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If you need to, you can make homemade disinfectant and cleaner from common household items, but first you need to understand how those two things differ—and know what you should never do when you DIY these items.
The good news is you can probably work with what you’ve already got, and often, a little goes a long way. There are, of course, a few things to keep in mind.
Disinfecting Isn’t the Same Thing as Cleaning
Before you think about disinfecting, understand what it can and can’t do. Disinfecting is not a replacement for cleaning, so your first line of defense against germs is regular cleaners such as soap and water. Soap bubbles break down the bonds of the virus and water washes it away.
Disinfecting is just another layer of protection to apply after cleaning. It can further reduce the number of germs on a surface after you’ve cleaned. But keep in mind that spraying disinfectant onto a dirty surface is not effective. You’ll need to clean first, then disinfect to get the best protection.
What if you don’t have any disinfectant? You can make some, but keep in mind that it’s secondary to basic cleaning.
“Clean with the product you have on hand,” says Kate Jakubas, founder of Meliora Cleaning Products.
Related Reading: 8 Places You Can Clean with Vinegar in the Kitchen
What Can You Use as a Disinfectant?
Many different chemicals can be used to disinfect. The United States Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of disinfectants that can be used to kill the coronavirus on surfaces. If you’ve got one, like bleach, you’re in luck.
“Hydrogen peroxide, sodium hypochlorite (which is bleach), and thymol (obtained from thyme) are all on the list,” says Alex Evans, community pharmacist and founder of PharmCompliance.com. “Acetic acid, in vinegar, is not, so it’s best to choose only from the agents on the list.”
You’ll need to follow manufacturer instructions for use. Some products call for dilution, which means a little can go a long way. And you’ll need to pay attention to kill times, which indicate how long the product needs to be in contact with the surface to wipe out germs.
If You Have: Bleach
“If you already have a chemical such as bleach, congrats! Use it as a disinfectant. Follow the directions on the bottle to dilute it properly for safe use,” says Jakubas.
Bleach is still widely available and a well-known, yet powerful, disinfectant for home use. It has corrosive properties, so you’ll need to properly dilute it to avoid damage to skin or surfaces.
“You can use a 10 percent bleach to water ratio to make your own DIY disinfectant,” says Dr. Lina Velikova, medical advisor at Supplements101. “For disinfecting on-the-go, fill a Ziploc bag with a couple of small pieces of cloth and some bleach solution to create reusable disinfecting wipes.”
For home use, Velikova recommends filling a small plastic spray bottle with bleach mix to wipe down surfaces.
If You Have: Hydrogen Peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide is a drugstore staple and should be fairly easy to find if you don’t already have some in your first aid kit. It kills germs and is on the EPA list of products for disinfecting the coronavirus.
“You should pour or spray it on and let it sit for one minute on a surface before wiping it down,” says Radford. “But do NOT mix peroxide with anything other than water as it can create dangerous chemicals.”
If You Have: Vinegar
You might hear advice on using vinegar to disinfect, but don’t count on it. While vinegar can be used to clean, it doesn’t disinfect or sanitize.
“Unfortunately, vinegar is not an EPA-registered disinfectant,” says Dr. Samantha Radford, a chemist with a focus on public health. “While it can kill germs, it is not effective enough to use for disinfecting or sanitizing. Vinegar is better for general cleaning. It’s a fairly safe chemical that’s great for wiping down countertops.”
Radford recommends diluting vinegar half and half with water, adding a few drops of dish soap, and putting it in a spray bottle for cleaning surfaces and mirrors.
Don’t Try This at Home
Generally, dilution, not mixing, is the DIY step you should take with homemade disinfectants.
“Please do not mix chemicals for DIY disinfection,” says Jakubas. “If you have an assortment of different chemicals, Do. Not. Mix. Them. You could kill yourself or someone else.”
For example, mixing bleach and vinegar can create a toxic chlorine gas. Rubbing alcohol and bleach create chloroform. And mixing hydrogen peroxide with vinegar creates peracetic acid.
“If you choose to use bleach, dilute it with water first. NEVER mix bleach with anything other than water,” says Radford.
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Header image courtesy of Suwannar Kawila / EyeEm / Getty Images