's worth noting that there isn't a lot of data on what can kill SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes coronavirus COVID-19—on surfaces. "Because SARS-CoV-2 has been discovered so recently, there haven't been many studies looking at how effective cleaners are against it," says Siobain Duffy, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. "So, in some cases, scientists are assuming what works against other similar viruses, might also work against SARS-CoV-2."

The same is true for natural cleaners: There are no major studies yet that suggest any of them work against COVID-19. But experts believe some natural disinfectants may be effective given how they act against similar viruses. Here's what you need to know about some of the most common natural cleaning products, plus whether they can help protect you against coronavirus.

Vinegar

The people want to know: is vinegar a disinfectant? And does vinegar kill viruses? Well, technically.

While some consider vinegar to be a safer alternative to bleach, there is limited data that suggests vinegar may actually be helpful against certain pathogens. A study in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology compared the efficacy of natural disinfectants like vinegar with common commercial disinfectants like Clorox, Lysol, and Mr. Clean against various pathogens, including bacteria and viruses. The results showed that commercial household disinfectants were "highly effective" against bacterial pathogens while vinegar was "less effective." That said, a bacterial pathogen is different from a viral pathogen, and coronavirus is, well, a virus—not bacteria. To that end, the study's results also showed that "only" the commercial disinfectants, not the vinegar, were effective against viral pathogens. Meanwhile, another study found that a cleaning solution with 10 percent malt vinegar could be effective at killing the germs that cause influenza viruses.

Still, vinegar is not listed on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s list of registered disinfectants for use against the novel coronavirus. (Related: What to Do If You Think You Have the Coronavirus)

"[Vinegar] does have acid in it and it has the capacity to damage bacteria and viruses, but it's not something I would recommend using to prevent the spread of coronavirus," confirms infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Tea Tree Oil

Odds are you've seen at least one influencer waxing poetic about the power of essential oils (EOs). Tea tree or melaleuca oil, for instance, is often touted for its acne-fighting benefits, thanks to the EO's antibacterial, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory effects.

But even though tea tree oil has antiseptic properties, there is no data to suggest that it can be effective against coronavirus, says Dr. Adalja. "If someone told me that they had disinfected a surface with tea tree oil, I would follow it with a Clorox wipe," he says.

And like vinegar, tea tree oil is not listed as an EPA-registered disinfectant for use against the coronavirus. While there is evidence supporting tea tree oil's use in controlling herpesvirus (the virus that causes cold sores), the EO "is not as effective as other disinfecting agents," says Duffy. "There isn't any evidence that tea tree oil can kill SARS-CoV-2 or other similar viruses, and tea tree oil wouldn't be recommended for fighting COVID-19," she adds. (Instead, put tea tree oil to the test with this DIY clarifying face mask if you're stuck at home during the coronavirus outbreak.)

Hydrogen Peroxide Disinfectant

There may be something to this one, says Donald W. Schaffner, Ph.D., a professor at Rutgers University who researches quantitative microbial risk assessment and cross-contamination. Hydrogen peroxide disinfectant (Buy it, $2, walmart.com) is "very effective" against coronaviruses on surfaces when it's left on the area for a minute, he says. (ICYMI, you can come in contact with COVID-19 via surfaces, although the coronavirus is more commonly transmitted through "respiratory droplets.")

Commonly sold in a less-than-3-percent concentration (solutions above 3 percent can be corrosive), hydrogen peroxide "can be used as-is or diluted [with water] to 0.5 percent concentration" to reap the disinfecting benefits, explains Schaffner. To get to 0.5 concentration, you'd have to do a little math: So, if you have your standard store-bought solution, you'd want to cut it with six parts water.

Of all the natural cleaning products out there, Dr. Adalja says hydrogen peroxide disinfectant may be the most effective. Still, he doesn't recommend using it as a household cleaner, cautioning that it has the potential to discolor surfaces, including kitchen counters. Plus, hydrogen peroxide isn't listed as an EPA-registered disinfectant for use against the coronavirus, nor does it appear on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) recommended disinfectants for COVID-19.

TL;DR: Hydrogen peroxide can be an effective disinfectant and/or disinfectant ingredientbut if you have access to some of the other expert-recommended disinfectants for coronavirus, stick to those first.

The Bottom Line

If you can, experts recommend cleaning surfaces with EPA-certified disinfectants—and, perhaps more importantly, practicing good hand hygiene 24/7. (Also, pretty please, stop touching your face.)

"As much as we would like to disinfect the entire environment of the world, the hands are the intermediary between the inanimate environment and us," says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "The important thing is to focus on proper hand hygiene. Focusing on disinfecting surfaces with different solutions is a little like putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable."

Ultimately, do your best to keep yourself and your space clean, but don't stress over it, says Dr. Schaffner. "Don't worry so much about the inanimate environment," he says. "Wash your hands."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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