Your Sanitizers Aren't Working on Coronavirus for This Very Important Reason

Only one surface cleaning product can kill COVID-19—the rest may be putting you at risk.

Cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants: we tend to think of these surface cleaning products interchangeably, but knowing the difference between them is more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out, only one of these home-cleansing categories is proven to kill coronavirus, and most Americans don't know which it is.

Think of it like this: cleaners, sanitizers, and disinfectants are tested to three different standards of rigor—cleaning products being the least rigorously tested, sanitizers being the middle ground, and disinfectants being the gold standard.

While cleaners can remove things like dirt and grime, they don't necessarily kill bacteria or viruses. Products are classified as sanitizers if they kill bacteria (the particulars of which will be listed on the product's label), but have not been proven to kill viruses. Finally, products classified as disinfectants have been thoroughly tested and proven to kill both viruses and bacteria.

The EPA explains that confusion has emerged because some products are classified as both sanitizers and disinfectants, but are only labeled as sanitizers. These products have actually been tested to both standards, and many of these can in fact kill COVID-19. However, this has led many people to assume that all sanitizers kill coronavirus, a dangerous misconception.

It should be noted that this information does not pertain to products used on the body. The EPA points out that these rules specifically pertain to surface cleaning products—meaning there's no reason to distrust claims made by your hand sanitizer's label, or discontinue its use.

To find a complete list of products registered with the EPA as a disinfectant, you can search its "List N," a convenient directory of products known to effectively kill viruses. It will specifically tell you whether coronavirus is among the pathogens the product can target, so you can go ahead and clean your home with confidence. And, need a simple cheat sheet for which products are most effective? Here are Your Favorite Disinfectants, Ranked by How Quickly They Kill Coronavirus.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more